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Carlo Ratti, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), makes a return visit to Gitex this year to discuss a model that puts people at the centre of smart city developments.
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Ratti’s smart city projects at MIT include a system that uses sensors to ensure cooling systems are directed to people rather than empty spaces and another to analyse waste in sewers to help monitor public health.
And where better to talk smart cities than Dubai – one of the few cities in the Middle East to offer smart city benchmarks.
The Smart Dubai Office recently revealed that it is working with the United Nations (UN) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to develop a global index for smart city initiatives.
Smart cities use technology to analyse data sent from various sensors over Wi-Fi networks to enhance people’s daily lives. Prominent use cases include solving challenges such as traffic congestion and utilities distribution, and launching mobile government services.
Ratti said: “I share the vision of Jonathan Reichental, CIO for the City of Palo Alto [California], when he says ‘an intelligent city is never a finished task – it keeps evolving through time’.”
The concept of smart cities has evolved, he said, and there is an increasing drive by businesses and the general public to design more “human” cities, with less interest in technology just for the sake of it.
At last year’s Gitex, Ratti highlighted the Cloud Cast Concept, which uses sensors to direct cooling systems to where people need them. “We pioneered the concept at the architectural scale through our renovation of the headquarters of the Agnelli Foundation in Turin, Italy, pioneering a new technology for personalised heating and cooling – a kind of thermal bubble that follows individuals inside the building and allows for better comfort and a reduction in energy waste,” he said.
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But heating and cooling are not the only innovative aspects of the project, said Ratti. “Internet of things [IoT] sensors permeate the building and allow the monitoring of different sets of data, including occupancy levels, temperature, carbon dioxide concentration, and the status of meeting rooms.”
Based on this information, the building management system responds dynamically, adjusting lighting, heating, air-conditioning and room bookings in real time, he said.
Aside from the Cloud Cast Concept, Ratti and his teams at MIT have been piloting what is known as the Underworlds Concept in Europe and the US – a system that collects and analyses biochemical information from sewage water in order to monitor human health.
“We imagine a robust platform not only to monitor changes in collective health, but also to understand which chemicals are being released into the water by industries, in order to monitor security threats,” he said.
Ratti, a champion of citizen-centric applications, said the focus should be on the human side of smart/senseable cities. "At both the MIT Senseable City Lab and Carlo Ratti Associati, we are embracing a wide range of applications and services, from health to transport to responsive architecture,” he said.
In Europe, many people think it should be municipal and national governments that make smart cities a reality, he said. “But we think it should be primarily citizens, through bottom-up dynamics,” he added.
However, Ratti said governments should support academic research and promote applications in fields that might be less appealing to venture capitalists.