PLAN 85: Article
The City Science Initiative At The Media Lab

Inventing the City of the Future

The newly-formed City Science Initiative at the Media Lab is one of a number of research groups collaborating with SA+P’s new Center for Advanced Urbanism, an effort launched in the spring to focus on the planning, design, construction and retrofitting of urban environments for the 21st century. The City Science Initiative brings together Kent Larson’s work to develop new mobility systems, transformable urban housing and responsive technology; Sandy Pentland’s expertise in urban analytics and human dynamics; and César Hidalgo’s interest in big data and macro-connections. Below, a brief introduction to some of that ongoing work.

When City Science researchers consider the city of the future, their imaginations travel to the human-centric cities that were organized before the advent of the automobile. Like those historic destinations, the urban environment they envision would consist of a network of compact ‘cells’, or small neighborhoods, that offer most of what people need in the course of their daily lives, all within easy walking distance. Infused with new technology to maximize quality of life and minimize resource consumption, the cells would be connected to the wider urban infrastructure by public transport and shared vehicles.

An example of the sort of shared vehicles they have in mind is the now-famous CityCar, a folding electric two-seater that can pivot in place and glide blithely sideways into a parking space. Developed at the Media Lab, the car is being commercialized in Spain under the brand name Hiriko – Basque for ‘urban car’ – and German Railways is planning to acquire a fleet of them for a car-sharing network based at its stations. Meanwhile, City Science researchers are now working on a driverless version of the CityCar that would autonomously pick up and drop off passengers at their chosen points, then park and charge itself without human assistance.

Researchers are also working on technology that integrates used electric vehicle batteries into energy buffers in buildings to store energy and charge vehicles quickly and efficiently with direct DC-to-DC transfer. And trip advice engines are being developed that will offer a wider range of options than do most current applications, including shared-use vehicles, while also taking into account time constraints, weather and personal physiology.

To better understand the complex interaction of urban design and technology, researchers are also developing the CityScope, a tool that uses an array of HD video projectors and 3D mapping to visualize a wide range of urban simulations – from flows of data to human behavior – by projecting them onto physical models. The group is currently using the CityScope to study the impact of shared-use bicycles, electric bikes, three-wheel personal vehicles, lightweight electric CityCars and bus-on-demand systems for a new city in Australia and in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador. LEGO bricks are used for conceptual designs, replaced by 3D printed models at later phases of the process.

In the area of housing, City Science researchers are developing urban micro-apartments with elements that translate vertically and horizontally, allowing a small space to function as a unit two to three times its size. The group is now working on a 256-square-foot prototype that can accommodate a fully-equipped kitchen, dining for ten people, ten feet of closet space, a king-size bed, laundry facilities and a handicapped-accessible bathroom. (Not all of those functions are available at once, of course.)

Concurrently, the Home Genome project is developing algorithms to match individuals to arrangements of living space components that suit their individual needs, much as customer profiles are now used to match people with music, movies and books that suit their tastes and interests. And shared space-on-demand workplaces are being developed to offer businesses the chance to reduce their office space needs and net energy consumption.

Urban farming systems are also being developed by City Science researchers to give city dwellers the opportunity to grow their own organic produce using aeroponic systems. In ‘aeroponic’ farming, plant roots grow in chambers with a fine mist of water and nutrients, making it easy for people to grow food on a substantial scale at home. Tests show that popular vegetables such as lettuce and tomatoes are more productive in aeroponic systems than in soil, and façade-based systems supplemented by low-energy LED lights in winter might produce as many as a dozen harvests a year.

At the same time City Science researchers are working on all these urban components, they are also at work on how all these systems will come together. Their urban analytics research uses real-world data gathered from sensor networks throughout a city to model its urban dynamics – in economics, human behavior, mobility patterns, resource consumption and more – with the aim of optimizing all the city’s functions. To begin to put these ideas into practice, City Science is negotiating partnerships with cities in Asia, Europe and Latin America, and with local companies that can commercialize innovations there.

The City Science Initiative is directed by Kent Larson, head of the Media Lab’s Changing Places group. City Science co-directors are Sandy Pentland, head of the Lab’s Human Dynamics group, and César Hidalgo, head of the Macro Connections group at the Lab. For more information on the City Science Initiative and its contributing research groups, visit