Atlas of the Senseable City


(An excerpt from the new book by Antoine Picon and Carlo Ratti)

Book cover
New book by Antoine Picon and Carlo Ratti (Yale University Press, June 2023)

Introduction: Mapping the Future of Cities

Digital urban maps are everywhere. They are not limited — far from it — to geographic information systems used by professional cartographers and planners. They punctuate city life for everyone, popping up on individual computer and smartphone screens. They provide car drivers with current traffic conditions and the best itinerary to go from one place to another. They inform people of the presence of nearby monuments, shops, and restaurants. By clicking on the icons that represent these venues, one can access all kinds of information, from historical overviews to special offers, from menus to customer reviews. Digital maps are gradually replacing printed city guides. Meanwhile, features like Snapchat’s Snap Map enable us to know the locations of our friends, as well as what they are doing. Other maps offer profiles of people whom we might want to meet — or date.

Digital mapping amounts to a true revolution — one that goes hand in hand with the far more general shift involving the advent of a new city based on both atoms of matter and bits of information, on the pairing of places and websites, a city often characterized as “smart.” With this atlas, we reveal the emergence of a new, pervasive urban reality, which digitally augments the planned corridors and designed buildings that we see with our unaided eyes. (Are we even still able to see without our digital protheses, starting with our smartphones?) We hope to reveal here an urban landscape of not just spaces and objects, but also motion, connection, circulation, and experience. The path we will follow will thus lead us from the materiality of cities to the various aspects of urban life that used to appear less immediately tangible. Digital urban maps actually expand the realm of the tangible. Whereas traditional urban maps were perceived as abstractions from the city’s everyday physical existence, the cartographic documents discussed here appear to be inseparable from it, as if digital cities were now inseparable from their physical twins.

Digital map of lower Manhattan
Digital urban maps expand the realm of the tangible.

A Revolution in Urban Cartography

One measure of the present cartographic revolution is the diversity of maps that have become available. Thanks to increasing amounts of tracking data (from GPS [Global Positioning System] units recording latitude and longitude over time), we can plot all sorts of phenomena, from environmental pollution levels to the movements of car and bicycle traffic. All around the world, urban research laboratories, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab (SCL), which is directed by one of this book’s authors, are exploring new ways to visualize these data in the hopes of enabling a better understanding and management our cities. The SCL Trash Track project, for instance, with its spectacular maps that reveal the final journeys of a number of discarded everyday objects, is a contribution to the streamlining of our recycling infrastructure and practices.

Not only are experts in research laboratories using tracking data to invent new maps, so are amateur cartographers. By using free software platforms such as Google Maps, CartoDB, and OpenStreetMap, individuals and businesses can produce maps that are suited to their or their clients’ needs. In 2010, such democratization led the French sociologist Patrice Flichy to celebrate “the consecration of the amateur,” in contrast to the absolute rule of professionals that previously characterized sectors from tourism to journalism. When more people are able to participate, collaborative efforts can quickly establish shared information resources that are real competitors to official geographic institutions, such as Britain’s Ordnance Survey or France’s Institut Géographique National. These efforts can prove crucial in times of crisis. For instance, OpenStreetMap’s Japanese contributors were instrumental in answering the mapping challenges raised by the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami. For the first time in history, cartography is no longer the exclusive domain of specialized institutions and professionals. For a number of people, it has become a mode of expression and even a means of socialization, as shown by the multiplication of mapping parties all over the world that gather participants around cartographic as well as urban issues and serve as forums for meetings and exchanges.

Trash Track was one of the Lab’s first projects seeking to track and map the metabolism of a city of country. In collaboration with the City of Seattle, it deployed location-aware tags attached to different pieces of trash to reveal where everyday objects ended up through the city’s waste management system.

“The consecration of the amateur” should not, however, lead to the erroneous conclusion that we no longer need professional cartography or the institutions that produce it. Though it often competes with official geographic institutions, OpenStreetMap cannot carry out the complex geodesic operations that are necessary to provide an entirely reliable basis to the various cartographic layers piled onto it. It should be conceived as a new level of, rather than a substitute for, traditional cartography. This idea could very well be a fundamental characteristic of many emerging technologies that are currently transforming our world. Just as OpenStreetMap will never replace scientific cartography, the self-driving car should be envisaged as complementary to traditional modes of transport, beginning with public transit, rather than as a replacement for them.

Though hard to replicate in a printed book, digital mapping also allows us to visualize and interact with evolving situations. Real-time maps of road traffic are now so commonplace as to be unremarkable. Sanitation, sewage, and other types of urban infrastructure can be tracked in the same fashion. Furthermore, countless maps can be generated by plotting the positions of connected devices, such as smartphones, onto background maps. These dynamic maps are disturbingly blurring the distinction between surveillance on the one hand and cartography on the other. Also fading away is the dividing line between reality and simulation, since numerous apps allow extrapolation from recorded data in order to develop scenarios and test hypotheses of the urban system’s evolution.

In Singapore Calling, the Lab studied cell phone data to measure social and physical segregation in the city-state, and how its urban spaces help people overcome such divides by forcing them to encounter one another — on the bus, in the streets and in their workplaces.

Because of their capacity to transcribe in real time what is happening and to serve as starting points for systematic explorations of what is possible, maps are becoming diagnostic and decision-making tools for politicians, administrators, and technicians. But they also allow more subjective kinds of information to be recorded — from the emotions people feel in front of a monument to their opinions on a shop or restaurant. Apps such as Foursquare have capitalized on this new capacity of cartography to allow experiences to be shared. They have been joined by almost all the major players in the social media world, from Facebook to Twitter, who have also developed and deployed geotagging features.

