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William J. Mitchell and the members of the MIT Smart Cities research group are creating innovative ways to change how we live in urban areas through, in part, the application[…]

There is a greater readiness in Europe to deal with public solutions to transportation issues. Plus, there are circumstances that make it easier to do so.

Question: What role should the government play in implementing these ideas in cities? 

Bill Mitchell: Any large scale effective solution to problems in mobility for example does depend on developing very effective private partnerships and aligning goals, aligning objectives, and getting everybody moving in the same direction. This is a gigantic challenge. This is one of the major challenges in doing all of this.

And the current players are not used to this. For example, Detroit is not used to working with local government in order to implement solutions to mobility issues. The electrical grid people are certainly not used to working with automobile companies and so on. I think one; we need good technical solutions to what we need to do. As I discussed before, we need these highly desirable products and systems that people are actually going to want to use. But then the other component is this component of aligning goals, building coalitions, getting everybody moving – or at least enough people, moving in the same direction to accomplish the large scale transformations which are very, very difficult.

Question: Why is the U.S. behind in advancing shared mobility systems?

Bill Mitchell: I think part of this is just accidental. Often these things happen. Some entrepreneur gets an idea and they happen to have a particular context and that’s where it happens, so part of is just accident and circumstance, part of it is ideological I think. I think there is a greater readiness in Europe to deal with public solutions rather than private solutions to some of these issues. And then there are just circumstantial things that make it easier to do in particular context. American cities are kind of difficult contexts to work in. They are politically complex. There are a lot of different interest groups. It takes immense political skill to get anything done at all. You think of the difficulties that Mayor Bloomberg had, for example, trying to get congestion pricing done in Manhattan. He failed ultimately. He didn’t’ succeed in doing this. So, I think the difficulty in doing it in American urban contexts is often a big barrier. 

In Paris, there’s a system with a very powerful mayor and it was possible for actually an outdoor advertising company to go to the mayor and say, “Here’s a deal for you. We can supply this mobility on demand, bicycle based mobility on demand system if you’ll give us the real estate in the city that we need to do this.” And the mayor is powerful enough to do this. Imagine trying to do this in New York. They’re a very much more of a top down kind of system.

And then the pay off there, it’s an advertising model essentially what the young provider got there was advertising space in the city of Paris. So, it’s a particular set of circumstances where the opportunities all lined up and made it possible.

Now, the lesson I draw from that is not the lesson that you just throw up your hands and say it’s impossible in the United States. The lesson I draw is you have to figure out the particular ways to line up the various different interests and create the opportunity that you want.

Now there are some other issues in this too. I think a city like New York is unbelievably complex just to operate and I wouldn’t start with New York, I’d say. Take a city like Singapore, for example. It’s much more a kind of top down context for getting things implemented and pretty – very efficient sort of technocratic framework for getting things done. So there are contexts where it’s easier to get things done than in other contexts.

Now I have a great belief in democratic complexity in the representation of different interest groups and so on that it does make it slower sometimes to get things done in this sort of context.

Question: How can collaboration speed up the process?

Bill Mitchell: We believe very strongly in cross-disciplinary collaboration to deal with these large-scale issues because the problems have no respect for traditional disciplinary boundaries. So dealing with Mobility on Demand systems for example, you have to design electric vehicles, so there’s a mechanical engineering and product design issues, there’s issues of electrical systems, there’s an issue of information systems, there’s an issue of urban real estate, and urban design. There’s an issue of the economics and business models of these systems. There’s an issue of how you do the software that does the optimization of the systems. And so this sprawls in an incredibly messy way across a lot of traditional disciplinary boundaries. Now, that’s exactly where we love to work. That’s just exactly where we think we can make our major contribution. But that is different from the traditional disciplinary organization of universities where Mechanical Engineering Department does mechanical engineering and the urban planners do urban planning, and so on. So, we very explicitly put forward an alternative model. 

And then I think the other thing that we do that I think is very important is, we collaborate very, very closely with industry. And it’s not just a matter of industry providing funding that it’s really engaging the expertise that industry brings to the table and it is a very much intellectual collaboration. So, our city car project, we collaborated very closely with General Motors and despite the popular perception, right now they do know a lot about building automobiles, you know, and I have enormous respect for the people we work with in GM. We’ve worked with city governments; we are working right now with Schneider Electric in looking at the large-scale electrical systems and so on. I think this is absolutely necessary. I think this is very, very important. I say this is very much our role in being able to lay out some version of a comprehensive vision that integrates the different perspectives and different disciplinary viewpoints. 

It’s very challenging, very difficult way to work, it’s much easier to say, well this is my area of expertise and I’ll stay within it. But we make a major point of operating in this way and I think it’s absolutely essential. 

Recorded on January 21, 2010