Big Think Interview With Bill Mitchell

A conversation with the MIT Professor and Director of the Media Lab’s Smart Cities Group.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What will the city of the future look like?

Bill Mitchell: We don’t have a utopian vision. We have a set of ideas that we think are important to discuss. Those ideas largely have to do with sustainability of cities. The ability of cities to, over time, remain in balance with the resource streams that are available to them, and they have to do with social justice and equity of the fundamental conditions of satisfactory citizenship. These are the sorts of things that concern us.

These are classic urban planning and urban design issues. They just get redefined when you start to think of them in the context of the intelligent city. So, to be very specific about that, we’ve been looking at reinvention of mobility systems, for example, reinvention of transportation because that’s where you can get enormous payoff. The automobile as we know it has been around for about 100 years. It’s one of the most successful inventions of all time, but in my view, it is thoroughly obsolete at this point. And so by fundamentally rethinking the automobile, thinking of it as a robot on four wheels, essentially, something that can communicate with other intelligent devices, it can operate in a coordinated way, you can really start to fundamentally rethink urban personal mobility. That’s one example.

Question: Why do you believe that automobiles are obsolete?

Bill Mitchell: If you think of an automobile, think of firstly, it weighs at least 20 times the weight of the rider. Now, that’s crazy, that’s just crazy. It doesn’t need to do that. Or look at the footprint of it. Look at the footprint of this chair that I’m sitting in takes up. Look at the footprint of an automobile and see how large that footprint is. Most automobiles spend about 80 percent of their time sitting around doing nothing. They’re gasoline powered; they go to very high speeds, which in fact, under urban conditions, you don’t need. These high speeds generate enormous safety requirements and so on and so forth.

Now you can incrementally tweak the automobile. You can make the power train more efficient and you can enhance safety and all of these sorts of things that are very worthwhile, but what we are concerned about is stepping right back and saying, can you fundamentally rethink the whole idea? Can you really begin to think of urban personal mobility in totally different terms that are fundamentally more sustainable? Fundamentally more equitable and fundamentally better for the planet and that’s what we are trying to do. So, we’re not working within the framework, I mean incremental tweaking. We’re working within the framework of fundamental reinvention. 

Question: How would you get people to implement this behavioral change and wrap their minds around something new?

Bill Mitchell: The way that we work always is by trying to identify the fundamental underlying design assumptions that everybody takes as a sort of given and unchallengeable when you think about solving these problems. And we try to challenge those assumptions. For example, everybody thinks an automobile needs an engine. Well, an automobile doesn’t necessarily need an engine. What we do is shift electric motors into the wheels of our automobiles and so we have a completely different kind of thing where we have four independent intelligent wheels rather than a traditional internal combustion engine and power train and so on. So, we do that.

And then we try to make products and systems with solutions to the problems that we’re trying to solve that are not only good technical solutions, but engage people’s imagination and engage people’s desire. An automobile is not just a way of getting around; it’s an expression of yourself just as much as your clothing is, your representation in public. It’s an intensely emotional thing, your relationship to your automobile. So, what we try to do is make designs that are intensely appealing, not only at a technical level, but also on a fundamental emotional and human level. And I don’t think you can succeed without that.

Question: What are the components to Mobility on Demand?

Bill Mitchell: If you look at urban personal mobility, there are several components to the system. One component is the vehicle. What’s the vehicle like, is it an automobile, is it a bicycle, is it a scooter, is it some other kind of device? And so part of what we’ve been doing is reinventing the vehicle, sort of looking at small, light-weight automobiles and other kinds of vehicles as well. 

Another component of the system is the energy supply system, how to get energy to these things. And so the traditional way of doing this is distribute gasoline around the city. What we’ve been looking at, of course, is electrical recharging infrastructure.

A third part of it is, how do you gain access to vehicles when and where you need them, and what do you do with them when you’re not using them? And these were enormous problems. And our cities are choked with parking; it occupies an enormous amount of space that could be put to much better use, much more human and effective use for other purposes. It’s not always easy to get access to the vehicle that you need to go somewhere. You’re going to have to walk a long way often to get parking, or you can’t get a cab, or all of these kinds of things.

