What is the SENSEable City Lab?
MIT’s SENSEable City Lab is a transdisciplinary research group that studies the interface between cities, people and technologies and investigates how the ubiquity of digital devices and the telecommunications networks that augment our cities are impacting urban living. With an overall goal of anticipating future trends, the lab brings researchers from different academic disciplines and forms partnerships with cities, the private sector and other universities to work on groundbreaking ideas and innovative real-world demonstrations. Since it’s inception in 2004, outcomes from the lab include: 200+ scientific papers published, 35+ real-world projects, 25+ exhibitions, 100+ conference keynote addresses, 5 numerous awards and representation in the global media.
The SENSEable on SENSEable project, led by the cultural anthropologist Luca Simeone, is an ethnographic study of SENSEable City Lab’s organizational culture that traces the lab’s radical transdisciplinary approach over a period of four months – February to May 2011. Through the summary information below and the video and pecha kucha links on this page, you will be able to uncover the key components and practices that foster such a mode of working and understand a little about what makes this unique research lab tick – enjoy!
Snapshots from the lab’s daily life
Fig. 1. A door constantly open.
Fig. 2. Decontextualized, boundary objects, plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them.
Fig. 3. Casually distributed biographies of objects telling the history of the lab.
Fig. 4. No seats assigned, no fixed personal spaces. Adjacency and permeability among a density of objects.
Fig. 5. Same room, different operational styles: mechanistic vs. organic.
Fig. 6. Independent and autonomous teams. Same lab, different project management approaches.
Fig. 7. Pecha-kucha lunch meetings: a management practice composed of coordination
Summary of Project Findings:
In the past 7 years roughly 350 collaborators, representing more than 60 different disciplines have collaborated on SENSEable City Lab projects- both expected disciplines, such as computer science, architecture, urban planning, data mining, data visualization and mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as theology, game programming, Russian and medieval studies, sport, music, asian arts and cultural economics etc.
In summary, with its transdisciplinary context-driven, problem-focused approach, the lab truly embodies what has been defined as ‘Mode 2’ knowledge production practice
(Gibbons, Limoges, et al. 1994). This is a practice that involves multi-disciplinary teams, brought together for short periods of time to work on specific, complex problems in the real world. Thus, the lab, through it’s practice is continually exploring new ways of developing the competency of transdisciplinary collaboration.
The organizational elements that favor this culture of transdisciplinarity are listed below. For more information, please contact Luca Simeone: me[at]luca.simeone.name
- Inquiry- and discovery-based learning
- Experiential learning
- Flexible and permeable boundaries
- Independent and autonomous teams
- Low formalization – tasks and responsibilities are redefined depending on the situation
- Decentralization – decisions made by those with knowledge
- High/complex horizontal and vertical integration – a network of authority and control based on knowledge of the task
- Mutual adjustment and redefinition of tasks and methods through joint problem-solving and interaction
- Frequent lateral communication, often in the form of consultation between people from different departments