MIT's Sensible City Lab project Underworlds attempts to provide better sensory capacities for understanding bacterial and viral activities in sewer systems to better serve the cities that rely on them. Technosphere Magazine talked with Professor Carlo Ratti and Eric Alms about urban infrastructures, biochemical layers and real-time disease surveillance.
Technosphere Magazine: Often, technological infrastructure is understood as something rigid and non-organic. How could studying biochemical effects expand the way we understand both infrastructure itself and our understanding of technology?
TM: How do the biochemical strata of the city influence the construction and creation of infrastructure? Conversely, how do you build infrastructure to work with and against the biochemical strata?
TM: For us, the technosphere is an equivalent earth sphere to that of the Hydrosphere, Lithosphere, Biosphere, etc. In this case, what are the more dynamic relationships to this Earth technosphere and the biosphere that seem particularly salient in your work?
TM: There is an expressed focus on real-time disease surveillance in Underworlds. How can biochemical analytics work as a mechanism for public safety and health? Might it be possible to use similar processes in other public infrastructure such as water supply?
Carlo Ratti: Part of our vision is eventually to monitor real-time infectious diseases. Understanding when and where illnesses originate is a huge public health insight and can reduce medical costs—by allowing health care service providers to prepare—and potentially save lives. But the applications of Underworlds extend beyond just disease monitoring to a new kind of urban population census. We can begin to understand non-communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes, and use this knowledge to inform public health policy. We can quantify the use of prescription and illicit drugs and target outreach services. We can also begin to understand the impact of urban form, if any, on the health of a community. This knowledge not only informs health care practitioners, but also planners, designers, and citizens.
TM: In the project to date, have there been any surprises in regards to the data? As in, are there certain norms that one could qualify as “acceptable,” levels or compositions of viral/bacterial populations? And, if so, has the data from the project demonstrated new norms or potential unforeseen aberrance?
TM: What tools and technologies are being deployed for the testing?
TM: It is mentioned on you website that the platform is “open-data.” How can this data be shared and are there any plans for doing so? Will the data be shared with city entities or contribute as part of a community effort, as it is envisaged right now?
TM: How does the physical infrastructure itself play into this? How does the project navigate variables such as old sewage networks with potential leaching or water contamination prior to becoming waste?