Q&A: Kent Larson, director, MIT Media Lab's Changing Places group

Most future population growth will occur in cities. To make them more livable, Kent Larson is developing technologies for shared-use vehicles and tiny apartments that feel twice as big.

From an electric bicycle that could help the disabled commute more efficiently to a tiny apartment that can fit both a king size bed and a dinner party, Kent Larson develops technologies to make cities more livable. As director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab's Changing Places group, Larson focuses on responsive urban housing, new urban vehicles and ubiquitous technologies.

I spoke with Larson recently about why everyone should care about cities and hosting a party for 10 in a 250-square-foot apartment. Below are excerpts from our interview.

Why do you care about the design of cities? Are you a lifelong city resident?

I lived and worked in New York City for about 18 years. It's in my blood. New York is one of the great cities of the world. On top of that, traveling in Latin America, India and China, it becomes painfully obvious how badly the cities are developing in these areas that are rapidly urbanizing. It's so critical to the health of the planet that we figure out better ways to build these cities. They're basically following the dysfunctional model we developed here in the U.S. in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The U.S. and Europe are developing more sophisticated models and these developing areas are stuck in the past.

In your TED Talk, you present some fascinating statistics on the growth of cities. Why should we care about cities now, even if we don't live in them?

Almost all of the population growth will take place in cities. Almost all of the wealth will be created in cities. That's where companies will be formed. That's where people will find opportunities, so there's powerful pressure for them to move to cities. Cities are where a huge percentage of energy and water will be consumed. There's tremendous pressures on agricultural systems because of the rapid growth of cities and getting healthy food to market and not having the problems with spoiled and tainted food. Even if you live in the suburbs, what happens in cities will have an impact on you.

Why do we need to design ways for more people to fit into cities?

We just have to accept that cities are growing. You could wish they weren't. You could hope that population control would reduce the rate at which these cities are expanding. We just start with that as a given. A lot of what we've been developing is aimed at trying to have in cities all the positive things that come with increased density. You have a rich variety of cafes and cultural facilities, art galleries, restaurants and opportunities for creative social interaction. It increases the ability to start creative enterprises. A lot of people see all the bad things that come with increased density: more traffic, pollution, crowding, disease, crime. Fundamentally, we're asking ourselves, ‘Are there combinations of public policy and good design and good technology that allow you to have the good things without the bad things?'

Some cities now have what you call ‘mobility pathways.' Talk more about these.

That's giving people alternatives to the use of private automobiles that are more convenient and healthier and more affordable and, hopefully, more fun. You have them in Boulder along the river. You have them in New York. When I moved from New York in 2000, you didn't have these amazing bike lanes they now have with separate lanes and bike signals. You find them in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The streets in many cities are seen as places for people. The cars are invading people space, so they move carefully. If you go to a city like Copenhagen, people can move around the city very conveniently on bicycles or walking. If you ask someone in Copenhagen why they ride bikes, they're doing it because it's the fastest way to get around. If we can create pathways or streets designed for multiple modes then alternatives to the private car can be used by more people.

What are ‘shared-use vehicles' and how do they fit into the equation?

We need to have a whole ecosystem of shared vehicles ranging from conventional bicycles to three-wheel electric bike lane vehicles that expands the demographics of people who can use them to efficient two-passenger cars like our CityCar [a stackable, electric vehicle created by MIT Media Lab researchers]. You also have shuttles and electric taxis. There should be a whole family of options integrated into this vehicles-sharing program.

The GreenWheel [anin-wheel regenerative electric motor that can be adapted to any bicycle] can be used electrically. To meet European Union regulations, you have to pedal. But there's no regulation that governs how much human energy you have to put into the system. If you're a little old lady or have some physical issue, it can be more like a switch. You can vary the resistance much in the same way as you can with a fitness bike.

Another design idea relates to housing. You want to make a tiny apartment -- one that would be affordable for young people -- function as if it's twice as big. How do you do that?

We've started a spin off company, Zbode, from our group to commercialize this. We're working on very small apartments, about 250- to 300-square-feet. They're doing a 300-square-foot apartment with a king size bed, dining table for eight, fully-equipped kitchen, handicap accessible bathroom and party space that would accommodate about 10 people. You can't do all these things at once. We have things that go up and down. We've been developing robust, cost-effective ways to dramatically transform a very small space. We've been working on new interfaces to do that. You go to a heavy object like a table, bed, and you raise it manually with assistance. We'd like people to be able to move these large, heavy objects in their apartments as naturally as they open and close the door.

We're working with international developers to redo their conventional approach to real estate development to incorporate these units. We're integrating large displays into sliding doors, so you don't have to have a wall for a large LCD screen. It's embedded into these movable elements. The big items are the bed, table, couch that transform and large doors that slide. There are small tables that can pop up. We have a small bathroom designed where fixtures can be relocated. The sink can be accessed over the toilet for examples. The problem with that is building codes define exactly what a bathroom is. The code doesn't say deliver a bathroom that's usable to someone in a wheelchair. It tells you exactly how to do that.

Are you working to change building codes in some cities?

We're working with a large developer who has some influence. We think that, with any luck, within a year we can get some of these laws updated. New York's Mayor Bloomberg is a big advocate of these micro-units, so we think there will be some changes.

How do shared work spaces fit in?

It's all part of this trend toward sharing. The old model is that a company takes out a long-term lease in an office building or they build a campus or headquarters. I don't find many companies thinking that way anymore. Smaller companies are thinking of office space as a service. You have coworking facilities in New York and Boston where you have many hundreds of startup companies getting the resources they need. It's moving away from an ownership model to an agile, leasing model.

You combine the small apartments that make living in the city affordable for young professionals with shared-use coworking facilities with shared-use mobility all in an integrated solution and you have something very powerful.

What do you see as the future for city design? Do you expect these changes we talked about to come fast?

I think it'll happen pretty quickly. There are enough mayors who see the old ways are not working. I've been spending a lot of time in China and India. We've had two delegations from Latin America here in the last month. I think there will be some lead cities who will explore these ideas and many cities will follow. I have no doubt that the shared mobility will increase. Coworking is a trend that's rapidly accelerating. The urban planning ideas are a little harder to change because you have these entrenched institutions and developers that building the old way, but it'll happen. I have no doubt of that.

Photo: Kent Larson

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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