In the quest for developing sustainable and liveable cities of the future, the urban planners, designers and architects should take a step back. According to Joi Ito, the Director of MIT Media Lab, the key to innovation is to empower and enable nature, rather than trying to control it.

Since Plato’s The Republic, people have tried to imagine the blueprint of the perfect community, where the citizens live in prosperity and harmony. Nowadays, the attention has been shifted to the development of resilient, sustainable and liveable cities. This calls for new innovative solutions. But with the increasing complexity of urbanization in city-planning, how can design help potential innovators? What makes a city innovative? And how do we respond to the ever-changing technologies? We talked with Joi Ito, the Director of MIT Media Lab, to get some fresh insights from one of our leading thinkers on innovation and global technology policies.

Adapting to changing realities

“Imagining the future does not work anymore.” Joi Ito says, when asked about the role of design in creating sustainable and liveable cities. “There is an arrogance among certain categories of designers, architects and urban planners that we can predict the outcome of our actions. (…) [But] when the system becomes so complex that you cannot predict it anymore, then design becomes something fundamentally very different. Where you can no longer design the outcome. Across everything that we do right now, I think you have to fundamentally question our ability to predict and cause a future to occur.”

As an alternative to the traditional top-down approach to city-planning, Joi Ito explains that for many years research at the MIT Media Lab, pioneered by William J. Mitchell and now carried on by Kent Larson and his Changing Places research group, has emphasized a more organic approach that empowers, enables and amplifies the positive innovations across the city. “As the cost of innovation goes down, innovation starts to happen on the edges. You can see technological innovations coming from artists and students, which have developed into big companies today. Some experience is useful, but a lot of the experience people have right now does not apply in the same way,” he argues, and continues “I think that you are going to have complex networks of unpredictable innovations that are going to happen in the most unlikely places. It looks a lot more like creating an environment and supporting a kind of evolutionary diversity of innovation, rather than trying to design some monolithic system. It is really more organic. The way I like to talk about it is to empower and enable nature, rather than trying to control it, which is sort of what we have been trying to do in the past.”

The message from Joi Ito and the researchers at the Media Lab to urban leaders is simple: “A lot of it is getting out of the way.” When successful innovations become harder to predict, the key is listening to the emergent ideas and behaviours coming from the local environments. “By over-planning, what you often do is squeezing out the ability for entrepreneurs or artists to do anything. Both from a cost and regulatory perspective.” Joi Ito says, and points out “I think that a lot of the ingenuity is actually the hardware-store owner, high school teacher and housewife trying to figure out the best way to come up with an efficient way to do something – not the masterplanners.”

Understanding systems biology

At the High-Level meeting on Design, Innovation, and Urbanization in Tokyo hosted by the Global Agenda Council on Design and Innovation, the definition of cities as complex systems was one of the common denominators in the discussions. To learn more about the complexity in the system, Joi Ito suggests that understanding systems biology might be worth exploring when thinking about innovation in cities. “In systems biology, the key point is that all the systems are connected. Changing one thing does not change everything, but everything is still related. You can try to understand how all these processes connect, but the effect of any one particular intervention is somewhat unpredictable.” Joi Ito explains, and points to the art of deception. “One thing we can learn is to think about deception in the relationship between viruses and the immune system. The way that viruses attack our system is deception. The way we protect against viruses is deception. Deception is built into the design.”

“As a city-planner, when you do not have control, you have to think kind of deceptively. How do you trick people to do what you want them to do?” To exemplify, Joi Ito mentions the ‘Operation Flower’ in Suginami, a district of Tokyo. The intention was to bring the community outside more often to lower crime rates. By building flower stands in front of the houses, more homeowners would be keeping an eye out while taking care of the flowers. This empowered the residents to be their own effective security system, which led to an amazing decrease of 80% in burglaries in just six years.

