A future where cities are any more crowded than they already are is commonly imagined as a dystopia. But when Kent Larson looks at the current estimates placing 60% of 9 billion people in cities by 2030, he only sees opportunities to radically reimagine the way our cities work. As the director of the Changing Places Group and co-director of the City Science Initiative—both at the MIT Media Lab—the architect has found his bearings fostering the field of mechatronics (equal parts mechanical, electric and systems engineering) as he spearheads research initiatives in his main areas of expertise: responsive urban housing, new urban vehicles, ubiquitous technologies and living lab experiments. Working across these emergent fields, he proposes that as today's cities become connected and automated, design can, and should, make sustainable living the easiest option.
One of his early projects, the electric CityCar, is a personal vehicle that takes up a fraction of the space a traditional car does on the streets, and even less when it's parked. CityCar began questioning new ways for people to relate to their city, and Larson's following projects pushed the notions of mobility further. The ideal transportation system, Larson says, would be shared, electric and self-driven.
These principles take the form of the Persuasive Electric Vehicle (PEV)—a bike system that Larson describes as a "driverless, lightweight Über system." Users would "flag down" the bike with an app and either hop on or use it to send packages. Afterwards, the PEV could drive off by itself to meet the next customer, virtually eliminating the need for parking space. As a self-driving vehicle, it runs on electric energy; but the PEV also has a pedaling option for the more athletic commuter.
One of Larson's most exciting explorations involves big data as a tool for urban planners. CityScope taps into crowdsourced data to display colorful information onto model cities made out of white legos. Buildings and streets light up to reflect Twitter feeds, traffic density, weather patterns, and more.
The future will likely see people living in tighter quarters and for Larson's latest scenario, CityHOME, his team proposes an optimistic angle on density. Their tiny apartment model is configured with a system of robotics that allow dynamic transformations to take place, keeping the space flexible while satisfying all the purposes of the traditional home—with only a few pieces of (adaptable) furniture.
As our cities and homes grow increasingly more dense, designers and technologists find that multipurpose and shared technologies are quickly becoming the standard. But, as Larson shows, that could be the best way forward.