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Senseable City: interview with Carlo Ratti

Carlo Ratti graduated from the Polytechnic of Turin and the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris. Subsequently, he obtained his Masters in Philosophy and PhD in architecture from the Martin Center of the University of Cambridge, UK. Since 2000 he moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a researcher, to work with Hiroshi Ishii at the MIT Media Lab, currently directs the SENSEable City Lab.
Esquire magazine included it among the “Best and Brightest”, Forbes among the “Names You Need to Know” and Wired in the list of “50 people who will change the world”. Fast Company named him among the “50 most influential designers in America” and Thames and Hudson among the “60 innovators shaping our creative future”.
Two of his projects conducted with the Carlo Ratti Associati studio, namely the Digital Water Pavillion and the Copenhagen Wheel, were included in the list of “Best inventions of the year” by Time magazine (2007 and 2014).
His studies on the “Smart City” are famous all over the world and his books read by thousands of people.

1 – Do you think that the archetype of the “house”, perceived as a set of functions as much as a container of human values, can still evolve? How does this happen? Despite for home automation, what are the transformations that are taking place regarding the way of living?

I believe that the main evolution does not concern so much the shape of the spaces; instead, it involves the uses. Today technology allows to live in a different way, by being, for example, connected at home and by carrying out there many activities that once required ad hoc spaces.

Furthermore, technology gives a better understanding of these changes: it enables people to investigate new ways, to capture and to interpret data concerning the way in which the humanity lives in places, in order to improve the quality of life. The applications are manifold: from monitoring the state of health, to the personalized control of the hygrometer well-being.

E-commerce deserves a separate debate. Moreover, the habits of consumption are changing. On the one hand, people are getting more and more used to receive the products they buy directly at home; on the other, they keep alive their need for physical experience of the spaces, improving the conditions of uses and requiring the places for more interactions. For this reason, as Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA), with the Future Food District at Expo Milano 2015, the exploration has concerned a new way of living the shopping experience.

2 – Considering the current architectural phase and the inconsistency of forecasts, our belief is that the city of the future will include what is built today. In your opinion, what are virtuous examples of cities of the future currently under construction? Why are they positive examples? What are their characteristics?

Today we are in a phase of great experimentation. Each city is exploring different levels of the paradigm known as Senseable City, starting with its identity and the needs of the people living there. For example, Singapore has undertaken very interesting projects regarding the mobility of the future, instead, Copenhagen is more focused on sustainability, Boston on civic participation, Milan on the integration of nature and architecture, and so on.

3 – In your opinion, can participation in architecture, which is the involvement of people / users / inhabitants in the design process, the mapping of waste or of data, be the future of the least-favored and poorest cities? If so, how is this possible? Do you know theoretical or present solutions that can contribute to a positive and sustainable growth of developing Countries? Since even in the poorest Countries, everyone, or almost everyone, owns a cell phone and moves to the cities.

I would make a much broader reasoning. Nowadays, innovation can really happen everywhere and in various ways (from the involvement of citizens in the city planning to the mapping of waste). In other words, there is not a single development model.

A practical example can be the link between urbanization and population explosion on the African continent. This boom has led to several problems; among many, a remarkable example can be the mobility of Nairobi. The streets of the city are made for a population of about 350 thousand inhabitants, but today they are used by over three million people. The result is that Nairobi is one of the most congested cities in the World. However, technology can help. Twende Twende (in Swahili it means “let’s go”) makes picture by low-cost cameras to which it applies algorithms that calculate traffic flows. Twende Twende offers a solution that does not involve an equally costly refurbishment of road infrastructure; rather it aims to regulate traffic in the most efficient possible way.

4 – Nowadays, the attempt is to hide the technological or structural “trick” behind a mirror for larks. How is it possible to guarantee that architecture remains sincere while accepting a multitude of technological solutions that, however virtual, still need physical components? How to implement honest integration? Is it necessary to adapt new technologies to architectural elements or to rethink architectural components according to latest technological improvements? Or both things?

Both things are necessary. I think that a key is about reconsidering technology not as an end but as a means. Cedric Price, the great radical English architect, once said: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”.

5 – How do you develop the combination between time and technology? What do you think of the fact that time and technology move at two completely different speeds? How is it possible to upset the structure of cities knowing that the new applied system would probably become obsolete after a few years? How to guarantee a sustainable “upgrade”? How do you consider the integration between historical memory and Smart City?

Technology updates quickly but that does not happen with people’s needs. If these becomes a starting point, obsolescence will not result as a key problem… Furthermore, as Richard Sennett points out in his latest book The Open City, it is possible to work with open systems which are more flexible and capable of being improved incrementally.

6 – How do you relate to technology? What do you use it for? Per day, for how long do you use technological devices? What effect does technology have on your daily life? How did it change your way living? How has your way of interacting with the city and buildings changed? Instead, how has your way of interacting with other people changed? In brief, what are the positive and negative aspects?

Personally, I like technology and I recognize its potential. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it must be observed from the right point of view. It should not be a substitute tool for human relationships and interactions with the environment around us, rather it should be considered an element with that experiment and enhance these exchanges. It is only an extremely efficient additional means that helps in facing daily challenges.

7 – When, how and why did you decide that Architecture would have been your way?

The constant influence of my grandfather, Angelo Frisa, has probably played a role. In the Twentieth Century, he worked as a structural engineer and he made great works in Italy and abroad, such as the Olympic Stadium in Rome and the Fiat factory in Mirafiori. I started my studies first in Turin, then in France and England, more precisely, at the Polytechnic of Turin, at the École des Ponts in Paris and at the University of Cambridge. I have dealt with engineering and architecture, but always with the desire of exploring new topics. For example, I was passionate about IT, physics and the link between the city and the environment. After a few years, the various scattered points have finally started to line up.

8 – To date, what is your definition of Architecture?

To me, Architecture is the unceasing effort to improve what everybody is surrounded by.

9 – What advice would you give to future architects?

My suggestion is to be curious and free in thought. Future architects should not be slaves to the too many mannerisms that still weaken Architecture.

As for curiosity, I always liked an exchange from the movie “Jules et Jim”, in which Jim recalls the words of his professor Albert Sorel: “Travel, write, translate, learn to live anywhere, and start immediately. The future belongs to the curious ones by profession.”

Translated into English by Elisa Goi.

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Marco Grattarola AdministratorKeymaster
He graduated in Architecture Sciences at the Polytechnic School of Genoa with a thesis on “Active Architecture”. He did two internships, in an art gallery and in an architecture studio. He currently attends the Master at the Polytechnic of Milan. His interests range from music to drawing, in which he experiments with curiosity and passion.
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