Designing the future city: An interview with Carlo Ratti

In this Q&A, architect and MIT lecturer Carlo Ratti discusses the forces that are shaping the future of cities, from new urban technologies to the impact of climate change.

‘Senseable’ is the word that best encapsulates Ratti’s optimistic vision for the future of cities. He believes new technologies will enable urban spaces to become more environmentally sustainable, and more responsive to their inhabitants’ needs. His architectural practice has produced innovations of its own: among its projects is the Digital Water Pavilion in the Spanish city of Zaragoza, whose walls are composed of digitally controlled water droplets that can be smoothly reconfigured according to the occupier’s wishes. The project was named one of TIME Magazine’s ‘Best Inventions of the Year’ in 2008.

In a wide-ranging interview with AIQ, Ratti discussed new urban technologies; philosophies of urban planning; the challenges of financing long-term development projects; and the impact of climate change.

What do you see as the key economic and societal benefits of the trend towards smart cities? And what are the main implications for governments and policymakers?

I see the concept of smart cities as reflecting current technological trends: the spaces around us are becoming permeated with digital data. The Internet is becoming the Internet-ofThings (IoT); a fusion of bits and atoms. This process has already started, and its manifestations are everywhere; from energy to waste management, from mobility to water distribution, from city planning to citizen engagement.

However, I prefer the term ‘senseable’ cities, which better encapsulates the social benefits gained by embedding IoT technologies into urban spaces, as opposed to the technology per se. ‘Senseable’ implies both the sensitivity of digital technologies capable of sensing and responding to citizens’ needs and the more human quality of being ‘sensible’; of keeping people and their desires at the centre.

A recent ABI report suggested smart city technologies could drive more than five per cent incremental growth and US$20 trillion in additional economic benefits over the next ten years. Are such numbers credible?

I have not read the report and I am not an economist. It is also difficult to predict the future: think about McKinsey’s famous prediction in 1980 that the number of mobile subscribers in the US by 2000 would be 900,000, which resulted in AT&T deciding not to join the mobile market at the time. McKinsey’s prediction turned out to be one per cent of the true number of mobile subscribers in 2000. But I do think, if we look at the broader trend of IoT, it is like a second wave of the digital revolution, 20 years later. Its impact could be huge.

You use Robert Moses vs Jane Jacobs to frame the inherent tension between centralised planning and the tech-fuelled decentralisation that smart cities seem to thrive on. How can this be resolved, if indeed it needs to be at all?

I do not think we need to resolve this tension and pick one side or the other. Ultimately, a number of decisions will always have to be made and implemented in a topdown way. The important thing is to create conduits for participation and feedback loops within these systems. The good news: the Internet allows us to – potentially – increase participation. We could say that it is as if Moses and Jacobs were connected on Twitter and able to make decisions collaboratively.

The role of architects might also change. For instance, instead of the 20th-century breed of ‘starchitects’, commanding figures imposing their designs on people, we should embrace a new role, one I like to call the ‘choral architect’. This term refers to the more collective idea of a chorus with a conductor, who is needed to harmonize different voices and, among other things, start and end the rehearsal. 

Your vision for a senseable city throws up all sorts of privacy issues. Given the vast amounts of Big Data that the whole system is predicated on, are we in urgent need of a Digital Deal for Data, as Sandy Pentland and Tim BernersLee have both called for? What might this type of deal look like?

The key issue is not in our cities but much closer to us – in our pockets! Our smartphones know everything about our lives and share this information with different operating systems, applications and network operators. A key issue to be addressed today is asymmetry of information, where just a few companies and public institutions know a lot about us, while we know so little about them.

In itself, Big Data essentially means a better knowledge of the urban environment, and its applications can be numerous. It can be used to empower people, supplying them with information and a greater ability to affect their environment. But it can also be used as an instrument of control, as in a super-powerful secret police on a scale never seen before.

To avoid this, we need to find solutions for how to avoid the danger of data monopolies or data misuse. At MIT, we have been working extensively on the ethical and moral issues connected to Big Data. In 2013, we launched an initiative called ‘Engaging Data’, involving leading figures from government, privacy rights groups, academia and business.

Which cities and countries are leading the way in smart city development? Are there differences between developed economies and emerging markets in terms of how much tech companies are getting involved?

We are talking about a worldwide phenomenon, the iterations of which vary greatly. Today, different cities are playing in different dimensions. For instance, Singapore is piloting exciting projects related to future mobility, Copenhagen to sustainability, Boston to citizen participation and so on.

Your question about developed and emerging economies is particularly interesting. Often, in their infancy, it might seem like new technologies exacerbate societal gaps. However, their subsequent dissemination can help reduce the gaps and cause a ‘leapfrogging’ effect. Take for instance what happened with mobile phones. At the start, they were the exclusive preserve of the Western upper classes. However, fast forward a couple of decades and they have become widespread across the world. In Africa, countries without an existing telecommunications infrastructure are leapfrogging and leading the way in many applications – from mobile banking and informing farmers with real-time crop information to the empowerment of fishermen with real-time market prices, to name just a few.

As an architect by background, how important will collaboration be across academic fields and disciplines in creating smart functional solutions?

A few years ago, Nature magazine noted that a large percentage of scientific articles are written by more than one person, reporting this as evidence of an increase in collaborative processes. Now, this must happen in design as well. A useful concept here is ‘network specificism’, which can be considered an answer to the risks of a design scene that is growing increasingly uniform and indifferent to its context. This was explored in a 2013 article in Architectural Review that I co-authored with Antoine Picon, Alex Haw and Matthew Claudel.