So, in response to this last issue that I’ve mentioned, this issue of how do you get access to vehicles and where do you put them, we drew up this concept we call Mobility on Demand because really in principle, it’s a very simple idea, but a very profound difference from the way we do it with private automobiles. But the idea is you have stacks of vehicles located around the city at conveniently spaced locations, when you want to go somewhere, you simply walk to a nearby stack, pick up a vehicle, drive up to a stack drop off point near where you want to go and drop it off. So it’s one-way rental, and the total time for the trip is the time to walk to a pick up point, do the transaction of picking up the vehicle, actually travel to the drop off point, and then walk to your final destination from there. We can demonstrate that we get with this sort of system that we can get much better door-to-door times under realistic conditions very often than you can get with a private automobile. And let’s suppose it – advantage of the private automobile, it’s there when and where you need it. That’s something of a myth actually because you have to go and dig it out of parking and then you don’t have a parking space, and so on. So we get great door-to-door times I believe out of this, our simulation suggests this to us.

We get very high utilization rate out of the vehicles in this sort of system, the vehicles are not sitting around doing nothing. And we occupy a minimal amount of urban real estate to do this. So, it’s a system that has a tremendous number of advantages if you can really make it work.

Now a fundamental technical issue with Mobility on Demand Systems, is how do you keep the system balance because, if you just think about all this in very rough intuitive terms, you can imagine easily that after a while, all of your vehicles are over here, but all of the demand is over here, so how do you keep the system balanced. And there are various ways to think about – the way that we do it and I think a very innovative way of doing it is with dynamic pricing incentives. So, on the fly, we create price incentives to return vehicles to locations that are not crowded that need vehicles and we create some incentives to return them to locations that already have plenty of vehicles. And similarly with pick up, we make it a bargain to pick up vehicles at locations where vehicles are plentiful and we make it a bit more expensive to pick up vehicles where they are scarce.

So, there is elasticity in the demand for mobility. I mean, we have a certain amount of choice about when we make trips and exactly where we make trips sometimes too. So we take advantage of this elasticity. We put the price incentives in there and I think we can show that we can very effectively balance this kind of system using price incentives. 

Question: What can we learn from bike sharing programs?

Bill Mitchell: The nearest thing to large scale Mobility on Demand Systems that exist are these European bike-sharing systems that do operate in exactly the way I described. They’re not electrical systems, they’re not automobiles, but they do operate – you pick up a bicycle and you ride it where you want to go and you drop it off, and they do have significant problems with system balancing. They really have not solved that problem very effectively. So you do find in those systems that sometimes you come to a pick up point and there’s no bicycle there, or you come to drop off. It’s even more frustrating you come to drop off and there’s nowhere to drop the bike off and it’s really annoying. And you have to ride off somewhere into the distance to actually park your bike and get a bus back to where you need to – this is obviously extremely frustrating. 

So, they have that problem. And then they have – mostly the way they do the system balancing is by picking up bicycles and throwing them on trucks and moving them back to where they need to go. At least I think this is the way they do it. This is what it looks like. I haven’t studied it carefully.

So, those systems suffer from not having a sophisticated effective solution to system balancing. Now, this is a prime example of why you need intelligence and the whole Smart Cities idea that intelligence is the key, I think, to sustainability and social equity in cities in the future because the dynamic pricing kind of structure that I’m talking about, or that I talked about a moment ago, depends on electronically keeping track of where the vehicles are, having sophisticated information processing so you dynamically adjust the prices and running an optimization algorithm. In many ways, it’s sort of something like, let’s say Google, which is a big complex system that in the end depends on some sophisticated algorithms to deliver to people the services they need, and this is very similar.

But mostly people have tended to think in the past about mobility, it’s like a matter of providing the hardware and providing access to the vehicles and physically moving people around. I would argue that in the future, it’s much more about sophisticated management algorithms and making the best use of the resources that you have through information technology.

