Kent Larson: Brilliant designs to fit more people in every city
June 22, 2012
How can we fit more people into cities without overcrowding? Kent Larson shows off folding cars, quick-change apartments and other innovations that could make the city of the future work a lot like a small village of the past.Kent Larson
Kent Larson designs new technologies that solve the biggest questions facing our cities. Full bio
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I thought I would start with a very brief
history of cities.
Settlements typically began
with people clustered around a well, and the size
of that settlement was roughly the distance you could walk
with a pot of water on your head.
In fact, if you fly over Germany, for example,
and you look down and you see these hundreds
of little villages, they're all about a mile apart.
You needed easy access to the fields.
And for hundreds, even thousands of years,
the home was really the center of life.
Life was very small for most people.
It was the center of entertainment, of energy production,
of work, the center of health care.
That's where babies were born and people died.
Then, with industrialization, everything started
to become centralized.
You had dirty factories that were moved
to the outskirts of cities.
Production was centralized in assembly plants.
You had centralized energy production.
Learning took place in schools. Health care took place
And then you had networks that developed.
You had water, sewer networks that allowed for this
kind of unchecked expansion.
You had separated functions, increasingly.
You had rail networks that connected residential,
industrial, commercial areas. You had auto networks.
In fact, the model was really, give everybody a car,
build roads to everything, and give people a place to park
when they get there. It was not a very functional model.
And we still live in that world,
and this is what we end up with.
So you have the sprawl of LA,
the sprawl of Mexico City.
You have these unbelievable new cities in China
which you might call tower sprawl.
They're all building cities on the model that we invented
in the '50s and '60s, which is really obsolete, I would argue,
and there are hundreds and hundreds of new cities
that are being planned all over the world.
In China alone, 300 million people,
some say 400 million people,
will move to the city over the next 15 years.
That means building the entire, the equivalent
of the entire built infrastructure of the U.S. in 15 years.
And we should all care about this
whether you live in cities or not.
Cities will account for 90 percent of the population growth,
80 percent of the global CO2, 75 percent of energy use,
but at the same time it's where people want to be,
More than half the people now in the world live in cities,
and that will just continue to escalate.
Cities are places of celebration, personal expression.
You have the flash mobs of pillow fights that —
I've been to a couple. They're quite fun. (Laughter)
You have — (Laughs)
Cities are where most of the wealth is created,
and particularly in the developing world,
it's where women find opportunities. That's
a lot of the reason why cities are growing very quickly.
Now there's some trends that will impact cities.
First of all, work is becoming distributed and mobile.
The office building is basically obsolete
for doing private work.
The home, once again, because of distributed computation --
communication, is becoming a center of life,
so it's a center of production and learning and shopping
and health care and all of these things that we used
to think of as taking place outside of the home.
And increasingly, everything that people buy,
every consumer product, in one way or another,
can be personalized.
And that's a very important trend to think about.
So this is my image of the city of the future.
In that it's a place for people, you know.
Maybe not the way people dress, but --
You know, the question now is, how can we have all
the good things that we identify with cities
without all the bad things?
This is Bangalore. It took me a couple of hours
to get a few miles in Bangalore last year.
So with cities, you also have congestion and pollution
and disease and all these negative things.
How can we have the good stuff without the bad?
So we went back and started looking at the great cities
that evolved before the cars.
Paris was a series of these little villages
that came together, and you still see that structure today.
The 20 arrondissements of Paris
are these little neighborhoods.
Most of what people need in life can be
within a five- or 10-minute walk.
And if you look at the data, when you have that kind
of a structure, you get a very even distribution
of the shops and the physicians and the pharmacies
and the cafes in Paris.
And then you look at cities that evolved after
the automobile, and it's not that kind of a pattern.
There's very little that's within a five minute walk
of most areas of places like Pittsburgh.
Not to pick on Pittsburgh, but most American cities
really have evolved this way.
So we said, we'll, let's look at new cities, and we're involved
in a couple of new city projects in China.
So we said, let's start with that neighborhood cell.
We think of it as a compact urban cell.
So provide most of what most people want
within that 20-minute walk.
This can also be a resilient electrical microgrid,
community heating, power, communication networks,
etc., can be concentrated there.
Stewart Brand would put a micro-nuclear reactor
right in the center, probably. (Laughter)
And he might be right.
And then we can form, in effect, a mesh network.
It's something of an Internet typology pattern,
so you can have a series of these neighborhoods.
