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More from DDI2014: MIT Media Lab, Hyper-Efficiency Units and Hyper-Compact Cars

Here is another post about DDI 2014 (check out my "Design vs Innovation" post for the first one). Before I begin, a disclaimer: I did think DDI 2014 was thought-provoking. I really did! It just happens that the topics that most caught my attention did so for bad reasons. In the present case, I'm referring to a presentation that was both on hyper-efficiency units and hyper-compact cars. Let's begin with hyper-efficiency units: tiny, transformable spaces that are made more livable thanks to robotic architecture. The motivation, as presented in the talk, is that cities want to make sure creative types and young graduates can find an affordable place to live within city boundaries instead of being pushed out by gentrification and similar forces. So far so good. But what the team tried to do is to fit as much as possible in the legally minimum livable space in New York City (although Kendall Square was also presented as a possible application area), which the slide said is 29 m^2 or 312 sq feet. Through tech devices that make tables and beds come out or fold in, the space can be made to seem larger than it really is.

Here is what I didn't like about this. The real issue in NYC is that the inaffordability stems from the ever-growing salary gap between Wall Street finance folks and the rest of NYC residents. Trying to mitigate the fact that their ever-increasing salaries allow landlords to extract ever-increasing rents from their tenants by making the tiniest possible space more livable (assuming the tech sensors and robotic arms and all that don't break down, although if it is the landlord's responsibility to fit the space he will surely add a hefty premium for that, and if it is up the tenant he/she probably won't have the money to splurge) seems like putting a Band-Aid on a very serious problem that will not be fixed by such measures. People move out of the cities because, once they get out of school, their idea of affordable housing involves more than staying in an apartment the size of two parking spots. (Plenty of NYers and NJers moved to the part of Pennsylvania right behind the state line so that their money could buy a moderately-sized house with a yard and fairly good schools.) You can put lipstick on a shoebox, but it's still a shoebox. 

The other thing that annoyed me was the description of self-driving mini-cars (that basically have neither a backseat nor a trunk) as the solution of the future to help fit more cars on parking lots. I don't remember what they were called so I'll call them hyper-compact. The speaker explained they have to self-drive to make sure they fit like sardines (from the French expression, "etre entasses comme des sardines", not sure if it carries over in English... imagine the feeling of being piled up in economy class in a long-distance flight and you get the idea) on the parking lot. The mostly young or youngish attendees in the audience were captivated by the demo video of the hyper-compact cars as the future method of choice to travel in cities.

But the thing is, people come to cities from elsewhere too. (Even Cambridge. You just have to sit for 25 minutes after the toll at the Cambridge/Somerville once you leave the Mass Turnpike because everybody is trying to merge on River Street to convince yourself a lot of people come to Cambridge from elsewhere too.) This might be difficult for hipster-creative-types-let's-bike-everywhere-gas-is-bad-do-we-have-a-medal-for-awesomeness-yet-we-are-so-much-better-than-everyone-else, but some people really do need to be driving their cars or pickup trucks for their work. (I drive a small car with excellent gas mileage. Blame someone else for ruining the environment.)

As much as, coming from Europe, I don't particularly care for SUVs or pickup trucks, if your work requires you to go to work sites or travel a lot in parts of the country where the roads can be really bad - and yes that includes New England - you really don't want to be driving in something that looks like the front bench of your truck wrapped in a glass cartridge. So what are you supposed to do? Leave your truck outside the city and pack all your gear and tools and material in "the cartridge"? Yeah right.

(The speaker did say the emphasis was in city building because apparently cities are where the cool things happen, or more accurately most of the population is supposed to be in cities. When I go to Paris I am amazed by the crazy illegal spots certain residents leave their Smart cars. But you can live and work in Paris without ever leaving the city or needing a car. That is not a situation you encounter too often in the US. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to investigate new frameworks that would be relevant to a broader subset of the US population, although the speaker, to his credit, did emphasize that this was a new model of high-density urban living designed with Kendall Square in mind, and did not pretend this would be applicable everywhere. But it seems like a lot of effort expanded for something just for Kendall Square.)

While the speaker mentioned Hamburg in Germany plans to be car-free by 2024 and Europe is so much more forward on those matters than the US, Europe also has a very different population density than the US. When I first came to America (which meant in my case coming to Cambridge, MA) I thought it was ridiculous to let 16-year-olds drive cars instead of having them wait until they turn 18 and are presumably a bit more mature. But an American friend of mine pointed out that Americans need cars to get around in ways that Europeans do not. It's more complicated than not having public transportation. In some parts of the country it's really not efficient to have a good network of buses.

You can read more about this project here, here and here.

I wonder why having more (energy-efficient) shared rides wouldn't work, similar to Google buses in San Francisco, but not for a single company. For instance, all the companies in Kendall Square could get together and finance a system of buses for their workers. With that level of scale (tens of thousands of people work in the area, according to the speaker), you should be able to finance the scheme effectively. It will look less futuristic than glass cartridges but it might actually work.


The hyper-compact car sounds like a solution in search of a problem. If you need to haul anything bulky, you likely need a trunk or at least a back seat. If not, in the sort of urban area where parking is that tight, mass transit is usually convenient (and parking tends to be expensive).

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