In case you didnt get the memo, the Smart Cities lab at MITyes, that MITisnt called the Smart Cities lab anymore. Its now called the City Science Initiative, but its intent is still the same as it was with the original 2003 foundingnamely, to find all the best, most efficient ways for humans to live together in urban environments.
And how do you find those best, most efficient ways? You study, of course. You study the systems. You study the systems within those systemsand then the systems within those systems. And then you study how well those systems work together.
To get a grasp on this, imagine your living room in its current state. The smartest thing you have may be your TV. Perhaps you also have a Roomba to sweep the room. Now, imagine that all the furniture in the room had a level of smarts somewhere between the Roomba and your TV. Now you need a system to manage all these things so they dont, say, smack into each other while trying to clean at the same time or overload an outlet by all plugging into the same circuit at the same time.
Now youre studying a system of smart systemsa microcosm of smart cities. And, like the researchers at MIT and elsewhere, youre trying to figure out how all these systems will work together before the furniture gets all kinds of too smart for its own good.
Rejecting the label
So, why not call the MIT lab a smart cities lab anymore? Well, some of it is academic, some of it is personal and some of it is, well, marketingmarketing with negative connotations, you might say.
We felt that smart cities have been coopted by people in industry and other academic fields, admitted Dr. Ryan C.C. Chin, managing director of the City Science Initiative and research scientist at the MIT Media Lab. The term means so many things to so many different people.
Were all about going beyond smart cities to figure out what are the disruptive strategies, policies, design and thinking that can move beyond it. In many ways, the area of smart cities is mainstream and even a bit traditional, he said.
So the MIT City Science Initiative is moving past standard smart cities approaches, such as the deployment of IT infrastructure into the city concept.
Thats certainly important, though, Chin added. But the IBMs and the Ciscos of the world should be doing thatand they are. Disruption and reinvention is the next step. Thats what we are interested in now.
Work on the smart grid is one of those areas of disruption and innovation that the lab is currently studying.
But thats not technically where they started. They started with transportation (EVs, battery use, battery storage), and transportation is still a large focus, though its moved to engulf behavior, land use, millennial trends away from private ownership, combining ridesharing with the concept of autonomous vehicles, and understanding patterns.
Unlocking the pattern
Studying patterns in technology and use is how to make all those smart city systems workright down to the details and infrastructure backbones, like a smart grid.
Smart grids, smart meteringa smart city should have all of those things, as well as home energy management systems. Those are all critical, certainly, if we want to development things like alternative transportation networks, Chin said. For that, you need a smart grid. It will be impossible to transition to a fully electric economy without the smart grid.
Chin pointed out the transportation/smart grid connection is quite evident in countries such as Norway, which sold more Teslas than all of the U.S. in 2013, even though they have only five million people (or about size of Massachusetts) in population. Still, though, the country has had issues with charging those vehicles simultaneously.
And thats exactly where we circle back to the smart grid.
Its funny because, at MIT, when we imagine a smart grid, but what we really mean is the genius gridthe grid that can do everythingas opposed the not-so-dumb grid, which is the early phases of what the industry is looking for, he added.
So, what other systems is MIT studying in this attempt to push from a not-so-dumb grid to a genius grid. What will be necessary?
Chin says first and foremost on the list is energy storage, in order to get the levels of renewable energy envisioned in a smart city.
We can sense and put smart meters everywhere, but without the storage, we cannot go beyond fossil fuels with any significant degree, he said. That storage development takes awhile though. With an average of 10-15 years for new tech, traditional battery storage will be the go-to tech for now.
Chin also points to energy conservation as an important step to that genius grid and smart cities, though he is intrigued that, most of the time, pricing schemes like time-of-use are tapped into to push this idea when, according to recent research, social incentives may work just as well, if not bettermaybe two or three times better if experiments conducted in Switzerland is any indication.
Social incentive and social pressure is more effective in many ways than making it more expensive, Chin noted.
EVs, microgrids and renewable adoption blending into smart city environments also brings in those social incentivesif in larger forms than neighbors competing over single home energy use. But all are layers and systems within the vision of a smart city.
The lab is looking especially at one unique aspect of microgrid use: as a cornerstone of an EV/home charging system.
Microgrids could be ideal for partially spent EV battery storage for the grid, creating a potential buffer. And that enables a secondary market for EV batteries that will lower the cost of ownership and use of EVs and lower the barrier for renewable power to take off, Chin added. So, essentially, youd take your EV battery from your car and plug it into your home microgrid.
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