MIT for Managers: Goodbye Traffic Lights?

Our biweekly exploration of new business ideas from the corridors of MIT.

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Preparing for Intelligent Intersections

Here’s a thought for motorists: The next time you’re sitting at a red light, savor the moment. If researchers from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab and the Ambient Mobility Lab have their way, your hours of waiting at traffic lights could be numbered. In an article published in PLoS One, a team led by MIT’s Carlo Ratti and Paoli Santi describe a system in which automobiles and transportation infrastructure would interact though an algorithm that would manage the safe flow of cars through busy intersections.

The technique, known as “slot-based design,” works like this: As cars equipped with special sensors move toward an intersection, they would send information about their speed and trajectory to a central algorithm that manages the intersection; it would have the ability to coordinate the information from all the other cars approaching the same point. Then an intelligent software system would manage the speeds of the various vehicles, using a type of cruise control, to guide the cars safely through the intersection: Some cars would slow down; others would accelerate, for a scene that might resemble this video from Black Sheep Films. “You want the car to use the intersection for the shortest possible time,” says Santi.

The researchers say that with self-driving vehicles, moving beyond traffic lights would be relatively easy to achieve. But they contend that there’s no reason why you couldn’t do it with today’s technology. The trickiest part, they say, will be preparing drivers to cede control of the gas pedal. The researchers are exploring ways to test their ideas in real-life settings.

Why India Needs Startups

With a GDP growth rate of 7.5%, one of the fastest business startup rates in the world, and a new emphasis on economic reforms that are long overdue, India’s economy is arguably one of the few bright spots in the world. Yet as a poor nation (per capita annual income is slightly more than $1,500) with 1.2 billion people, India’s challenges are daunting. The country is in the midst of an epic migration, with an estimated 400 million people relocating from rural villages to cities. And even though some 13 million new job seekers enter the Indian job market each year, the economy is generating less than half the jobs it needs.

India’s challenges were the focus of a one-day conference, titled “Startup India,” which brought together students, academics, entrepreneurs, and policy experts to MIT on April 3, 2016. The subject was particularly timely in light of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent announcements of a set of initiatives and financial incentives aimed at stimulating the development of new businesses and innovation in general. “Depending how these initiatives go, India could be poised for a big leap,” says Alok Singh, a former executive of Dell Inc. and one of the conference organizers.

India’s problems are broad and deep: a stifling bureaucracy that makes it difficult to start businesses; a lack of transparency in government policy; infrastructure that needs massive expansion; limited capital; and restrictions on foreign investment in many key industries, including telecom, pharma, and defense. But as the country’s population grows and becomes younger (the average age is expected to be less than 30 by 2020), the pressure for change is accelerating. “If you don’t create jobs, you’ll have massive issues both from a social perspective and from an economic perspective,” says Mukesh Aghi, formerly the CEO of L&T InfoTech, a global IT solutions and services company based in Mumbai, and now president of the U.S.-India Business Council.

Ten years ago, Aghi says, 90% of the graduates of the Indian Institutes of Management went to work for multinational companies, but “now they are going to startups.” The entrepreneurial opportunities at the top of nearly everyone’s list are technology, financial services, e-commerce, and clean energy. Currently, however, India lags far behind many countries in both access to electricity and access to the Internet. Relatively few Indians have smart phones, and only one-third have bank accounts. The country depends on coal for about 70% of its electric power, although for economic and environmental reasons Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic advisor to the Indian government, hopes the country will be able to become a leader in clean coal.

While some Indian entrepreneurs are targeting solutions for people with high disposable incomes at the top of the economic pyramid, some of the best opportunities may be in addressing the needs of people in the middle and bottom of the pyramid, says Gururaj Deshpande, an career entrepreneur and venture capitalist best known as a co-founder of Sycamore Networks and native of India. “There are all these burning problems. Finding low-cost solutions that really scale, whether it’s in the economic sector or the social sector, is what’s exciting in India.”

Subramanian, the economist, thinks technology will allow India to “leapfrog many of the intermediate phases other countries have gone through.” And while some of India’s near-term future will depend on innovation, he argues that the focus for the next two decades should be more concrete: attracting foreign capital and using the country’s low-cost labor pool to generate jobs. “If we get innovation too,” he says “that will be a bonus.”


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