Question: What are the implications for the electric grid when it comes to implementing these large-scale systems?

Bill Mitchell: One of the problems in transforming any kind of large-scale system is what I like to think of, let’s call horseless carriage thinking. Even the term sort of suggests to you what I’m talking about here. So, when the horseless carriage replaced the horse and carriage, essentially it was a kind of substitution, you take out the horse and put in an internal combustion engine. And then the way people tended to think about electric automobiles as you take out the internal combustion engine and you stick in a hybrid power train, or you stick in a battery electric system. And I think you have to step back and say, no, the real potential is to fundamentally rethink the way things work. So part of the fundamental rethinking that I think is necessary with electric vehicles is to get away from the old idea that you fill a vehicle up with fairly large amount of energy and drive it around for quite a long time and then fill it up again, which is the gas station model. Right? And so people have taken that over into thinking about batteries, right? To charge up the batteries and then you drive around for a long time and then you charge them up again. 

Our view is quite different. I am going to glide over some fairly complex technical issues here, but the basic idea here is to recharge every time you park. So I think of parking spaces as being like the holder of your electric toothbrush. You know, you drop your electric toothbrush back in the holder and it automatically recharges. And you never think about recharging the toothbrush and it’s never without charge because whenever you are not using it, it’s just picking up charge. So, imagine a kind of system where you have lightweight electric vehicles relatively small battery capacity, and then picking up charge wherever they park. So, that is an interesting user model you can begin to understand from a user’s point of view how that can work. You never have to worry about filling up your car, never go to the gas station, never plug it in, never do any of these things. 

From the point of view of sustainability and the electric grid it has a whole other set of advantages because if you do this, you throw a lot of battery storage capacity into the electric grid. Part of the problem with electric grids is they don’t have a lot of storage capacity; usually they don’t have any storage capacity, which means you have a problem with peak loading. And once again, it’s a balancing problem. You have to size the grid to deal with that hot summer day when everybody has turned their air conditioning on. But the rest of the time you have over capacity if you size it for that. This is oversimplifying a complex issue. But you get the idea.

And then there is also a problem with the intermittency. Clean power sources like solar and wind particularly don’t necessarily supply electricity when you need it. The wind doesn’t necessarily blow when you want the electricity, the sun doesn’t necessarily shine. But if you have storage capacity in the grid and then you set it up so that automobiles can buy and sell electricity from their battery’s storage, they become little energy traders essentially. This gives you a mechanism for balancing the electrical grid and for making clean that intermittent power sources as much more cost effective. So, you see with all of these issues, I think you have to look at them from multiple points of view simultaneously. So, from one point of view, the strategy of electric charging we’re looking at is just convenience, for the convenience of the user. From another point of view, it’s a strategy for making the grid much more friendly to clean, green electric sources. You always want to look for these win, wins in design.

Question: What role should the government play in implementing these ideas in cities? 

Bill Mitchell: Any large scale effective solution to problems in mobility for example does depend on developing very effective private partnerships and aligning goals, aligning objectives, and getting everybody moving in the same direction. This is a gigantic challenge. This is one of the major challenges in doing all of this.

And the current players are not used to this. For example, Detroit is not used to working with local government in order to implement solutions to mobility issues. The electrical grid people are certainly not used to working with automobile companies and so on. I think one; we need good technical solutions to what we need to do. As I discussed before, we need these highly desirable products and systems that people are actually going to want to use. But then the other component is this component of aligning goals, building coalitions, getting everybody moving – or at least enough people, moving in the same direction to accomplish the large scale transformations which are very, very difficult.

Question: Why is the U.S. behind in advancing shared mobility systems?

Bill Mitchell: I think part of this is just accidental. Often these things happen. Some entrepreneur gets an idea and they happen to have a particular context and that’s where it happens, so part of is just accident and circumstance, part of it is ideological I think. I think there is a greater readiness in Europe to deal with public solutions rather than private solutions to some of these issues. And then there are just circumstantial things that make it easier to do in particular context. American cities are kind of difficult contexts to work in. They are politically complex. There are a lot of different interest groups. It takes immense political skill to get anything done at all. You think of the difficulties that Mayor Bloomberg had, for example, trying to get congestion pricing done in Manhattan. He failed ultimately. He didn’t’ succeed in doing this. So, I think the difficulty in doing it in American urban contexts is often a big barrier. 

