Cloudcommuting by Dimitris Papanikolaou (DDes)–Deans’ Design Challenge finalist

This is one in a series of interviews with the finalists of the Deans’ Design Challenge. 

Dimitris Papanikolaou (DDes candidate) is an inventor, designer and maker, and licensed architect. He received his architecture and engineering degree from the National Technical University of Athens and his MS in Architecture Design and Computation from MIT. He joined the MIT Media Lab as a research fellow in the Smart Cities group and completed a second MS in Media Arts and Sciences. His research focuses on the market economy of vehicle sharing programs. His project Cloudcommuting is a finalist in the 2014 Deans’ Design Challenge.

What is the focus of your research? My dissertation, titled Governing the Commons of Mobility, compares the limits of efficiency of the dynamic pricing social mechanism to a system with centralized control, using Boston’s Hubway bike sharing system as a case study. The motivation of this research is how to create intelligent urban systems whose intelligence comes not from the decisions of a central computer but from how people make decisions, interact, and transact.

What prompted you to enter the Deans’ Design Challenge? I have a quite entrepreneurial mindset; in 2009 my project won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge as part of the Smart Cities group. When I came here, I had the idea that I have to bring this to life, and the Design Challenge dropped the opportunity in front of me. Urban Life 2030: that’s what I’m doing, working on how urban life will be in the future. I jumped on the wave.

Tell us about your project.  We’re creating the first platform for point-to-point vehicle sharing systems that pay users to rebalance vehicles instead of trucks and employees. The bike sharing industry is already in 700 cities, so it’s growing rapidly­. In every city, imbalanced trip patterns cause some stations to end up empty and others full. Existing bike sharing operators spend nearly 3 billion dollars per year paying trucks, employees and gas–emitting more than 220 thousand tons of CO2–to move bikes from full to empty stations. Yet there are severe limitations to the maximum number of bikes that a truck can reposition within one day. It’s complex, expensive and inefficient. We use this money to pay self-interested users to do this work. We believe that just by mobilizing the crowd, the numbers can be better, the performance will be better and it’ll provide opportunities to people. So that’s one of the strong motivations of the project.

Who’s on the team? I met Danial Lashkari, who has a PhD in computer science from MIT and is working on a PhD in economics at Harvard, through a course we both took in market design. Chih-Chao Chuang, a colleague from the MIT Media Lab, is studying existing car-sharing companies and their strategies for locating stations. In addition, we are mentored by Scott Griffith, former CEO of ZipCar, and Scott Mullen, former director of operations at Hubway.

My dissertation advisor, Spiro Pollalis, has been very supportive. I also work with Jeffrey Schnapp and with José Gómez-Ibáñez on the economic analysis. He helped formulate the question as a comparison between centralized methods and decentralized–collective intelligence–methods of rebalancing.

How did you become interested in this topic?  When my MIT advisor asked me to try to figure out if incentives can improve the performance of Mobility on Demand systems, I thought it would be a problem I would solve in 6 months or a year and then return to research on industrial systems. But the more I worked, the more I became fascinated with collective intelligence and how smart systems and smart cities can derive their intelligence from the way people interact and transact. It was a very gradual process.

What impact do you imagine this project having?  This could have a dramatic impact on how people will be moving in cities in the future. It could unlock potential growth that is blocked by operational limitations. Currently, we don’t see significant growth in the car-sharing industry because of rebalancing, but we believe our project might create an ecosystem that would allow other types of mobility-on-demand systems to start growing around us.

We’re redefining how smart cities operate. We can use new technology and design together with policy to create systems that derive their intelligence from the way humans make decisions. That’s one of the things I’m hoping to change in the future.

How would winning the Deans’ Design Challenge help you advance your goals?  You need this kind of small but significant kick to put together the right people and motivate yourself to work more. It’s an honor and a validation.

The Deans’ Challenges contribute significantly to exposing students to the real world. I think design schools still don’t provide students enough exposure to entrepreneurial work or to other fields—economics, social sciences, engineering, innovation, science—and these are important if you try to solve the world’s most pressing problems. By default these problems are interdisciplinary.

It’s important that there’s a Design Challenge this year. The way the problem is framed immediately puts design inside. I think design is going to solve much of our future challenges. What are you going to do with all the disciplines if you are not able to synthesize them into solutions? That’s what design is doing.