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Duty now for the future: MIT Design Lab invents new urban systems

Design Lab's urban vision includes a snake-like bus.
Design Lab's urban vision includes a snake-like bus.
Image courtesy / MIT Department of Architecture

A new research lab, launched this spring by MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, is bringing design and engineering together in an entirely new way.

The MIT Design Laboratory is drawing on such existing research groups as PlaceLab and SENSEable Cities to bring emerging technology to bear on problems of social, economic and cultural importance.

Headed by former Dean William J. Mitchell, the lab was created to foster a comprehensive design approach to buildings and urban areas.

Unlike existing MIT labs, the Design Lab is primarily concerned not with individual products and systems employing particular technologies, but with taking an approach that addresses long-term sustainability and encompasses how technologies work within larger systems.

In its initial phase, the Design Lab is a coalition of existing research groups, including not only PlaceLab and SENSEable Cities, but also the Interrogative Design Group, the City Design and Development Program, the Mobile eXperience Laboratory and the Program for Developmental Entrepreneurship.

Projects under way include:

  • ��The City Car. A concept proposed for dense urban areas, the City Car is a stackable car for two passengers. By placing stacks at key points of convergence, such as bus and subway lines, the system offers travelers the flexibility to combine mass transit with individualized mobility. Each stack receives incoming vehicles and electrically charges them. Users simply remove a fully charged vehicle from the front of the stack just as they would pick up a luggage cart at the airport.
  • The Digital Mile. In Zaragoza, Spain, the removal of some train tracks left the city with a swath of space that they wanted to use. In collaboration with the City Design and Development Group, researchers came up with a mile-long, programmable wall of water. Sensors respond when someone approaches, causing the water to rise or fall or propagate waves.
  • The Electronic Lens. In Barcelona, a team is installing a system of talking landmarks that provides pedestrians with on-the-spot information about the city's resources. Decals indicate where the "hot spots" are, and pedestrians simply hold up their cell phones to receive the messages.

In many cases, the problem presented to the Design Laboratory is not the problem that really needs solving -- it's a symptom of a broken system, and what's called for is the radical rethinking of the system. The City Car, for instance, started out as a challenge to redesign the automobile, but that quickly led to the larger question of how to reinvent personal transportation for a sustainable city.

Work at the Design Lab will involve a combination of consortium-driven research (as at the Media Lab), commissioned research projects and funding by government agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

In addition to the researchers from existing entities, Professors Larry Sass and Takehiko Nagakura will be working on fabrication projects and Professor Dennis Frenchman will be working on high-tech urban design.

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