Interview with Carlo Ratti: How will the future city look like?

Interview with Carlo Ratti: How will the future city look like?
photo credit: LarsKruger

“There is no need to redesign our cities. They can easily adapt to the new, light and invisible technologies brought about by the digital revolution. From an architectural point of view, the city of tomorrow will not look dramatically different from the city of today.”

“What will change will be our way of living in the city, at the convergence of the digital and physical world,” says Professor Carlo Ratti.

An architect and engineer by training, he has become a world-known innovator, listed in international rankings among those few shaping and influencing our future. He works in Italy and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he directs the SENSEable City Lab.

Among his many tasks, he has been selected special adviser to the European Commission on urban innovation. He describes himself as a great fan of Brussels. The Brussels Times took the opportunity to interview him, when he recently visited Belgium to lecture on smart cities and future urban issues.

Q: You are both an architect, engineer and inventor and you have exhibited at design, art and science museums around the world. Do you feel inspired by Leonardo da Vinci?

A: Although I admire the expanse of his imagination, I don’t think that Leonardo can be a model today. Yes, we are becoming increasingly trans-disciplinary, as he was. But, far from the idea of the solitary hero, we now need collaboration. It is the mere consequence of the larger body of knowledge that we need to master today.

At our labs and workshops we work in teams with people from all over the world. Each researcher has a different background, skills and personal history. Several people come from architecture and design, but we have also mathematicians, economists, sociologists and physicists. “Diversity” is one of our greatest assets.

robotic bar
Robotic bar where robots serve alcohol

Q: Among your many innovations, which ones would you like to highlight?

A: We have several projects in the field of mobility. For instance, the Copenhagen Wheel started as an experiment into human powered mobility. It allows transforming any bicycle into a smart electric hybrid, quickly and easily – by simply replacing the back wheel.

The Wheel also allows you to collect data about your cycling activity. The city can use the data to build new cycling paths and other cycling infrastructure. It’s all about feedback loops – how data can inform urban change.

We also recently experimented with new technologies for product traceability inside the Future Food District, the pavilion we designed at Expo Milano 2015.

The interiors of the pavilion resembled a sloping warehouse, with over 1500 products displayed on large interactive tables. As people browsed different products, information was made visible on suspended mirrors augmented with digital information. We think that such information can create new modes of interaction between producers and consumers.

Q: As regards buildings and cities, do you focus on single buildings or whole cities, and which are the problems you want to solve in modern city living?

A: We work at several scales. Italian-British architect and Bauhaus follower Ernersto N. Rogers used to say that design should deal with everything “from the spoon to the city”. In a similar way, we could joke that we today need to explore “from the microchip to the planet”.

Apart from scale, our projects always address real city problems, from energy to traffic, from waste to water management. We know that sensors and digital-control technologies are transforming our cities. The Internet is entering physical space and becoming Internet of Things. As a result, the information we can collect from the city around us can help us better understand, design and manage it. 

Q: Energy consumption is a hot issue in both residential and office buildings. How do you reduce the consumption by up to 40 %, as in a building you recently redesigned? 

A: We all know that buildings today operate by approximation, satisfying the peak demand rather than the actual need, whether with lighting or temperature or space. If one person is in a room, the whole thing will be lit and climate-controlled. A small class of nine students will use the same room as a class of 30. As our buildings become increasingly digital, they will be able to better respond to our behavior. 

We equipped a refurbished century-old building, the Agnelli Foundation headquarters in Torino, with sensors that monitor different sets of data, including occupancy levels, temperature, CO2 concentration, and the status of meeting rooms.

Based on this information, the building management system (BMS) responds dynamically, adjusting lighting, heating, air-conditioning, and room booking in real-time.Once building occupants set their preferred temperature via a smartphone app, a thermal bubble follows them throughout the building, as the fan coil units, situated in the false ceilings, are activated by human presence.

When an occupant leaves a given space, the room returns naturally to ‘standby mode” and saves energy – just like a computer does. By synchronizing energy usage and human occupancy within buildings we can create a more sustainable and responsive architecture – theoretically slashing energy consumption by up to 40%.

Q: As special adviser to the president of the European Commission on urban innovation, how is your input and advice taken into account? Is it possible to “redesign” a whole city?

A: I am excited about my role at the EU – the first one in my entire life in close proximity with politics. Understanding how the Berlaymont building works is for me a source of great curiosity…

Getting to your question, I don’t think that we need to redesign cities in Europe. Our stunning historic urban centers might struggle to adapt to 20th century technologies – heavy, invasive, incompatible with their fine-grain fabric.

However, they can easily adapt to the new, light and invisible technologies brought about by the digital revolution – helping foster a better lifestyle for their citizens. You don’t need to move bricks to pave the way to Uber, Airbnb or the mobility revolution promised by self-driving cars.

I also wanted to dispel an old myth. From an architectural point of view, I believe that the city of tomorrow will not look dramatically different from the city of today – much in the same way that the Roman walled city (urbs) is not all that different from the city as we know it today.

We’ll always need horizontal floors for living, vertical walls in order to separate spaces and exterior enclosures to protect us from the outside. The key elements of architecture will still be there, and our models of urban planning will be quite similar to what we know today. What will change will be our way to live in the city, at the convergence of the digital and physical world.

Q: The Commission has launched a European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP – SCC) and apparently approved hundreds of projects in city planning, transport, ICT, energy, air quality etc. What impact do you think that these projects will have on our cities?

A: As I often say in Brussels, I believe that the key factor is citizen participation. Many people think that municipal, national and super-national governments should make “smart cities” a reality. I think that it should be primarily citizens, through “bottom-up” dynamics. 

That isn’t to say that government should take a hands-off approach to urban development – it certainly has an important role to play. This includes supporting academic research and promoting applications in fields that might be less appealing to venture capital – unglamorous but nonetheless crucial domains such as municipal waste or water services.

The public sector can also promote the use of open platforms and standards in such projects, which would speed up adoption in cities worldwide. But in general governments should use their funds to develop an organic innovation ecosystem geared toward smart cities. By empowering smart citizens, they’ll transform their cities.

Q: When you visit Brussels, what is your impression of the city and how do you think it would like as a “smart city”?

A: I´m actually a great fan of Brussels. Its governmental aura often obfuscates its broader appeal. With its vibrant above ground and underground scene I find it like a start-up in the making…

Q: Which cities in Europe do you like most or are closest to your vision of a smart city with a high quality of life?

A: I cannot pick one, I love them all! As an architect who has been engaged in different capacities in most European cities, I entertain an open relationship with most of them. If I really had to reply, I would borrow from French writer Georges Perec.

In his classic book “Espèces d’espaces” from 1974, Perec described his ideal home as having many rooms, each of them facing a different area of Paris. My ideal city would similarly be a collage. It might have the climate of Naples, the latitude of Berlin, the atmosphere of Paris, the architecture of Venice, the hipness of Brussels and the nightlife of Barcelona!

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times


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