The parking meters in Boston’s hip Seaport district are pretty impressive. Tucked away inside their casings, sensors monitor just under 600 parking bays in order to adjust the per-minute pricing depending on the availability of space, day of the week and time. A few kilometers away in Back Bay, the city is taking a completely different approach to parking problems. Every day, a programmer armed with a tablet walks up and down the rows of carefully restored brick row villas, recording not only which of the 1,650 parking spaces are occupied but also those vehicles that have residents’ parking permits and those that are paid for with a credit card or via smartphone. The data streams are fed into an app that helps drivers to locate available spots faster. As soon as it gets dark, two plastic bubbles behind the library in South End mysteriously illuminate in either red or blue. By indicating the current groundwater levels, the colored lights serve as an important yardstick for the city’s environmental health. Many of the brick buildings in this part of Boston are supported by wooden pilings. If these dry out, the structures may start to settle. An app provides an alternative method of tracking this otherwise invisible water level.
Whether it’s about parking, especially hazardous pedestrian crossings, quick fixes for potholes or even tracking the populations of microorganisms in urban sewage, Boston has a digital service to tackle (almost) any situation or metropolitan issue. Networked intelligence is being harnessed to assist the 670,000-plus residents and local authorities alike in getting a better, safer and it’s said “more delightful” grip on everyday life in the city. All this and much more besides is part of the smart city concept.
Cities across the globe are investing in hard- and software to network as much of their public utilities as possible to make them smarter. When at the end of 2015 the U.S. Department of Transportation sent out an invitation to submit the best smart city ideas, 78 cities from Anchorage to Washington D.C. responded to the challenge. Although Boston was not the winner, the New England metropolis stands head and shoulders above the rest for the breadth of its experimentation with new services and data that extend well beyond the realms of mobility.
Thomas Matarazzo’s great passion is data collection and analysis. To assess the condition of built structures, he captures data from smartphones and cars.
Conducted by the Senseable City Lab experts, Underworlds is an experiment that involves using a vehicle to test sewage samples for pathogens and other biomarkers in order to shed light on the city’s health.
“The term smart city is problematic because it implies that technology is always the right solution. But it’s about something completely different—sometimes all it takes is a better design. We should be trying out lots of new approaches for improving the quality of life for more and more people. The answers don’t lie exclusively in more sensors or even more software,” says Nigel Jacob, one of the two co-founders of what is undoubtedly the U.S.’s most offbeat government agency—the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. MONUM, for short, intentionally starts small in order to better achieve great things and comprises a motley crew of roughly twelve experts in fields ranging from economics through sociology to game design. Based on their own estimates, the post-industrial “mechanics” have turned their hand to between 300 and 400 projects since 2010. Generally, they have several dozen on the go at once—spanning the arc from intelligent parking meters to unconventional ways of bringing seniors and young people together to help solve both groups’ struggle to find affordable housing. MONUM unveils its results after six months at the earliest. The team then pushes to get promising projects off the ground rapidly, while shelving others. “We want to foster an urban culture of innovation and be the incubator that uses the entire city as its test lab,” explains Jacob’s co-chair Kris Carter. “Calling ourselves mechanics is a pretty accurate description of what we do because we really do roll up our sleeves, with everything from future mobility to questions of social justice. When getting to grips with traffic flows, you can’t just focus on parking apps or tests with autonomous vehicles. You also have to ask whether seniors are afraid to cross at intersections. These kinds of investigations can and should involve people from all walks of life.” Together with game designers from a local university, Carter’s team devised computer games that allow citizens to add their two cents to urban planning in a playful way. The idea proved such a hit that other municipalities have already adopted it. To ensure that MONUM has the decision maker’s ear, the team reports directly to Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh. In fact, their open-plan office awash with white boards and brightly colored post-it notes is right next door to his. That way, they can hit the ground running with their ideas.
It’s an approach that works. Boston is second only to Silicon Valley in the U.S. when it comes to concentrations of top universities, ambitious entrepreneurs and risk-happy investors ready to shape tomorrow’s urban life together. The city is home to Boston University, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and almost 100 other universities and colleges. Considering that information technology and biotechnology have been the city’s trump cards for decades now, it’s no wonder that Boston and environs compete in the venture capital premier league. In 2016, every ninth dollar of venture capital in the U.S. flowed into New England.
The concentration of commerce and curiosity is palpable in city life here. Founded almost 400 years ago, the harbor city is a picturesque blend of well-preserved colonial architecture and a modern skyline. But trade and transformation are not without their drawbacks. You’ll hear a litany of complaints from residents about the permanently gridlocked traffic in downtown’s narrow, winding streets, on the urban highways as well as in the many tunnels which connect, for instance, the city and the airport on its outskirts. Boston has always been a trailblazer in all things new mobility. It was here—and not in New York—that America’s first subway line opened to the public in 1897. That system has grown into a regional network that today encompasses 133 stations.
“Boston definitely ranks among the leading cities experimenting with smart city concepts, above all in terms of civic participation. It’s tapped into crowdsourcing to spur people into action,” comments Carlo Ratti. The Italian architect heads up the Senseable City Lab at MIT. If the world has a go-to address for innovation aimed at improving life in tomorrow’s cities, then Ratti’s lab in Cambridge—Boston’s little sister town on the opposite bank of the Charles River—is it. An MIT professor who has also set up a second lab in Singapore, Ratti will leave you in no doubt about the profound effects of smart-city thinking. “The Internet is permeating the world we live in and evolving into the Internet of Things. That opens the door for us to interact with our environment in new ways. Buildings and entire cities will better adapt to their inhabitants,” predicts Ratti, adding, “Technology makes all of this possible but it is always just a means to an end—improving quality of life.”
