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Tech and the city: urban guru’s design tips for SA

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Tech and the city: urban guru’s design tips for SA

MIT urban expert shares solutions for congestion, pollution and social segregation with SA

Senior science reporter


Congestion, pollution, social segregation.
These are still the three biggest problems facing cities across the globe, and what could be a more appropriate city than our own highly segregated Cape Town for a world guru on urban planning to share his wisdom on these topics?
Prof Carlo Ratti heads up the global think tank Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He was recently in SA for YPO Edge, the annual global gathering of the Young Presidents Organisation, which drew more than 2,000 CEOs under the age of 45 from across the world to the Cape Town International Convention Centre.
He says that most of the problems that face cities today are not significantly different from the ones they faced yesterday, such as congestion, pollution or social segregation.
The tension between integration and segregation – a topic very close to the lives of South Africans – is a “recurring one” in the history of urbanisation, and how we design a city can contribute to the former or the latter.
“If we let citizens live in enclaves – either for the rich or the poor – we generate fractures in the urban social fabric,” says Ratti, “and the same happens when different populations are priced out of central areas, as we see more and more in cities such as New York, San Francisco and London.”
This has also happened in a city like Cape Town where, according to researcher Nick Budlender of spatial justice NGO Ndifuna Ukwazi, “a wealthy, predominantly white minority lives in low-density suburbs that surround the inner city and enjoys great access to services and opportunities, while the majority of people are forced to live in poorly serviced areas far away from jobs, schools, hospitals and other amenities”.
This “inverse densification” highlights Cape Town’s “dysfunctional urban form”.
So where do we go from here?
According to Ratti: “Urban policies on affordability are crucial, but design can play a key role. It can help create better public spaces for different communities to come together and interact. Public space is a powerful antidote to the increasing fragmentation and polarisation of online communities.”
In that sense, public space in the real world counteracts some of the pitfalls of technology and our digital lives.
But, says Ratti, technology can also help some of the most pressing problems in cities today.
He quotes the late historian of technology, Melvin Kranzberg, who said that “technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral”.
“It all depends on how we use it,” says Ratti.
First up is the reality of the situation.
“We also must recognise that the fact that spaces around us are becoming permeated with digital data and technologies, is practically inevitable. The internet is becoming the Internet of Things, a fusion of bits and atoms. This process has already started, and its manifestations are everywhere: from energy to waste management, from mobility to water distribution, from city planning to citizen engagement.”
With the right type of management, these “smart technologies” can make our cities “more sustainable (less energy intensive) and more social (most of the technologies we are talking about allow the better sharing of the urban infrastructure among citizens)”, explains Ratti.
The theme of traffic congestion gives us major insight into how technologies can help rather than hinder cities. From “digitisation to data analytics to self-driving cars”, Ratti has seen first-hand the difference technology can make based on some of the projects he and his team are working in at the Senseable City Lab at MIT.
In their study Minimum Fleet, published in Nature a few months ago, they calculated the minimum number of taxis that would be needed in New York City to address its mobility needs (with very efficient dispatching algorithms).
“We determined that the city’s fleet could be reduced by around 40%,” he said.
Another of their studies, called Unparking, used data from Singapore to study a potential future where shared mobility and self-driving cars reduce the number of vehicles on the road, with the potential of a 70% reduction in parking spaces.
The research was inspired by the fact that private cars sit parked 95% of the time. In fact, a single car usually occupies at least two parking spots: one at home, another at work.
Because of this, contemporary cities have roads clogged with traffic, while premium spaces sit empty or occupied by a parked car.
“Both these studies show how smart technologies could reduce congestion and thereby a city’s carbon footprint, while freeing up urban space previously reserved for large parking lots, for other uses such as public spaces and urban gardens,” he explains.

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