At the same time, a whole host of tensions have cropped up: not only between objectivity and subjectivity, but also between a top-down view of management that risks veering toward technocracy and a bottom-up approach in which individuals and groups are all given a voice. On the one hand, there are projects such as IBM’s Operations Center for the municipal authorities of Rio de Janeiro, a constant stream of maps and surveillance-camera recordings that provides real-time tracking of city life, from meteorological events and disease outbreaks to policing and trash collection. On the other hand, there are a multitude of sites, from Yelp to Google Earth, that allow individuals to express themselves by sharing information.

The ubiquity of maps and the strategic issues related to their production and use reflect a profound transformation of digital culture that could be described as a “spatial turn,” to use the expression coined by the American geographer Edward Soja in relation to the evolution of the social sciences from the 1980s onward after the rediscovery of the importance of space as a determining dimension of the social. A digital spatial turn — to fully appreciate the meaning of this expression, it is useful to remember the ambition that accompanied the rise of the digital in the early 1990s: that it would be a pervasive reality distinct from the mere development of information technologies.

When it first emerged, digital culture tended to claim that it would lead to the disintegration of physical space, with the Internet set to overcome the former’s limitations, such as distance and the lack of connection that this often implied. This claim explains why the architect and urban theorist William J. Mitchell felt justified in predicting the inexorable decline of physical mobility in urban settings in his 1995 book City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. This was not the first time that people had dreamed of overcoming space and distance. From the telegraph to the telephone and the radio, the rise of telecommunications in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was accompanied by similar expectations. For the toastmaster of a banquet held in New York in 1868, Samuel Morse’s telegraph had “annihilated both space and time in the transmission of intelligence.”

In collaboration with Rio de Janeiro’s city planning commissioner Washington Fajardo, the Lab’s researchers behind Favelas 4D traveled on foot through the winding streets of Rocinha, one of the city’s biggest informal settlements. Using LiDAR scanners, they created 3D maps of the previously uncharted neighborhoods.

Yet the final outcome proved quite different than what had been imagined initially. The telegraph and the telephone did not abolish physical space. Similarly, space has not disappeared because of the digital revolution; rather, it has been transformed. Under the influence of technologies such as wireless networks and geolocation, physical space and digital content have increasingly hybridized. The current popular description is “augmented reality,” because atoms and bits are joining forces rather than remaining strangers. Both physical space and online space are in a sense enhanced by being ever more intricately interwoven. Anyone who is walking along the street looking at their smartphone screen is in a situation of augmented reality. The astounding boom in connected objects, collectively referred to as the Internet of Things, is taking us in the same direction: toward a digital culture that is proving to be profoundly spatialized. In this context, maps are acquiring a new dimension. It is not enough for them to plot out positions in space; they must also fix the points of convergence between the physical and the digital world. This convergence will be one of the main factors in the transformation of cities over the coming decades.

Ultimately, this transformation is what the present atlas is all about. Whether they involve flow visualization, data exchange, urban metabolism, or the physical experience of cities, the maps and projects included in this book are intended as explorations of possible future scenarios for cities. This is not a case of assigning fixed characteristics to the future, once and for all, in the way that earlier utopias attempted to define the traits of ideal cities and societies. What follows here does not set out to paint a finished portrait. Rather, it is a sketch of a shifting landscape, revealing the existence of escape routes that could lead toward various horizons. Atlases have always had the power to make us think and dream. Indeed, they enable us to explore places we have never been to, places that sometimes do not even exist in the time we live in. This is what we have tried to do here, portraying what we are just beginning to discover, a city that still partially belongs to the future rather than the present.

About the authors: Antoine Picon, an architect and historian, is the G. Ware Travelstead Professor of the History of Architecture and Technology at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Carlo Ratti, a practicing architect, is professor of urban technologies and director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (School of Architecture and Planning).

Atlas of the Senseable City


  1. See, for example, Anthony Townsend, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (New York, London: WW Norton & Company, 2013); Antoine Picon, Smart Cities: A Spatialised Intelligence (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015). See also the conclusion of this book.
  2. See Dietmar Offenhuber, Waste Is Information: Infrastructure Legibility and Governance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).

3. Patrice Flichy, Le Sacre de l’amateur: Sociologie des passions ordinaires à l’ère numérique (Paris: Le Seuil, 2010).

4. See for instance Pradyumna P. Karan and Unryu Suganuma, eds., Japan After 3/11: Global Perspectives on the Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Meltdown (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016).

5. Gwendoline l’Her, Myrian Servières, Daniel Siret, “La Cartopartie, une nouvelle forme de balade urbaine déployée par les villes,” Les Cahiers de la recherche architecturale, urbaine et paysagère, no. 3 (2018).

6. Natasha Singer, “Mission Control, Built for Cities: IBM Takes ‘Smarter Cities’ Concept to Rio de Janeiro,” New York Times, 3 March 2012,

7. Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989).

8. On the key differences between the information age and the digital era, see for instance Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Knopf, 1995).

9. See Vincent Mosco, The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 119.

10. William J. Mitchell, City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).

11. Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers (New York: Walker, 1998), 90.

12. Augmented reality is often used in a narrower sense, defined as those digital devices that overlap digital information onto the physical world for our eyes to see. Here we use the term in a broader sense: the augmentation of the physical world with digital information.



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