You can dial up the density -- about 20,000 people per cell
if it's Cambridge. Go up to 50,000
if it's Manhattan density. You connect everything
with mass transit and you provide most of what most people
need within that neighborhood.
You can begin to develop a whole typology of streetscapes
and the vehicles that can go on them. I won't go through
all of them. I'll just show one.
This is Boulder. It's a great example of kind of a mobility
parkway, a superhighway for joggers and bicyclists
where you can go from one end of the city to the other
without crossing the street, and they also have bike-sharing,
which I'll get into in a minute.
This is even a more interesting solution in Seoul, Korea.
They took the elevated highway, they got rid of it,
they reclaimed the street, the river down below,
below the street, and you can go from one end of Seoul
to the other without crossing a pathway for cars.
The Highline in Manhattan is very similar.
You have these rapidly emerging bike lanes
all over the world. I lived in Manhattan for 15 years.
I went back a couple of weekends ago, took this photograph
of these fabulous new bike lanes that they have installed.
They're still not to where Copenhagen is, where something
like 42 percent of the trips within the city
are by bicycle. It's mostly just because they have
fantastic infrastructure there.
We actually did exactly the wrong thing in Boston.
We -- the Big Dig -- (Laughter)
So we got rid of the highway but we created a traffic island
and it's certainly not a mobility pathway for anything
other than cars.
Mobility on demand is something we've been thinking
about, so we think we need an ecosystem
of these shared-use vehicles connected to mass transit.
These are some of the vehicles that we've been working on.
But shared use is really key. If you share a vehicle,
you can have at least four people use one vehicle,
as opposed to one.
We have Hubway here in Boston, the Vélib' system in Paris.
We've been developing at the Media Lab this little
city car that is optimized for shared use in cities.
We got rid of all the useless things like engines
and transmissions. We moved everything to the wheels,
so you have the drive motor, the steering motor,
the breaking all in the wheel.
That left the chassis unencumbered, so you can do things
like fold, so you can fold this little vehicle up
to occupy a tiny little footprint.
This was a video that was on European television last week
showing the Spanish Minister of Industry driving
this little vehicle, and when it's folded, it can spin.
You don't need reverse. You don't need parallel parking.
You just spin and go directly in. (Laughter)
So we've been working with a company to
commercialize this. My PhD student Ryan Chin presented
these early ideas two years ago at a TEDx conference.
So what's interesting is, then if you begin to add
new things to it, like autonomy, you get out of the car,
you park at your destination, you pat it on the butt,
it goes and it parks itself, it charges itself,
and you can get something like seven times
as many vehicles in a given area as conventional cars,
and we think this is the future. Actually we could do this today.
It's not really a problem.
We can combine shared use and folding and autonomy
and we get something like 28 times the land utilization
with that kind of strategy.
One of our graduate students then says, well,
how does a driverless car communicate with pedestrians?
You have nobody to make eye contact with.
You don't know if it's going to run you over.
So he's developing strategies so the vehicle can
communicate with pedestrians, so -- (Laughter)
So the headlights are eyeballs, the pupils can dilate,
we have directional audio, we can throw sound
directly at people.
What I love about this project is he solved a problem
that hasn't, that doesn't exist yet, so -- (Laughter)
We also think that we can democratize access to bike lanes.
You know, bike lanes are mostly used by young guys
in stretchy pants, you know. So -- (Laughter)
We think we can develop a vehicle that operates
on bike lanes, accessible to elderly and disabled,
women in skirts, businesspeople, and address the issues
of energy congestion, mobility, aging and obesity
simultaneously. That's our challenge.
This is an early design for this little three-wheel,
it's an electronic bike. You have to pedal
to operate it in a bike lane, but if you're an older person,
that's a switch. If you're a healthy person,
you might have to work really hard to go fast.
You can dial in 40 calories going into work
and 500 going home, when you can take a shower.
We hope to have that built this fall.
Housing is another area where we can really improve.
Mayor Menino in Boston says lack of affordable housing
for young people is one of the biggest problems
the city faces.
Developers say, okay, we'll build little teeny apartments.
People say, we don't really want to live in a little teeny
So we're saying let's build a standardized chassis,
much like our car. Let's bring advanced technology
into the apartment, technology-enabled infill,
give people the tools within this open-loft chassis
to go through a process of defining what their needs
and values and activities are, and then
a matching algorithm will match a unique assembly
of integrated infill components, furniture, and cabinetry,
that are personalized to that individual, and they give them
the tools to go through the process and to refine it,
and it's something like working with an architect,
where the dialogue starts when you give an alternative
to a person to react to.