In Cambridge, there’s no shortage of outside-the-box ideas for how networked city life should look. Thomas Matarazzo, for one, had the simple yet ingenious brainwave of harnessing millions of commuters to better monitor a city’s infrastructure. Smartphones in cars can be used to get a real-time picture of every bridge. “Take, for instance, Longfellow Bridge that’s right on our doorstep,” says Matarazzo, playing with two small, orange plastic boxes, about the size of a smartphone, that he has brought along to our meeting. “Originally built in 1906 and thoroughly overhauled only twice since then, it now has to be repaired for over a quarter of a billion dollars. Regular inspections could have saved 186 million of that cost,” says the young postdoctoral fellow with degrees in philosophy and structural engineering, who before joining Ratti’s team conducted research in earthquake-prone Japan. Instead of limiting bridge inspections to every two years, he has devised a method of extracting the individual vibration profile of any metropolitan bridge from the thousands of daily trips taken across it. The accelerometer in any contemporary mobile phone can replace expensive stationary sensors. “Although a mobile app may not be all that precise,” says Matarazzo, after completing initial tests in Boston, “you can still clearly identify deviations in a bridge’s normal vibration pattern.” If enough citizens share a portion of their daily commute to and from work, crowdsourcing can serve as a fast, affordable way to enhance safety. It’s worth mentioning that since around 200 million vehicles cross bridges in the U.S. alone every day, reliably deriving a structure’s digital fingerprint only requires the contribution of every hundredth driver. “Cell phones are just the beginning,” continues Matarazzo, his eyes shining. “Autonomous vehicles will be equipped with far more sensors in order to survey their urban environment. As a result, the next step in the evolution of mobility will pave the way to a whole lot of new applications.” In this department of the legendary MIT Media Lab, you don’t have to search for long to find more inspiration for smart cities. The shelves behind Matarazzo’s desk are stacked with other researchers’ prototypes. Among other things, Fábio Duarte and Ricardo Alvarez are working on a concept called Beyond Lights, which aims to make streetlights smart.
Born in America and raised in Switzerland, Kate Darling is one of the leading experts in the field of robot ethics. She has been teaching and researching at the MIT Media Lab since 2011.
There are about a billion streetlights around the globe, 26 million of them in the United States. “In the past, they were installed to provide illumination. Now light will just be a by-product,” explains Alvarez. For many reasons, he believes that streetlights make ideal listening posts for a smart city. They’re located wherever city life unfolds, are connected to a permanent supply of electricity and, to top it all, extend across all strata of the urban environment—from their foundations embedded in the ground to their apexes meters above the sidewalk. An urban planner couldn’t ask for a more versatile support structure for sensors. “It’s all about the data you can collect through them,” enthuses Duarte. This ranges from recording pedestrian numbers at intersections, monitoring the health of trees and green lungs as well as gauging how many parking spaces are occupied. Duarte and Alvarez are already in talks with municipalities and streetlight manufacturers about how the unremarkable corner lamppost can be transformed into a sensor-studded, service-providing part of tomorrow’s networked city. soofa co-founders Sandra Richter and Jutta Friedrichs have already made the leap from the academic world into the startup scene. The two Germans develop networked street furniture that is fun and brings people together. Their benches in glowing red and light gray have already found their way into 75 cities from Austin to Los Angeles and there are 40 alone dotted around their hometown of Boston. Placed in parks and squares, such as right in front of Boston’s historic Fan-euil Hall, the soofa furniture invites you to sit a while. Since each bench has its own solar cells, passers-by can quickly charge their devices by plugging them into the built-in USB ports. It’s a real conversation starter. “Some people even regularly clean the solar cells on the benches in their area. Which goes to show that tech for modern cities must always have a social dimension,” says Sandra Richter. The units house cutting-edge technology: Sensors scan the surroundings for the MAC addresses of cell phones carried by passers-by. This data is bundled anonymously so that, over time, urban planners can keep track of which parks and squares are more heavily frequented and therefore require additional maintenance. As for the team’s next innovation for urban environments, it’s already waiting in the wings: The soofa sign is a large-format information display that provides the community with hyperlocal news, traffic updates and advertising. With a diagonal of 106 centimeters, the screen is based on energy-saving E Ink technology that was developed at MIT and has already been incorporated into millions of e-readers. By the end of the year, the startup aims to install a total of 180 of these networked signs in nine other U.S. cities besides Boston. Municipalities, transport authorities and commercial customers, such as the local bookshop, can all trigger each display via an app. “Our technology also pays homage to the good old advertising columns I remember from my life in Germany that almost make me nostalgic,” says Richter. She promises that by 2020, soofa will also be active in Europe.
How will all these ideas for smart cities change everyday life for residents? How can we strike a balance between greater digital convenience and worries about data constantly being collected? Kate Darling explores the positive and negative consequences of networking. With her background in law and robot ethics, the Swiss-American working at the MIT Media Lab probes the complex relationship between (wo)man and machine. “Science fiction has shown us how we develop emotional relationships with machines. But there are biological reasons for this, too. We tend to anthropomorphize things in our environment. People see faces everywhere—even as babies, we’re already starting to do it. That’s how we learn to get to grips with non-human entities. Things get really exciting with robots because they combine a tangible physical form with movement. Our natural instinct is to interpret any kind of perceived movement as an autonomous action.” To date, no one knows whether or how we will adapt our behavior. “Everyone’s in favor of this technology because of its convenience, although many systems don’t yet have any practical use. Designers still have plenty of work to do.” And a lot of it is happening in Darling’s back yard, in Boston.