Carlo Ratti is an architect and engineer by training who practices in Italy and teaches at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. He graduated from the Politecnico di Torino and the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, later earning his MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK. Carlo presents around the world on the theme of Smart Cities, including TED 2011, and his work has been showcased in leading publications and exhibitions globally. In 2011, Fast Company named him as one of the “50 Most Influential Designers in America” and Wired Magazine featured him in their “Smart List 2012: 50 people who will change the world.” Carlo Ratti Associati aims to develop innovative design projects, merging high profile architecture and urban planning with cutting-edge digital technologies, so as to contribute to the creation of not just smart but also “senseable” cities and buildings. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn about Carlo’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On pursuing a multi-faceted profession
I started studying engineering at Politecnico in Turin and at the Ecole des Ponts in Paris. Then, after graduation, while my classmates were busy entering the job market, I moved on to architecture and computer science at the University of Cambridge. Finally, I ended up with a Fulbright scholarship at MIT.
You might ask why I followed such a convoluted path. The only explanation I can find is that I was passionate about those studies. The dots were scattered at the beginning, but they lined up afterwards. I always liked a dialogue in Truffault’s movie ‘Jules et Jim’- between Jim and his professor Albert Sorel: “Mais alors, que dois-je devenir?” — “Un Curieux.” — “Ce n’est pas un métier.” — “Ce n’est pas encore un métier. Voyagez, écrivez, traduisez…, apprenez à vivre partout. Commencez tout de suite. L’avenir est aux curieux de profession.”
On starting his own firm
Today, I wear three hats: I direct research institute Senseable City Lab at MIT; I work with design firm Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA); and I am engaged with several start ups. The vision is always the same, although it focuses on different areas of application: research, projects, products.
At CRA we are passionate about developing innovative design projects, at the convergence of bits and atoms. We explore the merging of high profile architecture and urban planning with ubiquitous digital technologies. Ultimately, we aim to have a positive impact on the daily lives of the people who will make use of and enjoy our projects.
On the relationship between owning a practice and teaching
I think that the two reinforce each other — that’s particularly true at MIT, a school that is based on “learning by doing”. “Learning by doing” applies to students — as they are engaged with labs — and professors, as they carry out not only research but also other professional activities (offices, start ups, etc.). As in MIT’s motto: “Mens et Manus”…
On upcoming projects
We are working at several scales — from the spoon to the city, as Ernesto Nathan Rogers might have put it. Also, I will tell you about our project for the Rio 2016 Olympics, called the Water Rings Pavilion. Sited on Rio’s Lagoa de Freitas, it magically floats on the water’s surface thanks to a unique digital response system — similar to the one used by submarines. It uses a real time response system not to move but to remain static, exactly at the water level. Unlikely what happens with normal flotation platforms or barges, where one is normally high above the water level, thus losing contact with it, the responsive floating system will immerse the visitors in a brand new water experience, letting them see the lagoon from within.
In other terms the pavilion creates space by subtraction, allowing views to extend over the waterline.
On the impact he’d like to have on the future of design
First of all, let me say that I believe that design should always be concerned with the future. As Herbert Simon wrote, “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are… Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be, with devising artifacts to attain goals…Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”
I believe that designers must challenge what exists today, introduce new and alternate possibilities, and ultimately pave the way towards a desirable future. This is not dissimilar to Buckminster Fuller’s Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science, a systematic approach to design, “to solve problems by introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices.”
However, the designer must peddle abstract ideas. Crucially, the work must be made tangible — not necessarily creating fully functional products and systems, but demonstrable concepts that promote interaction and debate. The goal of design is to generate alternatives and open up new possibilities.
Broadly speaking, this frames design as evolutionary — where beneficial changes will steer development in a positive way. In fact, biological species do essentially the same thing, on an extraordinarily long timeline. Random mutations are introduced from one organism to the next, and if the mutation is successful, that organism will be more likely to reproduce. The best changes are incorporated into the species, and, over time, it evolves. Continuing the analogy, the designer becomes what, in biology, is referred to as a ‘mutagen’ — an agent that produces mutations. Specific design artifacts improve function or enable a new process, and on a broad scale, collectively drive change and development in the synthetic world.
On the state of design software today
I think that the best software is a brain collective… Everything comes from there! When we need special software we produce it ourselves. It is important that architects are also coders — and vice versa…
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
We will continue to see the seamless integration of digital and physical, bits and atoms.
What is happening at an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One auto racing. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. The car was transformed into a computer that was monitored in real time by thousands of sensors, becoming “intelligent” and better able to respond to the conditions of the race. In a similar way, over the past decade digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Broadband fiber-optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are increasingly affordable. At the same time, open databases — especially from the government — that people can read and add to are revealing all kinds of information, and public kiosks and displays are helping literate and illiterate people access it. Add to this foundation a relentlessly growing network of sensors and digital- control technologies, all tied together by cheap, powerful computers, and our cities are quickly becoming like “computers in open air.”
Regarding specific examples, I would like to highlight two possible scenarios based on our own research at MIT. The first is in the realm of mobility. Autonomous driving technology has already matured to a point where it can be tested and viably implemented in real urban spaces. A system of shared autonomous cars might blur the distinction between public and private transport. “Your” car could drive you to work in the morning and then, rather than sit idle in a parking lot, drive someone else to run his errands. Instead of being a “family” car, a vehicle might be shared among a neighborhood, an office cluster or even a shared social-media community. Two recent papers by MIT researchers sought to model and test this future of car sharing. They show that — in theory — the transportation demand of a large city such could be satisfied with just one-fifth of the number of cars in use today. Think of the possible savings in road and parking space and the reduced congestion and travel times.
Another area of transformation deals specifically with architecture and might have a very direct impact on real estate. Today, buildings operate by approximation, satisfying the peak demand rather than the actual need, whether with lighting or temperature or space. For example, 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. To achieve this, architecture will be more physically flexible: think of walls and ceilings and partitions that fold and unfold. If buildings are a kind of “third skin” — after our biological one and our clothing — it has been rigid for its entire history. With better data, the built environment can adapt to us: A living, tailored architecture that is molded by its inhabitants.
On discovering his voice as a designer
I have been often inspired by outsiders in the design profession — from Buckminster Fuller to Cedric Price to Constant. They had very unconventional views, which started to show all of their power after their death.
On advice he would give his younger self
Remember Alan Kay’s words: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. Such invention should be collaborative, so that we can create together our common future.