How "Discreet, Unobtrusive Technology" Will Transform Cities

William J. Mitchell and the members of the MIT Smart Cities research group are creating innovative ways to change how we live in urban areas through, in part, the application of new technologies that enable urban energy efficiency and sustainability, and enhance opportunity, equity, and cultural creativity. Smart Cities research is particularly concerned with the emerging roles of networked intelligence in fabrication and construction, urban mobility, building design and intelligently responsive operation, and public space. The group explores the new forms and functions of cities in the digital electronic era, and suggests design and planning directions for the future.

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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What might a city look like in 2050?

Bill Mitchell: The fundamental thing about cities, they change very slowly, even under a lot of stress and even when you have a lot of innovation.  A number of years ago I was a consultant on a movie, you may remember, called “Minority Report,” that Steven Spielberg did about, it was about the future of Washington D.C.  He sort of started out the conversation by saying, “Well, what’s Washington D.C. going to be like in 50 years?”  And the honest answer was, not a lot different for me.  You know, the way it is now.  He said, “Well we can’t make a movie about that.  We have to you know, invent some things like cars driving up the sides of buildings and all kinds of stuff like this.”

 I think, and if you think of some of the big transformations that have taken place, let’s say over the last 50 years.  Probably the biggest thing that’s happened to cities has been – well, I’m not sure it’s the biggest, but a massive thing that’s happened, has been in the overlay of intelligence by the Internet, mobile phones, personal computers, and all this kind of thing.  In some ways, it’s almost invisible.  You can take a city and it’s functioning in a completely different kind of way because everybody’s talking on their mobile phones and they're all text messaging and they're all tweeting.  Functionally it’s working on a totally different kind of way.  It doesn’t look that much different.

I never believe in sort of Buck Rogers fantasies of the future of cities.  They never happen and it’s just as well, because we’d be extremely unhappy if they did.  It’s not just a matter of some massive sudden technological transformation; that never happens.  What cities are, are a sort of intricate layering of the work of many generations, one on top of another, and so, it’s subtle transformation and inflection of cities rather than whole scale transformation that’s really important.  I mean, maybe the big dramatic thing is something that goes against people’s expectations.  I would say the important technology of the late 20th century and the early 21st century has been extremely unobtrusive.  It sort of disappears in your pocket and disappears in the woodwork.  The mobile phone is a revolution, but basically you don’t even see it.  The little automobiles that we are talking about; little, quiet, unobtrusive things that fit into the city without fundamentally transforming what I think a city needs to be. So I think the big surprise I think to a lot of people is going to be... The really effective technology that transforms our lives is going to be this discreet, unobtrusive technology that does very interesting things for us, but without making cities look like some sort of science-fiction fantasy.

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