Professor Kent Larson of MIT speaking at the 2016 ULI Florida Summit.

Imagine a world where a 200-square-foot (18.6 sq m) apartment feels spacious because every appliance or piece of furniture can be tucked away, folded, or repurposed with a gesture or flip of a switch. Or, where electric bicycles doubled as autonomous delivery vehicles. Or, where food is grown in vertical farms that required no soil and lined the skins of the tallest buildings.

They may sound whimsical and futuristic, but these ideas may shape the way people live in the coming decades thanks to experimental work undertaken by the Changing Places group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, a one-of-a-kind laboratory and incubator for disruptive technologies. One of two dozen research groups housed at the Media Lab, Changing Places is focused on developing new, more efficient, and creative mobility systems and ways of living and working in cities at a time when urban populations are growing, while the resources to sustain them are shrinking.

As principal research scientist, Kent Larson leads the group, a so-called antidisciplinary team of engineers, architects, urban planners, cognitive psychologists, and computer scientists, among others. He shared several of Changing Places’ projects during the closing keynote speech at the recent ULI Florida Summit in Miami, giving a preview of some of the technologies that may play a role in creating more high-performing, livable cities of the future.

Cities have earned their place in history as “engines of wealth and innovation,” according to Larson, yet not every city will automatically generate prosperity or ideas if it lacks three essential ingredients: sufficient density; proximity between home, work, and community amenities; and diversity in population, housing, and industries. Explaining the interplay of these three elements, Larson said: “You need to have a diversity of people from different backgrounds interacting. As you increase the density, you increase the probability that they will interact. As you improve proximity, you give them opportunities to interact, and that increases the probability of innovation. It’s as simple as that.”


Changing Places has developed several digital technologies that can potentially help cities increase their densities, attract a diverse population, offer diverse housing options, and increase proximity between places. One of these is CityScope, an open-source, urban planning simulation tool that combines three-dimensional data visualization with physical modeling to map and layer current assets or patterns of human activity and interaction. The purpose of the tool is to help stakeholders and nonexperts identify challenges and opportunities in the built environment and the urban ecosystem, to present data in a visually comprehensible way, and to ensure that decision making is driven by data and evidence, Larson said.

Changing Places is collaborating with institutions in several cities and countries around the world—from Boston to the tiny European nation of Andorra to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia—using the CityScope modeling tool to address specific land use challenges. Larson discussed an ongoing collaboration between Changing Places and the CityScience Lab at HafenCity University in Hamburg, Germany, to identify strategies for housing an additional 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-torn nations who are expected to arrive in Hamburg by the end of the year. CityScope has allowed stakeholders to map accommodations for current refugees—nearly 40,000 are already in Hamburg—and potential locations for future facilities—processing centers, and temporary and permanent housing—and the impacts these new sites will have on individual neighborhoods, streets, and the city as a whole.

CityCar and Persuasive Electric Vehicles

The private automobile is largely responsible for low-density development, sprawl, greenhouse gas emissions, and land use patterns that have led to inactive, sedentary lifestyles and a rise in chronic diseases. Not only are people unhealthier as a result of car-centric development, but “private cars kill innovation” by separating people and land uses, according to Larson.

Larson discussed several alternatives to the personal car that offer mobility on demand without further taxing urban systems or expanding humans’ carbon footprint. Developed by William Lark, an advisee of William J. Mitchell, the late MIT professor of architecture who led the Smart Cities group at the MIT Media Lab, and Larson, CityCar is a two-passenger, fully electric vehicle without a central engine or power train that instead relies on four electric motors for power. Its total length is the width of a sedan or sport utility vehicle (SUV), so that three CityCars can fit into a traditional parking space.

Larson also described a “persuasive electric vehicle (PEV),” a shared-use autonomous vehicle developed by Changing Places Ph.D. student Michael Lin that looks a bit like a tricycle. Larson explained its unique name, saying the vehicle is supposed to “encourage you to shift to more sustainable and healthy modes of mobility.” Electric powered, similar to bicycles and operable in existing bike lanes, a PEV doubles as a people- and goods-mover, providing mobility to individuals and a potential solution to e-commerce firms that need to quickly deliver products to people. PEV made its debut at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and a writer for AutoBlog noted that autonomous vehicles “are not scary at all. In fact, they’re quite practical and help the planet.”

CityHome and Open Agriculture

Changing Places is also experimenting with architectural robotics and modular systems that allow for “living large in small spaces,” according to Larson. CityHome is a 200-square-foot (18.6 sq m) prototype for an extremely compact home of the future in which multipurpose furniture is dynamic and responsive to human needs throughout the day. CityHome manages to fit a comfortably sized bed, a desk, and a dining table into a modular unit, which itself is movable to increase or decrease the size of each sub-space, the kitchen, the living area, and bathroom. The tables and bed fold back into the unit with a hand gesture, allowing for sleeping, studying, dining, and entertaining friends.
CityHome could be one potential solution in cities struggling with affordability challenges, Larson said. “This is a really serious problem in the cities where young people most want to live, globally,” adding that the average young professional would need to earn an extra $80,000 to afford a mortgage in San Jose, California. And the cost of the technology to produce thousands of CityHome units “is trivial compared to the cost of construction, space, and land,” he added.

Finally, Larson predicted that the future of agriculture likely lies in vertical farms in which crops are grown through aeroponics, an air- and mist-based system that requires no soil or planting medium. The challenge is how to grow food “closer to the point of consumption with fewer resources,” Larson said, and in systems that can be easily scaled. Planting urban gardens in every backyard, on every rooftop, or in every vacant lot will not solve the problem of how to produce food at scale in urban environments, but a vertical, aeroponics-based vertical farm that grows on the sides of every city building might. The ability to grow food anywhere without taking up more land area is the focus of two projects, CityFarm and the MIT Open Agriculture Initiative. These are among the plethora of ideas that Larson and his students and colleagues hope will help cities tackle some of their greatest challenges at a time when “urban space is too valuable to be static and unresponsive.”

Archana Pyati is a writer on ULI’s Strategic Communications team.