We reached out to Ryan C.C. Chin, Ph.D., the Managing Director and Research Scientist of MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places group, to learn about the initiatives his group is working on to reshape cities into more holistic systems and how the HeatSpring community of contractors, engineers, policy makers, and other building professionals can help and get involved.

MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places group has a vision to investigate responsive architecture and vehicle models to respond to human, environmental, and market dynamics with the desire to “persuade people to adopt sustainable behaviors.”


  • Engineers and contractors interested in incorporating renewable energies into building projects
  • Homeowners considering a shift to a smaller house
  • Professionals interested in the future of the built environment


  • Ways that remodeling transportation, infrastructure, energy distribution and policy will help reshape cities into more holistic systems
  • The benefits of building and utilizing smaller living spaces
  • How CityFARM is harnessing more solar power than any other urban farming project today
  • Opportunities to get involved with the Changing Places group and continue learning
  • And more…

Q – The Changing Places group wants to reshape cities into more holistic systems. What do you think needs to be changed first? Infrastructure? Transportation? Education? Energy? Policy? 

A – The truth is, all of our cities’ infrastructures need remodeling. However, transportation remodeling would have the most direct impact, as it has the higher likelihood of radical transformation in short windows of time. For instance, we can look at the product life cycles of a home, office, or a road. Buildings typically have life cycles of 50 to 70 years, but automobiles have a roughly 15-year life cycle. In that time frame, we can work on things like the electrification of mass transit vehicles (as of right now, less than 1% of these cars are electric), to make easier and immediate improvements on urban life. Of course, this happens through technology, and over a considerable amount of time.

Business models which allow users to maximize their resources, like car and bike sharing or peer to peer vehicle sharing, are also really taking off in this space. The newest concept that’s being developed is ride-splitting or pooling. (For instance, UberPool will allow two users in one area traveling in the same direction to split a ride in the car.) This pools the resource (car) and each person pays half the fare… plus, it’s one less car on the road!

New kinds of building systems that complement mass transport are also important. If we can create a solution that gets people who live far away to transit, we can reshape cities dramatically. Land use and space reallocation, or high density areas built around transit quarters, is critical to cities environmentally.

The energy challenge is much more significant, though, because when you build a nuclear power plant or a coal fire power plant, you build it to last a long time. So, over the last century, we’ve devoted a lot of resources to centralized power generation and distribution and not nearly enough on renewable power generation on a large scale. This will require a dramatic shakeup in the current paradigm when it comes to carbon taxation and getting the U.S. away from dirty fuel sources.

Looking at the dire water scarcity issue in California right now is interesting. Governor Brown enacted a conservation act for the 1st time ever, creating an urgent re-consideration about the current water policies in place. California uses over 3,000 ‘water districts’, which control water rights in designated geographic areas by employing their own rules regarding the access to and digging of wells. Basically, there is no uniformity in policy making, so San Diego focuses on desalination plants and Los Angeles does not. Obviously, this fractured approach is not working, and now is the time for the federal government to mandate country-wide conservation efforts.

Q – When it comes to the future of the built environment, what does a move toward smaller living spaces (like MIT’s 200 sq.ft. CityHome & the re-configurable CityOffice) mean from an environmental perspective?

A – There are both direct and indirect environmental implications of ‘living smaller’. If you lived in a house that was 1200 square feet and moved to a 200 or 600 sq. foot house, you’re reducing your environmental footprint directly by using less land, and heating/cooling a space with half the original volume. This also increases the overall density of the area, so a building with only 100 units could double its population, by using half the allotted land, and add an additional 100 units. This switch has indirect benefits, as well. Purchasing a unit like this would typically mean living further away from an urban area, as city land prices are extremely high, and using a car for transportation to and from work. But with a smaller footprint, you could locate a unit closer to your workplace and walk or utilize public transportation.

Q – What happens with the Changing Places prototypes? Does your team plan to create and distribute them? 

A – Many of our concepts are already starting to be sculpted. The best example is the CityCar concept. The prototypes were developed in 2003 and we worked with General Motors to develop a full scale working prototype and business plan for the urban mobility market. Next, we engaged with a European startup to create a commercial version of the Car.

The role of the media lab is to invent things that are 10 years away. We’re seeing larger industry trends move concurrently with ours. For instance, Uber is now investing in autonomous vehicles by giving a large grant to Carnegie Mellon. They’re moving towards a driverless taxi cab concept. The same is true with urban farming. In the last 3 or 4 years, many companies have began creating personal or industrial scale soilless systems. Both of these concepts are similar to our CityCar and CityFARM ideas respectively. Basically, we want our impact to lie in ‘de-risking’ potentially risky undertakings.

Q – Are you relying on solar power for any of your projects?

A – Right now, we use solar energy to power the CityFARM. In fact, it harnesses more solar power than any other urban farming project today, as most use 100% artificial light, and we’re combining natural and artificial light through a control network. We allow natural light to enter the room and then modulate the artificial light depending on the amount coming from the exterior. So, we supplement cloudy days with more artificial light, and vice versa. The plants are essentially batteries like those that a solar collector stores, the batteries just happens to be photosynthetic material!

Q – At HeatSpring, we offer courses on zero net energy homes, Passive House design, green roofs, building science, and more. How can our current students and alumni get involved with the work you are doing? 

A – 1. We see contractors eventually playing a role in the CityHome project with the creation of transformable walls, beds, and smart furniture kits. Architects and engineers could use one of our robotic kits to design new spaces. Analogous to this undertaking is The Lego Mindstorms Project, which developed a toolkit that children used to learn about electronics and the programming of Lego bricks with sensors. Now, it is sold as a pre-assembled kit which allows for you to create a robot or mechanical lifting machine. We wanna do a similar thing but with architectural interiors, where you might have parts with sensors and elements that allow people to translate furniture up and down. This would help people with prototyping and then potential commercial applications of our projects.

2. We offer a 3-day professional education course over the summer called “Beyond Smart Cities” taught with Kent Larson. It is essentially a crash course in safe, environmentally-sustainable and energy efficient design with respects to cities. Typically, we have about 40 people (graduate students, executives and management personnel, etc.) take the course every year, and many are international. We also offer Media Lab sponsorships. If individuals from a large corporation want to engage from an organizational perspective, they can become a sponsor and enjoy lab visits and conferences with our team.

3. We’re working toward creating an open source environment. So, if we build this toolkit, we will make sure that the software is open sourced. This means that someone could create an app or an API that MIT would allow. Maybe there will be code that can run our CityFARM someday!

Thank you, Dr. Chin! 

If you are creating and/or developing projects to better our world via renewable energy technologies, building science, and more, we are interested in learning about you and sharing your knowledge with our community!

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