Designing Cities within Emerging Geographies

The work of Senseable City Lab

Authored by: Fábio Duarte , Carlo Ratti

The New Companion to Urban Design

Print publication date:  May  2019
Online publication date:  June  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138302129
eBook ISBN: 9780203731932
Adobe ISBN:


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Today, with the diffusion of handheld electronics, such as cell phones and smartphones, data collection is becoming effortless. With more than 7 billion mobile devices worldwide and 2.3 billion mobile-broadband subscriptions globally, cities in both the Global North and Global South are experiencing new forms of understanding urban phenomena that can inform city design. Moreover, global telecommunications and faster computational power are closing the temporal gap between data gathering, data processing and analysis, and actuation cycles. In this chapter we focus on one technology, cell phones, and present a review of the use of cell phone data for urban planning applications, based on the Senseable City Lab’s work. In 2006, we took aggregate data from cell phones in Rome and mapped these calls onto the geography of the city during two special events in the summer, revealing the emotional landscape of the city. In the following years, similar projects emerged, pointing to dynamic and collaborative mapping. Ten years later, we used cell phone data in New York to better understand a pressing environmental health concern: human exposure to air pollution, which leads to seven million early deaths each year globally. Mapping the movements of several million people using cell phone data, and intersecting this information with neighborhood air pollution measures, we found where and when New Yorkers are most at risk of exposure to air pollution. These projects, among other discussed in this chapter, demonstrate how the knowledge of human movement could inform design. If the built environment is a kind of “third skin” – in addition to our biological skin and clothing – it has long been a rigid one. Perhaps with better data, the built environment can better adapt to the needs of its inhabitants as a living, tailored urban form.

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