William J. Mitchell, Director of the Design Laboratory at MIT, writes about the emerging technologies that are poised to reshape our urban environments. Cities are fast transforming into artificial ecosystems of interconnected, interdependent intelligent digital organisms. This is the fundamentally new technological condition confronting architects and product designers in the twenty-first century.
The author argues that embedding intelligence in objects creates new functionality (that’s the usual motivation for doing it), but less immediately evident is that it also alters the shapes and sizes of parts and the spatial relationships among them. Eventually this enables surprising new forms to develop. As an example he mentions digital cameras. He describes the process of evolution of early models to a digital-imaging device that fits in our pocket, and finally its combination with a wireless telephone.
Mitchell notes that a particularly powerful design strategy under these conditions is to look for the ways that embedded intelligence loosens traditional relationships and constraints, and seize these as opportunities for fundamentally reimagining a product or system’s organization, shape, and scale. Following this, he presents five research projects:
- Concept car for General Motors from Mitchell’s Smart Cities research group in MIT.
- PlaceLab intelligent apartment from Kent Larson’s House_n research group in Cambridge.
- Smart parking from Carlo Ratti’s SENSEable City Laboratory.
- Free pixels in urban space from Mitchell’s Smart Cities research group in MIT.
- Robotic water droplets from Mitchell’s Smart Cities research group in MIT.
These projects, Mitchell says, intimate the emergence of a new stage in the evolution of cities. Preindustrial cities were mostly skeleton and skin — inert material arranged to provide shelter, security, and intensification of land use. In the industrial era, buildings and neighborhoods acquired more and more elaborate flow systems for water and energy supplies, sewage, ventilation, transportation, and trash removal. With their inputs, outputs, and artificial physiologies, they began to resemble living organisms. Today these organisms are developing artificial nervous systems that enable them to behave in intelligently coordinated ways. As the cities and their components become smarter, they begin to take new shapes and patterns. They become programmable. And the design of their software becomes as crucial — socially, economically, and culturally — as that of their hardware.