Now, the most interesting implementation of that for us
is when you can begin to have robotic walls, so
your space can convert from exercise to a workplace,
if you run a virtual company.
You have guests over, you have two guestrooms
that are developed.
You have a conventional one-bedroom arrangement
when you need it. Maybe that's most of the time.
You have a dinner party. The table folds out
to fit 16 people in otherwise a conventional one-bedroom,
or maybe you want a dance studio.
I mean, architects have been thinking about these ideas
for a long time. What we need to do now,
develop things that can scale to those 300 million Chinese
people that would like to live in the city,
and very comfortably.
We think we can make a very small apartment
that functions as if it's twice as big
by utilizing these strategies. I don't believe in smart homes.
That's sort of a bogus concept.
I think you have to build dumb homes
and put smart stuff in it. (Laughter)
And so we've been working on a chassis of the wall itself.
You know, standardized platform with the motors
and the battery when it operates, little solenoids
that will lock it in place and get low-voltage power.
We think this can all be standardized, and then people
can personalize the stuff that goes into that wall,
and like the car, we can integrate all kinds of sensing
to be aware of human activity, so if there's a baby or
a puppy in the way, you won't have a problem. (Laughter)
So the developers say, well this is great. Okay,
so if we have a conventional building,
we have a fixed envelope, maybe we can put in 14 units.
If they function as if they're twice as big,
we can get 28 units in.
That means twice as much parking, though.
Parking's really expensive. It's about 70,000 dollars
per space to build a conventional parking spot
inside a building.
So if you can have folding and autonomy,
you can do that in one seventh of the space.
That goes down to 10,000 dollars per car,
just for the cost of the parking.
You add shared use, and you can even go further.
We can also integrate all kinds of advanced technology
through this process. There's a path to market
for innovative companies to bring technology into the home.
In this case, a project we're doing with Siemens,
we have sensors on all the furniture, all the infill,
that understands where people are and what they're doing.
Blue light is very efficient, so we have these tunable
24-bit LED lighting fixtures.
It recognizes where the person is, what they're doing,
fills out the light when necessary to full spectrum white light,
and saves maybe 30, 40 percent in energy consumption,
we think, over even conventional state-of-the-art
This just shows you the data that comes from the sensors
that are embedded in the furniture.
We don't really believe in cameras to do things in homes.
We think these little wireless sensors are more effective.
We think we can also personalize sunlight.
That's sort of the ultimate personalization in some ways.
So we, we've looked at articulating mirrors of the facade
that can throw shafts of sunlight anywhere into the space,
therefore allowing you to shade most of the glass
on a hot day like today.
In this case, she picks up her phone, she can map
food preparation at the kitchen island to a particular
location of sunlight. An algorithm will keep it in that location
as long as she's engaged in that activity.
This can be combined with LED lighting as well.
We think workplaces should be shared.
I mean, this is really the workplace of the future, I think.
This is Starbucks, you know. (Laughter)
Maybe a third — And you see everybody has their back
to the wall and they have food and coffee down the way
and they're in their own little personal bubble.
We need shared spaces for interaction and collaboration.
We're not doing a very good job with that.
At the Cambridge Innovation Center, you can have
shared desks. I've spent a lot of time in Finland
at the design factory of Aalto University,
where the they have a shared shop and shared Fablab,
shared quiet spaces,
We think ultimately all of this stuff can come together,
a new model for mobility, a new model for housing,
a new model for how we live and work,
a path to market for advanced technologies,
but in the end the main thing we need to focus on
are people. Cities are all about people.
They're places for people.
There's no reason why we can't dramatically improve
the livability and creativity of cities like they've done
in Melbourne with the laneways while
at the same time dramatically reducing CO2 and energy.
It's a global imperative. We have to get this right.
Thank you. (Applause)
Kent Larson designs new technologies that solve the biggest questions facing our cities.Why you should listen
Kent Larson has been the director of the MIT House_n research consortium in the School of Architecture and Planning since 1998 and is also the current director of the MIT Media Lab's Changing Places group. Both projects are dedicated to developing technologies that solve contemporary issues in the home, the workplace, and the city. Larson practiced architecture in New York City for 15 years and wrote for several architectural publications and the New York Times. In 2000, his book, Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Masterworks, was selected among the Ten Best Books in Architecture by the New York Times Review of Books. His current work has three focusses: responsive urban housing, ubiquitous technologies, and living lab experiments to test his group's designs in practical environments.
The original video is available on TED.com