In Paris, there’s a system with a very powerful mayor and it was possible for actually an outdoor advertising company to go to the mayor and say, “Here’s a deal for you. We can supply this mobility on demand, bicycle based mobility on demand system if you’ll give us the real estate in the city that we need to do this.” And the mayor is powerful enough to do this. Imagine trying to do this in New York. They’re a very much more of a top down kind of system.

And then the pay off there, it’s an advertising model essentially what the young provider got there was advertising space in the city of Paris. So, it’s a particular set of circumstances where the opportunities all lined up and made it possible.

Now, the lesson I draw from that is not the lesson that you just throw up your hands and say it’s impossible in the United States. The lesson I draw is you have to figure out the particular ways to line up the various different interests and create the opportunity that you want.

Now there are some other issues in this too. I think a city like New York is unbelievably complex just to operate and I wouldn’t start with New York, I’d say. Take a city like Singapore, for example. It’s much more a kind of top down context for getting things implemented and pretty – very efficient sort of technocratic framework for getting things done. So there are contexts where it’s easier to get things done than in other contexts.

Now I have a great belief in democratic complexity in the representation of different interest groups and so on that it does make it slower sometimes to get things done in this sort of context.

Question: How can collaboration speed up the process?

Bill Mitchell: We believe very strongly in cross-disciplinary collaboration to deal with these large-scale issues because the problems have no respect for traditional disciplinary boundaries. So dealing with Mobility on Demand systems for example, you have to design electric vehicles, so there’s a mechanical engineering and product design issues, there’s issues of electrical systems, there’s an issue of information systems, there’s an issue of urban real estate, and urban design. There’s an issue of the economics and business models of these systems. There’s an issue of how you do the software that does the optimization of the systems. And so this sprawls in an incredibly messy way across a lot of traditional disciplinary boundaries. Now, that’s exactly where we love to work. That’s just exactly where we think we can make our major contribution. But that is different from the traditional disciplinary organization of universities where Mechanical Engineering Department does mechanical engineering and the urban planners do urban planning, and so on. So, we very explicitly put forward an alternative model. 

And then I think the other thing that we do that I think is very important is, we collaborate very, very closely with industry. And it’s not just a matter of industry providing funding that it’s really engaging the expertise that industry brings to the table and it is a very much intellectual collaboration. So, our city car project, we collaborated very closely with General Motors and despite the popular perception, right now they do know a lot about building automobiles, you know, and I have enormous respect for the people we work with in GM. We’ve worked with city governments; we are working right now with Schneider Electric in looking at the large-scale electrical systems and so on. I think this is absolutely necessary. I think this is very, very important. I say this is very much our role in being able to lay out some version of a comprehensive vision that integrates the different perspectives and different disciplinary viewpoints. 

It’s very challenging, very difficult way to work, it’s much easier to say, well this is my area of expertise and I’ll stay within it. But we make a major point of operating in this way and I think it’s absolutely essential. 

Question: What is the solution to combating urban congestion?

Bill Mitchell: There is no magical solution because urban traffic congestion arises from the fact that a lot of people want to be in the same place at the same time often. Like a Red Sox game or something, it’s going to get congested around there. That’s just the way it goes. And so, there’s no magic in all of this. But there are a bunch of things that you can do.

Firstly, our cars are a much smaller footprint than traditional automobiles. Secondly, they occupy much less parking space. Thirdly, they are managed, and this is actually more important, they are managed in a more sophisticated way so you get high utilization rates. You make them available exactly where they need to be available and then get them out of the way. 

