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Creating healthier ecosystems in future cities by rethinking urban areas from scratch

The mass production of affordable automobiles is perhaps one of the most significant technological achievements of the 20th century.

And due to that, many modern cities have been designed under the assumption that cars are a necessity and almost require residents to own vehicles to get around.

Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, believes that such “zoned” cities are unsustainable. With more technological development — including shared, compact electric vehicles and affordable, “transformable” apartments — future cities will have a higher density of people while creating healthier ecosystems, he said.

“I think technology is what caused the cities to be formed in the first place,” Ito said during a recent interview in Tokyo. “I think that as different technologies become common and become part of the infrastructure, the nature of cities changes.”

But when it comes to technology and urban planning or city development, many of the latest technological changes have not been reflected.

“The big change that’s happened recently is information technology. I don’t think that the urban planning and city design has reflected very well yet the changes in the technological landscape,” said Ito, 47, who along with working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is also on the boards of companies including Sony Corp. and The New York Times.

Indeed, information technology has seen some drastic changes in recent years, such as the rapidly spreading use of smartphones and tablet computers, the rise of social media and the use of big data.

Ito said those changes are to some extent used in the cities, including big data for optimizing traffic, but they are being used to merely make the existing systems run more efficiently rather than changing the systems of the cities.

“What we would like to do is rethink the city completely from scratch based on new information technology,” he said, adding that MIT is developing city-related technologies with visions for future cities.

One example he brought up is that of compact electric vehicles, which are developed by focusing on the mobility of people as their behavior in cities changes.

Ito said the use of small, shared electric vehicles will be a part of future cities, and people can use their mobile devices to check where they can drop them off.

“We are developing an ecosystem of lightweight, shared electric vehicles and related networks, charging infrastructure, rebalancing algorithms and interfaces to encourage a more sustainable mobility mode shift,” he said.

Another technology being developed at MIT is called Transformable CityHomes, which is a micro-apartment whose rooms can transform from, for instance, a living room to a bedroom and to an office through moving walls.

Ito said that by making this apartment affordable for young people and building it in the central district of cities, it will contribute to increasing the density of people.

A general concept of the future cities, Ito said, is “how do you increase the density but still increase the quality of life?”

According to Ito, cities with higher density are more energy-efficient and see an increase in jobs, wealth and cultural facilities.

In fact, some cities designed before the invention of cars, such as Paris, are made up of many small, compact districts. People can find things within walking distance in this kind of city, and it is more natural and healthier than zoned, automobile-centric cities, Ito said.

Ito pointed out that one reason why the technological changes do not get integrated in a timely manner in city development is that urban planning and architecture are quite established fields with fixed career paths.

He said the academic process of becoming an urban planner or an architect has not changed very much over the last 50 years, so it needs to bring other disciplines into the process.

The other disciplines Ito especially stressed are art, design, science and engineering, as many interesting and creative work tend to combine these four elements.

“I think for a city to be livable, it has to have all four,” Ito said. “It has to have very good engineering. It has to have very good design. It has to have art. It has to have science.”

In that sense, Ito said he is looking forward to the Innovative City Forum that will be held in Tokyo in October because the event features experts familiar with those fields so the event participants can think about the city in an interdisciplinary way.

Neri Oxman, one of the keynote speakers at the event, is one of Ito’s colleagues at the MIT Media Lab. She is an award-winning artist as well as a scientist, designer and engineer.

Elizabeth Diller, who will be participating with Ito in a session called “Cutting-edge technology and future city,” is an architect who Ito said does “amazing work in public spaces, crossing between the social and artistic and the design and urban planning.”

Ito will also be taking part in a session called “How can museums contribute to the future city?” in which he said he wants to rethink the role of the museum in the city.

As the title of the event is Innovative City Forum, Ito said one key for cities to be innovative is to have good universities integrated in the fabric of the cities.

For instance, Cambridge, Massachusetts, has MIT, Harvard University and many other schools, making for a large number of students and researchers and a tremendous amount of innovation in the city, Ito said.

In terms of being innovative, Ito said the Roppongi Hills complex in Minato Ward, Tokyo, seems to be on the right track, as it has residential areas, stores, educational and art facilities all within walking distance, along with high density. Roppongi Hills also has a good relationship with the local government and has gotten Keio University involved in its development.

Overall, Tokyo itself is doing pretty well, but it still has missing some pieces, especially in the area of art, Ito said.

“There isn’t very much consistent architecture across Tokyo,” he said, “and there are a lot of decisions made without design or an artistic input.”

Ito said that in the not too distant future, if the Media Lab City Science project vision is realized, an ecosystem of driverless vehicles, including single-person three-wheelers and two-person CityCars, will pick up and drop off passengers anywhere in the city.

These lightweight, hyper-efficient electric vehicles can be folded to occupy very little valuable real estate when parked. These vehicles will robotically charge themselves and be allocated through powerful algorithms using real-time human behavior data and demand prediction, he said. Traffic signals, parking lots, and road design standards will become obsolete, accidents will essentially be eliminated and few city dwellers would choose the inconvenience of owing a car, Ito added.

Concurrently, fixed bus and tram routes would be replaced by an agile, on-demand, free-roaming mass transit system.

Ito recalled that the late former Mori Building Co. Chairman Minoru Mori often complained that while Tokyo has well-designed high-density nodes, the city as a whole was far too low-density and sprawling.

“The disadvantages of a decentralized, spread out urban area are tremendous and the environmental damage of urban sprawl cannot be ignored,” Mori had said. “As a large city, Tokyo must be used more efficiently and the population density increased.” This concern informed the design of Mori Building Co.’s Roppongi Hills Mori Tower and the Roppongi Hills complex.

Download the PDF of this Innovative City Forum