Professor Carlo Ratti is the sort of guy you would want to have a dinner party conversation with – he is not just a visionary who is far ahead of his peers, he also acts on his visions, making him an innovator and a man of action. Trained in both architecture and engineering at some of the best universities on both sides of the Atlantic, Carlo has a talent for making the impossible possible.
Carlo doesn’t just dream and theorize, he builds and innovates. He holds several patents and has co-authored over 250 publications, including “The City of Tomorrow” (Yale University Press, June 2016, with Matthew Claudel).
Two of his projects – the Digital Water Pavilion and the Copenhagen Wheel – have been included by TIME Magazine in the list of the ‘Best Inventions of the Year’.
In addition, he has earned accolades from several reputable publications as one of the ’50 Most Influential Designers in America’, ‘50 people who will change the world’ and as one of the ‘Names You Need To Know’.
Carlo currently teaches at MIT and also serves as co-chair of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, and as special adviser on Urban Innovation to the President and Commissioners of the European Commission. He is also a founding partner of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati.
Chief Editor Jan Yong had a scintillating conversation with him recently.
APR: As co-chair of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, what is your vision of the perfect future city? Which areas / countries in the world do you think have the greatest potential to put into effect this ‘perfect city’?
CR: I don’t think there is – or there ever will be – a “perfect city”. What I see is many cities experimenting in different ways all around the world. For instance, in Asia, Singapore is carrying out very interesting experiments with smart mobility; in Europe, Copenhagen is working very actively
on sustainability; in America, Boston is focusing on citizens’ participation – to mention just a few.
APR: As special adviser on Urban Innovation to the President and Commissioners of the European Commission, what are some of the feasible and doable urban innovations that are being proposed? Can these innovations be applied worldwide?
CR: Actually, here I would like to refer to the list of top-10 Urban Innovations that we have prepared at the World Economic Forum Global Future Council: http:// www3.weforum.org/docs/Top_10_Emerging_Urban_ Innovations_report_2010_20.10.pdf
The list includes services and technologies such as digitally re-programmable infrastructure, sensor-laden transportation solutions, new sharing platforms, mobility on demand, intelligent street poles, and urban farming with hydroponic systems.
APR: Urbanization being the trend in the developing world e.g. Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, KL, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc, how best to avoid the usual negative impact such as congestion, spiraling house prices, urban slums, etc.
CR: Urbanization means concentration – and with concentration we always have negative effects. What we can do is use new technologies in order to alleviate them.
In emerging countries, I am particularly interested in the concept of “leapfrogging”. Every technology needs to start somewhere – and often it starts in the developed world.
Hence at the beginning, new technologies can increase existing societal gaps. However, subsequent dissemination can cause a “leapfrogging” effect, and help reduce the gap.
Take for instance what happened with cell phones – when they first started, they were the exclusive preserve of the Western upper classes. Fast forward a couple of decades and they have become tremendously widespread across the world, in particular in the African continent, where countries without an existing telecommunications infrastructure are now leapfrogging into the future.
Different parts of Africa are now leading the way in many applications, from mobile banking to the empowerment of farmers with real-time crop information. This is one of many signs of how innovation developed in emerging markets can then spread across the world.
APR: As both an architect and engineer, how does this influence your work – do you look at a project from the points of view of both an architect and an engineer? Are these skill sets and knowledge complementary or do they stand in the way with each other sometimes?
CR: I try to look at a project from one point of view – that of the people who will be affected by it. I believe that architecture or engineering should always have in mind people’s quality of life.
Regarding our design methodology, it seems to me that collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches are increasingly important today – also thanks to the Internet culture and new paradigms of online collaboration. So in our teams, we have architects and engineers, but also planners, physicists, mathematicians, social scientists, etc.
APR: Among all your works, which ones are you most proud of?
CR: I cannot choose among them! In different ways, they all represent something that I am proud of.
APR: How much of technology (including Artificial Intelligence and robotics) do you use in your works?
CR: Technology is fundamental for our vision, both at Carlo Ratti Associati office and the MIT Senseable City Lab. We want to explore the impact of digital technologies on the built environment. However, we never consider technology as an end in itself – but as a means towards creating meaningful experiences in space.
For instance, let’s think at how architecture has often been described as a kind of ‘third skin’ – in addition to our own biological one and our clothing. In fact, for too long, architecture has functioned more like a corset: a rigid and uncompromising addition to our body.
Digital technologies, including AI and robotics, finally have the potential to transform it, and give form to an endlessly reconfigurable environment. In the future, we could imagine an architecture that adapts to human need, rather than the other way around – a living, tailored space that is molded to its inhabitants’ needs, characters, and desires.