And then the other thing is, if you think of traffic flow, the way you get throughput, the way you really move a lot of people quickly through a city is not through high speed. This is where having a car that goes 120 mph is useless in the city. What really matters is keeping a uniformed speed. If you can keep steady pace of movement, you can get an enormous throughput. The way you keep a steady pace of movement is by electronic coordination of traffic streams so there is not a lot of stop and start and acceleration and deceleration, but just smooth it all out. That’s really the key thing.

Question: How intelligent can cars become?

Bill Mitchell: A lot of our thinking has to do with creating a sort of market for the resources you need for urban mobility that are kind of transparent where there’s plenty of information in the market where you know what you’re doing and where price incentives enable the management of the system. One example of that is congestion pricing or streets. The typical way to do this that gets thought about these days is very crude. You put a congestion ring around Manhattan and charge people $10 or something if they cost the congestion ring. If you put more information technology into it you can begin to think of things like you monitor traffic congestion on a block by block level of granularity and then you adjust prices in real time, then the more congested the block, then the more it costs you to drive down. And then you can organize a GPS navigation system to do things like, take me the cheapest way to where I need to go subject to a time constraint, or take me the fastest way subject to a pass constraint. And this, I think in the end gives more rational allocation of resources, makes a more transparent system and all of these kinds of things.

Another example of this is, with parking. Right now parking is a terrible market. Parking costs a lot. Prices are fixed, typically. How do you connect buyers to sellers? You can drive around randomly looking for parking space. This is not great. But imagine a system where the automobile navigation system knows where the parking spaces are near where you want to park. They’re dynamically priced and you do an e-bay style auction, essentially. So, you say to your automobile, all right, I’m desperate, I’ve got a dentist appointment in 10 minutes, I can’t be late, just find me a parking space, I’ll pay pretty much anything, just bid high. And it can do that, or I’m a poor student right, and I don’t mind if I walk for 15 minutes. Just get me a bargain, so bid low. So, you can do that kind of thing. And then we’ve already talked about Mobility on Demand where getting access to vehicles, the pricing of that can vary essentially depending on demand. The higher the demand, the more you have to pay for that.

So I think we are going to see a great deal more of systems in which there’s a sort of much more sophisticated pricing and much more sophisticated understanding, both by the providers of mobility resources and by the consumers of mobility resources and what it’s costing and how you want to allocate your resources. Right now it’s very difficult to be irrational about moving around a city. That’s how we want to make it possible for people to be more rational. 

Question: Which cities would be the best candidates for Mobility on Demand?

Bill Mitchell: Well I think it has a lot to do with political will and capacity to build desire to do something like this. So, some cities can do that, some can’t. I think there is a complementary to mass transit. One of the best uses of mobility on demand systems is to solve what I like to call the last kilometer problem, or the last mile problem. You know, the subway system for example is extremely efficient, getting from subway station to another subway station, but the subway station where you started is never where you really wanted to start your journey, and the subway station where you finish is never where you really want to end up. Mobility on Demand System can solved that last mile problem. It can get you to the subway station and then you can go very efficiently point to point using the subway system, and then at the other end, out in the suburbs, for example, you can pick up a city car and then the Mobility on Demand System go to where you want to go.

So I think there is an advantage in a highly evolved public transit system that you can develop a synergy with. I think this is important. And then some of it has to do with what kind of physical opportunities exist to build a system too. So, we’ve looked at a number of cities. We looked, for example, at Taipei in a lot of detail. We discovered that, this is obvious if you go to Taipei, it has the highest density of convenience stores in the world. There are 7-11’s everywhere in Taipei. So, an attractive strategy in Taipei is to say, put Mobility on Demand pick up and drop off points outside convenience stores where there’s space for it, the real estate is there. They’re almost automatically in the right locations and there’s a business synergy, and so on. So, that’s a particular opportunity that exists in Taipei.

Take another city we’ve looked at, Florence, which couldn’t be more different from Taipei and the historic and urban texture of Florence is built around the Piazzas that are related to the churches and the old parishes and that kind of thing. And so the strategy there that we pursued is a strategy of putting Mobility on Demand pick up and drop off points in the Piazzas, getting traditional automobile parking out of the Piazzas and giving the Piazzas back to the people as social centers and so on.