The same happens at our lab at MIT, where we have people from all kinds of disciplines – design and architecture, various branches of engineering and computer science, mathematics and physics and also the social sciences, which is necessary for understanding the human side of things.

We are also proud of holding a broader definition of diversity, not only transdisciplinary but also based on provenance, educational path, gender and sexual orientation. It is an approach that educates us to embrace diversity and – as a result – new ideas.

How can public and private finance work most effectively to deliver the outcomes that are optimal for society?

The “invisible hand” of the market, as Adam Smith put it, tends to work well for the majority. However, as we all know, it is not always inclusive of minorities, and the well-being and participation of minorities is essential to cities. By definition, these are places of encounter between different parts of society. Governments need to act to make sure such encounters and exchanges happen seamlessly.

Joint ventures representing a variety of different interests might help – such as PPP or, even better, what we could call PPPP (public-private partnerships with people).

We read a lot that private investors are looking at infrastructure but there is a dearth of opportunities. Could the smart city phenomenon address this? 

I do not think that there is a dearth of opportunities; to the contrary. For instance, recently I was talking to my colleague and friend Richard Florida, who is currently carrying out research in this field. He believes ‘urban tech’ – a lot of the tech that underpins smart cities including ride-hailing apps, smart construction, etc. – is now the largest investment area in the world, even bigger than biotech.

Similarly, how would smart cities deal with the timing mismatch of having to make long-term capital commitments required to build out the infrastructure, and the increasing rate of change these cities will be exposed to? Infrastructure projects require large capital outlays and often expensive capex to keep them relevant. And if the world keeps changing faster and faster, it makes it difficult to know which ideas to invest in over the long term and which new ideas will themselves be disrupted.

You are right, this is a very important point. The urban ‘hardware’ we build today might last 50, 100 or 200 years. But the ‘software’, the way we use it, might change radically in just a decade.

We need architecture and urban design with built-in flexibility and adaptability 

To address this, I believe ‘futureproofing’ is an important concept. Futureproofing means recognising that we do not know how the future will shape up and need cities to be compatible with various outcomes. We need architecture and urban design with built-in flexibility and adaptability, and the potential to develop along with changing technologies and realities without becoming obsolete.

One practical example is the design of a flexible parking garage we developed at CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati as part of a wider project for an office building in Singapore. As of today, due to city regulations, we need many parking spaces in urban areas. However, urban mobility patterns are evolving quickly, and with the advent of self-driving cars and the increase in car-sharing and bike-sharing platforms, the presence of vehicles in cities might decline – making such huge parking garages obsolete, occupying precious urban space. Our concept of a parking lot was inherently adaptable: we imagined that many spaces for cars would eventually be freed up for other activities.

Many of the projects you are involved with feature significant amounts of green space as an integral part of building design. How important is green space in the development of cities, and to what extent do you see these integrated green spaces evolving beyond ‘high-end’ or ‘iconic’ developments to standard office space or affordable housing?

Nature is crucial to the development of 21st-century cities. Ever since the ancient Greek poet Theocritus wrote his pastoral idylls romanticising rural life, people have pondered how to build cities that are in concert with their natural surroundings. But with rates of urbanisation growing exponentially around the world, the need for greener cities has never been more urgent. Fortunately, innovation and technology can help strike this long-elusive balance.

In the late 20th century, most early urbanisation in the West was characterised by sprawl: development patterns that crashed against nature; connected not by green spaces and parks but by endless ribbons of impervious pavement. As planners recognise the shortcomings of such approaches, we should reverse the equation: how can nature be returned to the city?

As an example, last spring in Milan we unveiled our Living Nature exhibit, a 500-square-meter (5,381-square-foot) pavilion that can recreate four seasons simultaneously under the same roof. The goal of the project was to spark conversation about sustainable design and illustrate the surprising ways nature wil be integrated into cities and homes of the future. For example, we are currently developing one of the tallest skyscrapers in Singapore for CapitaLand, along with Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which will include a tropical urban forest at its core. Our proposal for the new scientific campus of the University of Milan also stresses green spaces: in addition to the greenery we have designed for its courtyards and roofs, we have planned a series of botanical gardens, experimental greenhouses and sports fields linked to the area’s waterways in a completely pedestrianised campus. 

More generally, advances in hydroponic and aeroponic farming techniques, together with efficient LED lights, make it easier to grow vegetables in confined spaces. While cities will never replace rural areas as the world’s main source of nutrition, a higher percentage of food can be cultivated in urban areas. This applies not only to ‘high-end’ or ‘iconic’ developments but to more standard office space and affordable housing.

More than a century ago, the French geographer Élisée Reclus astutely predicted that people would always need “the dual possibility of gaining access to the delights of the city… and, at the same time, the freedom that is nourished by nature.” Reclus’ ideal was visionary, if premature. But today, thanks to new technologies and bold thinking, the urban-rural divide in city planning is slowly closing.

With global warming and cities already significantly hotter than surrounding areas (not to mention more polluted), what new building techniques and technologies do you see emerging to combat this?

There could be various strategies. The first is to make cities more efficient: as they consume up to 50 per cent of the planet’s energy, small improvements can have a significant impact at the global scale in reducing CO2 emissions. The second strategy is to plan for adaptation, as I mentioned before when talking about ‘futureproofing’.  We need to plan and design with the realities of climate change in mind, embedding adaptability and responsiveness to future climate eventualities. A third strategy will be needed in case things were to spin out of control: would it be possible to implement geoengineering strategies that will put the planet back on track? 

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