Co-creating the future

MIT researcher Umberto Fugiglando and his colleagues at the MIT Senseable City Lab are trying to figure out the best ways to create tomorrow’s smartest cities. He says that we all need to engage in the processes, seize, understand, and address problems, and trust citizen science.

At all times, people have strived to envision how the world would look like in the future and what kind of technologies would shape it. That is also what we are trying to picture today, when bits are merging with atoms, and digital technology is infiltrating all of our spaces. However, Umberto Fugiglando from MIT Senseable City Lab, argues that we’d better not try to predict the future, but to experiment, co-create, and use digital technologies and data to better understand our cities, the environment and different interactions that happen around.

– By looking at the city through the lens of data, we can understand hidden patterns, about the life of objects as well as about our life in the city. This way, we can definitely understand more about ourselves, and then try to make a good use of this information and bring this knowledge back to the city by designing new things.

To create good systems, Fugiglando says, we need to bring everybody into the process of research, design, deployment. We need designers, engineers, citizens – every different type of people and backgrounds.

– Smart cities should not be developed by engineers or data scientist only, because humans are not data points. We need technology that can design good solutions, but what we need foremost is the design approach that puts a person – and not the technology – in the center of the game.

The solution is not about throwing technology into the city in a ’’black box’’-scenario, but to seize, understand, and address problems. Besides, says Fugligando, we need to make the whole process transparent and re-democratize decisions, so that everyone could have a say on the ways data is being used and the effects it has.

– If we empower citizens to gather information about the city, and empower them to actuate on this information, that would be a good change. There are a lot of problems nowadays that could be addressed by citizen science. So, how can we take any person and transform them into scientists, who would acquire data and use artificial intelligence for something good?

Umberto Fugiglando explains that by using for example objects of our everyday use, like cars, as a sensor in itself, we can help to monitor some of the infrastructure which is inevitably aging, like bridges, and timely address arising issues. Besides, he says, with the help of modern technology we can facilitate optimization of urban space, sharing resources, deploying more local and timely solutions. 

– Anticipating these changes, we need to acknowledge that it takes decades to adjust the physical infrastructure of the city, and to plan ahead. Instead of trying to predict the future, we need to keep in mind that actions from today actually contribute to the future – and start transforming our present.

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