So I think there’s no, what I’m getting at is there is no general answer here. There are a lot of conditions that may make a city suitable or not suitable for Mobility on Demand Systems, there is no simple formula. I think it takes imagination and design skill and just looking at a particular city and saying, how would we do it in the particular city? What are the opportunities? What are the constraints? What’s the best way to do this?

The technological barriers are not great, so I think we could build the right kinds of automobiles within a couple of years. I don’t think that’s a long timeline. I think the regulatory issues and the political consensus building issues are potentially the long timeline and that could take many years. I think the cities that are likely to be competitive and are likely to win in doing these sorts of things, the ones who are able to cut through all of that kind of stuff and move quickly and effectively, hard to say which ones though, it could be a place like Singapore for example, which has a history of being able to do things like this.

Question: Some say we don’t have the time or resources to fund R&D in so many technologies simultaneously. Should we focus on less?

Bill Mitchell: No. No. I think you have to distinguish between what I’ll call incremental R&D, which can be very focused. You could say, we need to improve the efficiency of the system, whatever it is by 10% or something, you can focus a bunch of resources on doing that and be with a fairly high probability of success, you know get that payoff. But the really big fundamental transformations are fundamentally unpredictable and that’s the very definition of a creative disruptive transformation in fact. And most things where the big payoff comes from, so the Internet for example came out of nowhere. And I’ve been around long enough and I was around at the beginning of the Internet that I know it personally. So I can attest to that. It came and nobody knew what to do with this. It came out of some esoteric backroom research that nobody thought had any huge practical implication whatsoever. Forty years later, it is about 40 years right now, it has transformed the world. It completely transformed the world. 

So, I think the most effective economic thing that you can do, and it sounds sort of risky and uncertain, but you have to preserve the capacity for truly innovative and unpredictable undirected research. That’s just what you have to do if you want the really big payoff. This drives people crazy because they want predictability, but if you think about it, the fundamental contradiction between the idea and making a fundamental creative innovation and being totally predictable. If it was totally predictable then anybody can do it.

I think a placed like MIT and a think a place like the Media Lab, in particular is very much dedicated to that idea that we investigate all kinds of crazy things, and frankly, most of them fail, or at least in the sort term they don’t go anywhere, but every now and again, one of them pays off really big time and really transforms things. And I think you have to do that. There’s a way to look at it is like any other kind of investment. You know portfolios and investments, it isn’t about investment research and development money, you want to pursue some straightforward and sure things that need to get done, but you don’t want to neglect the big transformative things, that’s very, very shortsighted.

Question: What are some other game-changing ideas right now when it comes to the future of transportation?

Bill Mitchell: Transportation specifically, I think they have to do, I think mostly with various aspects of what we’ve already talked about. I think we are going to see some big breakthroughs in lightweight efficient electrical vehicles over the next few years. It’s very difficult to predict exactly how that’s going to go, but it’s, I think a very certain prediction that we are going to see a lot of development in that area. So, that’s one thing. I think we’re going to see some very surprising things in large scale, intelligent clean energy systems, and I’ve talked about some of those sorts of things that can maybe happen. And then I think rethinking the whole concept of mobility with things like Mobility on Demand systems is another big thing.

Here’s the way I’d look at it, if you look at the sustainability challenges that cities face over the 20 or 30 years, they’re formidable and everybody knows this. Incremental advances are not going to get us to where we need to be. I mean, incrementally improving the efficiency and cleanliness of the power trains of automobiles and all these sorts of things, they’re very worthwhile and we should stop pursuing them, but they’re not going to get us to where we need to be. So, we need in parallel to that have this imaginative search of the big transformative changes that are going to be really game changes and are going to redefine the whole thing. That’s what we’re looking for in the work that we’re doing here.

There’s an appropriate role for us. I mean, we’re not industry, we’re university research group. We have certain sorts of privileges and freedoms and we ought to take advantage of that to really go for what I think of as the big payoffs.

Recorded on January 21, 2010