Our cities have assimilated the technological innovations of recent years to become “outdoor computers”
At MIT we have focused on the importance of an ethical approach to the use of large amounts of data
I believe that the construction of the city is a collective exercise
Carlo Ratti is an engineer and an architect who combines research and teaching activities with those of designer. For some years he has been working at MIT where he teaches and directs the Senseable City Lab, a research laboratory that investigates and proposes visions for the city of the future. Despite carrying out his research at the highest levels, Carlo Ratti does not limit himself to mere theoretical investigation. Thanks to the support of his Turin-based studio, he puts his ideas into practice. One example is the Future Food District created for the Milan Expo in 2015 where digital and robotic technology was placed at the service of the consumer to involve them in a new and total experience in the choice of food products.
What does the MIT Senseable City Lab do that you manage?
The Senseable City Lab applies a transdisciplinary approach to urban planning. Our cities have assimilated the technological innovations of recent years to become “outdoor computers”, thanks to a vast number of sensors that make them more intelligible. From this observation, we began to imagine a “Senseable City”, capable of interpreting the needs of citizens and communicating with them. The applications are many: from energy to traffic, from waste to water management; to involve the population and trigger virtuous models of participatory planning.
Thanks to technology, today’s man lives more and more inside homes and cities within which he can interact, how does his vision of architecture compare with all this?
If, as is often said, architecture is a kind of third skin – after the biological one and the clothes we wear – for a long time it was actually a rigid covering, almost a corset. We like to work to ensure that tomorrow, thanks to digital technologies in locations, the constructed environment can better adapt to our habits, giving life to a dynamic architecture, modelled on the lifestyle that takes place inside, and not vice versa, thus allowing us to live better within our cities. For example, like Carlo Ratti Associates, we have transformed an existing building in Turin into a modern office that houses the Agnelli Foundation, where workers can interact with sensors to customise their preferences, from temperature to humidity, by creating a dynamic microclimate inside the building.
Does living in the present also mean making our behaviours more and more available and visible to the large private companies that manage them, in all of this do you see any potential risks?
The advent of smartphones in our lives has produced an unprecedented amount of data. This pool of information, often in the hands of large private companies, continues to grow exponentially and it is necessary to make it accessible to citizens and institutions to allow us to make more responsible and informed choices. At the same time, it is necessary to make collective decisions about who can access this data and which uses are allowed. For this reason, at MIT we have focused on the importance of an ethical approach to the use of large amounts of data. In 2013 we launched the “Engaging Data” initiative, involving leading figures from politics, academia, finance and privacy experts.
Among the many activities that a city hosts, an important part is made up of commercial activities. As e-commerce progresses, what will happen to activities that necessitate a physical space?
If on the one hand e-commerce has simplified our way of shopping, modifying our consumption habits, at the same time our need to experience various places resists, while asking for spaces for greater interaction. Like Carlo Ratti Associates (CRA), we have explored these themes in the Future Food District at Expo Milano 2015. An authentic story is displayed between the shelves and counters: when the hand approaches the product, a screen indicates its nutritional properties, its origin and the journey that brought it to those counters. Paraphrasing Mr. Palomar, of Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name, while walking in a fromagérie, a shop is like a museum and the products on display tell stories and experiences. Technology cannot replace experience but can make it more immediate and real.
Talking about the future also means dealing with robotics and artificial intelligence. In your opinion, in which human activities will they bring the most evident changes over the next decades?
Today, Industry 3.0, based on robotic machines increasingly encounters Industry 4.0, interconnected and automated, based precisely on the Internet of Things. The opportunities are interesting, since they permit the delegation of some tasks to machines and robots so we can focus on activities that are still purely human, such as creativity. It brings to mind, for example, Constant’s utopia, according to which the Homo ludens of the future – an evolution of the one imagined by Huizinga – put the game at the centre of his life, applying creativity to everyday experiences.
His clear knowledge of the present and his visions of the future are supported by solid philosophical and scientific bases that are the result of years of research. How do you manage to make this comprehensible to political institutions that play a fundamental role in building cities? I say this because it seems to me that if on the one hand, companies, researchers and designers offer continuous challenges in building the future, politics often has difficulty keeping up. Are there any topics that you consider particularly important?
I believe that the construction of the city is a collective exercise in which everyone, from architects to institutions to citizens, plays a different but equally essential role. We should therefore develop new ways of working that are collaborative and multi-disciplinary, opening up new communication channels to involve as many stakeholders as possible. I like to imagine a “choral work” in which architects and designers simply become mediators of a collective body, with institutions, companies and citizens directly involved in possible solutions. The best way this can happen is through concrete projects, capable of aligning different subjects.
In addition to being a designer, you are also a teacher. Do you think there are mandatory steps that a student should take to become a designer capable of seriously understanding the present?
Steer your course along the border between different thoughts, different disciplines, different places. Explore and be curious.