MIT's CityCar and the Future of Uncertain

Over the next two weeks on the Cooper-Hewitt Design Blog, students from an interdisciplinary graduate-level course on the Triennial taught by the Triennial curatorial team blog their impressions and inspirations of the current exhibition,‘Why Design Now?’.

Just what, exactly, is MIT’s CityCar?

It is a car, yes, and a tiny one at that. It looks a bit like a jellybean and it’s stackable, like a grocery cart.

But these facts only tell part of the CityCar’s story.

The CityCar is being imagined by William Mitchell, the project’s lead designer, as a kind of functioning organism within a city. The car is designed to be shared – people can rent it by the minute, and drive it where they need to go. The CityCar is also intended to store electricity from the city’s power grid and relay real-time information to city managers about traffic patterns and flow.

The inspiration for the CityCar comes partly from the work of an engineer named Abel Wolman, who in 1965 introduced the concept of “urban metabolism” – the idea that urban systems functioned as organisms. The CityCar is the embodiment of Wolman’s theory: an object intended to function as a productive member of a larger whole.

It’s all a wonderful and compelling idea, but quite far from realization. The CityCar exists today as little more than a rendering – the team at MIT is still months away from building even a working prototype. And many of the technologies being discussed for the CityCar – such as batteries capable of storing and distributing power from a grid – though technically feasible, are fraught with problems.

Whether or not we ever see a CityCar on the street will depend largely on whether we make other changes to our cities first. Do we install charging stations for electric vehicles? Do we close off city cores to private vehicles, making something like the CityCar more necessary?

If the CityCar is being thought of in relation to a larger whole, a kind of urban body, that body must necessarily change to accommodate the CityCar. In this way, the CityCar points to both the possibilities and uncertainty surrounding the urban landscape of tomorrow.

John Cantwell
School of Visual Arts Design Criticism MFA program