Cambridge Future Cities Conference: BBC Report

Cambridge Future Cities Conference: BBC Report

How will future cities deal with our growing transport challenges, and the security and privacy of our data? MIT professor Carlo Ratti  explored these challenges at this year’s Future Cities Conference in Cambridge, England. Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues reports for the BBC World Service.

Photo caption: MIT Professor, Carlo Ratti in conversation with Alison van Diggelen at the Future Cities Conference, Jesus College, Cambridge on July 18, 2017.

On Monday, I joined the BBC’s Roger Hearing and Delhi journalist Madhavan Narayanan to discuss future cities and the role of technology in making them more efficient and sustainable. Listen to the podcast at the BBC’s Business Matters (Future Cities segment starts at 26:34)

Or listen to the audio clip below:


Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Alison, you’ve been having an interesting time recently. You’ve been looking at the concept of Future Cities, in fact you’ve been over in Europe I believe? Give me a picture of what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been hearing.

Alison van Diggelen:  I was back at Cambridge University, in England last week, exploring the role of technology in shaping our future cities. The Cambridge Future Cities Conference assembled experts from academia, policy making and business to explore the challenges and opportunities facing cities. I interviewed Professor Carlo Ratti. He’s Director of the “Senseable City” Lab at MIT. “Senseable” as in sensors. He and his team are adding sensors to everything from trash to taxis to discover patterns, inefficiencies and opportunities to reinvent future cities, and make them greener and more sustainable. His team collaborated with Uber to test the feasibility of car-sharing and the Uberpool in New York.  They found that in theory, everyone could travel on demand with just one-fifth (20%) of the number of cars in use today. He calls it the future mobility web.

Prof. Carlo Ratti: If you think about the future you can imagine something that we started calling a mobility web. A mobility web means the potential to know in real-time all the potential for transportation in the city both for people and parcels. Think about what happens today, you need to open one app, then another app…Imagine if all of them were combined… Then you can do something similar to what you do today with Kayak or Expedia, you can scan all your options – it’s like a mobile web that can radically change the way we look at mobility both for people and for goods.

Roger Hearing: Madhavan, you’re in Delhi. Can you imagine that kind of thing working in a city like Delhi? Would you be able to take transport to the point where you could be aware where every car or bus or lorry is at any given moment?

Madhavan Narayanan: Let me take a cynical view of what these guys at Stanford etc. do…I call them the Marie Antoinettes of our time. “Let them have high tech” is the new “let them eat cake.” Tech innovations have to be much more culturally sensitive and pragmatic for things to come on fast. People are not trying to reduce the carbon footprint here…people are trying to save money. High techies need to hire more sociologists and anthropologists and instead of talking to each other in an echo chamber of technologists. It will catch on in a zig-zag way…We do not need California idealism, we need Asian pragmatism.

Roger Hearing: Do you take that point on board Alison?

Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. One of the refrains people heard at the conference was: let’s get out of our silos here: use this multi-disciplinary approach. We need collaboration, we need to think about different cultures and communities. In America 42 hours a year are lost due to traffic congestion(per commuter) and I imagine it’s even worse in Delhi. There’s a huge holy grail shining out there…we can drive towards that; there are huge gains to be made. The technology is there, we just need to implement it.

Roger Hearing: California has adopted new things very easily and quickly. Is it a place where people are already beginning to put in place the things you were talking about in Cambridge?

Alison van Diggelen: Yes, it’s definitely being experimented with. There is a project with driverless cars coming to the city of San Jose. They’re talking with ten different driverless car companies. These demo projects, these pilot projects are really important to understand how future cities can be more efficient and more sustainable.

Roger Hearing: At the back of everyones’ minds, when they think about integrated public transport systems, future cities, smart cities is: What happens if someone hacks in? At this event, you did tackle the issue of security?

Alison van Diggelen: We did indeed. The answer is layers of security. The technologists need to outsmart these hackers who have nefarious aims. I spoke to Professor Ratti about this and he framed the importance of security in memorable and stark terms…

Prof. Carlo Ratti: With some of these technologies we can really have cities that are more sustainable, they’re more sociable as well, but we need to look at at least two issues – one is the possibility of hacking. We all know what happens if a virus crashes our computer, but usually nobody dies. But what if that was a driverless car? So how to make sure our cities cannot be crashed? The other is what happens to the data that is generated by the Internet of Things. We’re making a digital copy of our physical space, our physical cities – then it’s very important who has access to the data, what for, and that’s one of the big conversations of our time.

Continue listening to hear our discussion:

What is Mark Kleinman at the Greater London Authority (GLA) doing to accelerate the adoption of technology in London?

Why does Madhavan Narayanan think we need a SWOT approach to privacy and security in future cities?

Find out more about Future Cities

The Future Cities Conference in Cambridge assembled some of the brightest minds in urbanism and land economy today. Find out more about their research and projects here:

Faculty and Prize winning PhD students at the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge

Alice Charles, World Economic Forum

Paul Swinney, Centre for Cities

Phil McCann, University of Sheffield

Hugh Bullock, Gerald Eve

Kenneth Howse, Oxford Institute of Population Ageing

Lucy Musgrave, Publica

Charles Leadbeater, Author and former advisor to UK PM, Tony Blair