In the Lab

The Media Lab is a leading research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is notorious for its antidisciplinary culture and the ability to disrupt, transform or displace our existing technologies. What better place to ask about innovation? According to Joi Ito, the future of competition is the cooperation between human beings and computers, intuitive systems and logical systems.

To exemplify, he points to the game of chess: “In 1990’s Deep Blue [chess computer] beat Kasparov, the world champion in chess, and we all decided that computers were better at chess than human beings. It turns out later that grandmasters assisted by an algorithm beat the computer. But then it turns out that a bunch of amateurs working together with a bunch of algorithms beat grandmasters and the computer.” Joi Ito explains, and continues “It has almost been a kind of tussle between intuition versus algorithms. It is the same with hedge funds and trading, and managing a sports team. Some people are very data-oriented and some are very intuitive-oriented. But there is not a very good user-interface that allows the very intuitive people to use sophisticated data techniques.”

By creating interfaces that allows for interdisciplinary collaborations between intuitive and data-oriented people, the disciplines can talk together. Thus breaking down the silos of isolated knowledge, which enables the stakeholders to recognize their shared interests. This could prove valuable, when innovation is no longer about perfection, but the willingness to try.

As an example from the MIT Media Lab, researchers working within the Lab’s City Science initiative use LEGO bricks with projected traffic patterns on to allow for citizens to participate in city-planning without having to look at blueprints. “It is about co-design and empowering people to think and participate in the design of their city. It allows us to test and measure things in an agile way.” says Joi Ito. “We try to bring the technologist, farmers, architects and everybody into the same room to start tinkering on things. By creating living labs, we can test things rather than trying to plan everything ahead and deploy a whole master plan, which is how larger city developments is going right now.”

Looking into the future

When asked how the technological developments will change our major cities, Joi Ito points to the transportation system. If the physical infrastructure were integrated into the digital and communications infrastructures, the mobility of the city would be far greater. “For instance, if everybody had a mobile device and their calendar hooked up to a public transportation system. The system could know when you needed to be where and it could load balance everything. It could be all on demand. This is short-term.” Joi Ito explains, and looks further ahead. “Look at the traffic system. You will find a lot of cities hiring companies like IBM to optimize traffic systems using Big Data and fiddling with the traffic light. But they are fundamentally just trying to improve an existing system, whereas I would like to see the use of technology and complex systems to say get rid of automobiles.”

Around the globe, the digital revolution is changing the way we organize our lives. Who would have imagined the tablet and smartphone thirty years ago? Yet a complete redesign of our traffic system seems even further away. But according to Joi Ito, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is to come. “I see a co-evolution of the technologies, where the younger kids are going to be using these new technologies in a very different way than the older generation. So the technology itself is developing, but human beings are also modifying the way they behave.” Joi Ito explains, and concludes “What’s important is that the really big changes have not come yet, but they are coming soon and will continue to come. So we really need to build and think about cities in more flexible ways to be resilient and adaptable to these changes.”

About The Author

Anders Berg Poulsen
Editorial Director

As Editorial Director and co-founder of Grasp, I oversee the editorial development and general business strategy. That means I spend much of my time thinking about what types of stories will be meaningful and valuable to our readers. As a writer, I am particular interested these days in the intersection of city development, data analytics and holistic measures of well-being.

4 Responses

  1. Joel Kennington

    Even though he is right, he does not offer any thing specificaly on Urban design, From my point of view it’s just publicity for MIT.

    • Anders Møller

      Joi Ito is not an specialist on urban designer, but an interdisciplinary thinker who brings in a quite needed software perspective on the complex issue of city planning.

    • Tom Kadala

      Joel, Listen to what Joi is saying. His keywords are ‘solutions through deception’, ‘advanced use of intuition’, and ‘behavioral changes due to technological advancements’. It has nothing to do with MIT publicity but rather sound thinking that just so happens to come from a recent hire at MIT.

  2. Anders Møller

    Operation Flower seems like a very convenient way to fight criminality.


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