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What will it take to reduce carbon emissions enough to arrest global warming and secure the future of humanity? According to Kent Larson, director of the City Science research group at the MIT Media Lab, it will take coordinated effort across a broad spectrum of human activity—particularly in urban areas, which are responsible for roughly 70 percent of global emissions.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck problem,” Larson told attendees at the MIT Alumni Forum event “Smart Cities: Toward a New Model for Urban Communities,” which took place on April 4. “The typical incremental approach to addressing this challenge is not going to work.”

That’s why Larson and his research group have been working—for nearly 20 years—to develop a comprehensive spectrum of approaches to urban living designed to enhance sustainability. These approaches range from new technologies (such as sensors for water consumption monitoring) to urban modeling and community engagement.

“The primary root causes of global warming are a function of decisions made at the local level,” he said. “We need more focus on these systemic, root problems.”

Watch the video  to learn about the group’s efforts to address such challenges as:

  • Mobility. “The future of cities is without cars,” Larson says. One transportation option the group has developed is an autonomous bicycle that comes when called (like an Uber). 
  • Housing. A startup spun out of the group—Ori—creates robotic furnishings that transform small apartments for a variety of uses (see video). “You can essentially double the functionality of any given space,” Larson says.
  • Human dynamics. Another spinoff from the group, Butlr, is an AI data platform for anonymous people-sensing that can—for example—alert caregivers when seniors need assistance.
  • Public policy. “Zoning is underappreciated,” Larson says, noting that the group is now exploring novel ways to optimize cities for social and environmental performance by employing incentives dynamically. “Of all the things we’re working on, this has the potential for being the most impactful.”

Julie Newman, MIT’s director of sustainability, served as moderator for the forum.

The MIT Alumni Forum is a thought-provoking online series that brings alumni back to their years learning under the Great Dome. Each forum connects audiences with leading MIT experts while providing opportunities to engage with speakers and ask questions.