APR: How will transportation be like in 10 years’ time? Will Hyperloop become a common transport along with flying contraptions?
CR: I am passionate about the sharing of mobility. In fact, cars in the USA are idle 95% of the time on average, so they are ideal candidates for the sharing economy. By one estimate, every shared vehicle could remove about 10 to 30 privately owned vehicles from the street.
Such dynamics might grow exponentially with the advent of self-driving. Self-driving vehicles promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life, because they will blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation.
“Your” car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family – or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood or social-media community. This could lead to a city in which – at least theoretically – everyone could travel on demand with just a small fraction of the number of cars in use today.
However, we can also have nightmarish scenarios, for instance, if self-driving were to become so cheap that people would prefer jumping into a car than, say, taking the subway. In that case, our cities could easily turn into gridlocks. This is why we need politics to take action in order to help us move towards utopia instead of dystopia.
With regards to the Hyperloop, I do not think that it will be transformative. My view is that there are technological hurdles with Hyperloop, but I think that they could be solved.
My point is more philosophical: do we really need it? The other week I was in London and I had to go to Paris. I could have travelled from the city center to Heathrow Airport, flown 45 minutes, and then taken another transfer from Charles de Gaulle airport to Paris city center. This is the kind of experience that Hyperloop proposes between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with long transfers to suburban stations and then a short trip in a small, dark tube.
Instead, I enjoyed very much spending two hours on the Eurostar train. I was online, the comfortable seat became my workplace during the trip and I could enjoy the gorgeous English and French landscape all around.
During the journey, I thought that I had the most beautiful office in the entire world! As our trains – and tomorrow, our self-driving cars – become an extension to our offices (or homes or even bedrooms :-), shouldn’t we focus on making them more comfortable and point-to-point, instead of thinking about such a 20th century idea of fast travel between large hubs? Then, the journey could really become the destination!
My understanding is that cost per passenger at equal capacity is not very different between high-speed railway and Hyperloop (based on released data, the maximum capacity of a railway line seems to be equivalent to ~ 10 Hyperloop lines). Out of the two, I would still choose the former – as I did the other day in London.
APR: What will the future car look like? A personal drone like E-Hang or other types of personal flying contraption?
CR: We might travel in larger vans that will allow increased sharing. Also, self-driving cars might become an extension of our houses. While travelling, we will be able to do a lot of activities we usually do at home – from reading a book to taking a nap, to eating, texting … and, why not, making love?
APR: What motivates you?
CR: I like the idea of being a mutagen of the artificial world. Let’s take Herbert Simon’s definition of design: “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are … Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.” As such, I like to see designers as agents that produce mutations, accelerating the transformation of the present into how it “ought to be”.
In our latest book on “The City of Tomorrow”, we call this approach ‘futurecraft’: posing future scenarios (typically phrased as ‘What if?’ questions), entertain their consequences and exigencies, and share the results widely, to enable public conversation and debate. In this context, design can be used as a systematic exploration and germination of possible futures, intervening at the interface between people, technologies and the city. My favorite projects are the ones that explore the potential of the present, as discussed above.
APR: What kind of ideal world would you like to live in?
CR: I quite like the world we are living in today. However, if you wanted me to pick an utopia, I would probably opt for the New Babylon, the mid-20th century dream by Dutch artist Constant. He once wrote to describe it: “In the worldwide city of the future … a society of total automation, the need to work is replaced by a nomadic life of creative play, a modern return to Eden. The ‘homo ludens’, whom man will become once freed from labor will not have to make art, for he can be creative in the practice of his daily life.”
APR: Tell us some exciting projects you are currently working on.
CR: There are so many exciting projects on the table, so it is not easy to pick … I will just mention a couple for both Senseable City Lab and Carlo Ratti Associati design office.
At the Senseable City Lab, we are working on ‘Treepedia’, a project that applies Artificial Intelligence to Google’s Street View images to create a detailed map of the green canopy in cities across the planet; and we are developing ‘Underworlds’, a project that samples sewage in order to get a better understanding of all viruses and bacteria colonies in cities – something we could call the ‘urban microbiome’.
At the same time, at Carlo Ratti Associati, we are working on ‘Sun&Shade’, a system for climate remediation which we unveiled in Dubai a few weeks ago; and on the ‘Paris Navigating Gym’, a floating gym powered by the energy collected from people’s exercises.
All of our projects can hopefully contribute to the promotion of more informed urban living …[/ihc-hide-content]