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Portrait of Carlo Ratti

The director of MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory will be in Toronto later this week as part of EDIT. Our feature profile on Carlo Ratti shines a light on why his science-driven design is the next great urban revolution.

Of the dozens of design-thinkers heading to Toronto for the city’s new design festival, EDIT, there is Carlo Ratti, the Italian architect who loves cities as much as he loves science. In the past few years, Ratti has mapped out novel and revolutionary ways to seamlessly embed technology into the urbanscape, to help reduce energy use, for instance, or improve our eating habits, or incorporate urban farming in cities. While many of his ideas are still at the prototype stage, they provide a fascinating glimpse into how cities of the future can be self-sustaining, greener and more liveable.

Montreal writer Susan Nerberg met with Carlo at his lab at MIT in Boston earlier this year, where they discussed how science-driven design is essential for cities to embrace.


Carlo Ratti worked with Technogym, Terreform ONE and URBEM to design the Paris Navigating Gym, a human-powered boat that travels down the Seine.

Carlo Ratti has barely sat down to stir sugar into his espresso when he starts telling me how to shape the future of urban life. The speed at which he’s talking is a giveaway that this is his favourite subject, and I doubt he really needs that caffeine. He’s explaining to me how his Senseable City Laboratory here at MIT incubates technology-driven ways of transforming cities to better serve people and to promote human interaction. “To see the potential for transformation, you ask design questions, exploring how things could be,” he says. “Then you use science, which looks at how things are, to find the answers. Today we have the advantage of using technology in our scientific work to create an alternative universe.”

When Palladio wrote his treatise on architecture in the 16th century, the material and method at hand were stone and masonry. Later, Le Corbusier recognized the far-reaching changes that engineering and reinforced concrete would bring. Now, Ratti claims, the raw material of data will reinvent architecture just as profoundly. “What’s crucial today in architecture is the relationship between design and research,” he says. “The repertoire has expanded with the internet, and it’s growing further with the internet of things. This is all changing how we interact with the environment, so it’s vital for architects and designers to learn how we can play with this new material.”

Ratti’s souped-up sense of curiosity interrupts his own treatise as he spots a woman across the atrium with a pair of skis. This is unusual, considering we’re in Boston and it’s a sweltering mid-May afternoon. “Let’s find out where she’s going,” he says, marching toward her. It turns out the woman isn’t going anywhere; she’s a student selling her old racing skis. “Well,” he says, before returning to matters at hand, “I had to find out.” This sense of wanting to know has driven Ratti, now 46, far. As well as running the Senseable City Lab, he works with clients in his design studio, Carlo Ratti Associati, in his hometown of Turin. With a master’s of science in civil engineering from Turin and Paris, and a PhD in architecture from Cambridge, he’s figured out how to line up art and science, to merge a visual repertoire with one based on technology.

As the work done at the Lab and the Turin studio demonstrates, research means using technology and big data, the latter of which has some people concerned about privacy. “But to plan something, you first need a survey,” he says, “and big data is nothing more than a sophisticated survey that allows us to make real what urbanists in the past could only dream of.”

It’s doubtful that many of those dreams were about sewers, but the Lab’s Underworlds project is a signature success story. It uses sensors installed in sewage pipes to monitor waste for biochemical components that offer clues as to nutrition, stress levels, disease, drug use and other factors that could help cities devise better community, health and social programs or change zoning laws to include, say, more green space or grocery stores where these are lacking. During the prototype phase, robots were deployed to gather samples from the sewers of Cambridge, Massachusetts, allowing the Lab to track stress levels among the student population by measuring cortisol levels during exam time. The project can also be used as an early-warning system to detect – and contain the spread of – contagious diseases, as well as to track things like fentanyl use, enabling interventions that could prevent overdoses and save lives.

Carlo Ratti Associati’s Supermarket of the Future, outfitted with interactive screens, aims to empower shoppers with data about their groceries.

“Underworlds is about showing different scenarios, including dystopic ones, so that we can detect and fix problems. But we’re also working on projects that let citizens make choices based on real-time data.” The Lab’s LIVE Singapore! scheme uses a city-wide network of sensors to give Singaporeans access to public transportation data, weather, in-store stock of products, traffic flow and more. And the Turin studio’s Supermarket of the Future – first showcased at the 2015 Milan World Expo and implemented earlier this year at Coop Italia’s new flagship grocery store in Milan – has customers tapping the store’s interactive screens for information on where a product was made, how much CO2 was emitted during its shipping, and whether chemicals were used, allowing shoppers to decide whether they want to eat a pesticide-laden apple or an organic one. When consumers are empowered to make these kinds of informed choices, they can also push for eco-friendly changes.

Using the building blocks of big data, Ratti’s firm also dreamed up the Digital Water Pavilion (for the 2008 World Expo in Zaragoza, Spain), in which real-time sensors and digital software were used to design dynamic, flowing architecture that could be reprogrammed to fit different cityscapes and needs. The Lab was also behind the creation of the Copenhagen Wheel; installed on the rear wheel of any bicycle, the device “learns” the biker’s stride to boost pedal power, making the ride easier and faster. It also uses a smartphone app to track fitness data and information about the rider’s surroundings, including carbon monoxide, NOx, noise, ambient temperature and relative humidity.

Amsterdam's Roboat fleet, which is a collaboration between Carlo Ratti's MIT team and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, uses technology and design to tackle transportation issues.
Amsterdam’s Roboat fleet, which is a collaboration between Carlo Ratti’s MIT team and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, uses technology and design to tackle transportation issues.

But for Ratti, true transformation will only take place when architecture crosses the boundaries of technology, electronics, mathematics, biology and social sciences, as occurs in Underworlds. “For me, there’s no doubt that architecture includes all these areas,” he says. That’s why, at the conceptual and experimental Senseable City Lab, Ratti brings together researchers from wildly different fields of study. Unlike in his Turin office, where the staff are mostly architects and designers tasked with meeting a client’s program needs (as avant-garde as those may sometimes be), the Boston team also comprises economists, engineers, data scientists, biologists, mathematicians and data visualizers. “Part of what makes Carlo such a strong lateral thinker is his multi-faceted background,” says Newsha Ghaeli, a research associate and project lead at the Lab who recently took Underworlds from test case to start-up. “But he’s also a great relationship builder, recognizing and honing talent in others and valuing collaboration,” she says. “And you can’t build a better city without looking at the big picture and listening to its many voices.”

For Ratti’s collaborators, there is no typical day at the office. At the Turin studio, the boss has no assigned desk. “Carlo sits down beside whomever he needs to collaborate with on a given day,” says Emma Greer, the architect and soon-to-be partner who also doubles as the CRA “chief of staff.” It’s a structure that promotes cross-pollination, much like in Boston, where ideas are generated at lightning speed thanks to a multi-talented team. “We have more ideas than we have people and funding to test them out,” says Ghaeli. These work scenarios mimic the cities Ratti dreams of, where convergence, collaboration and experimentation flourish.

Senseable initiative Treepedia measures the green canopy in cities around the world,

This broad approach feeds Ratti’s passion for how humans can change the present. “The reason we have cities today is the same as when cities were first founded some 10,000 years ago: to bring people together,” he says. “But along the way we’ve lost some pieces of what made urbanity great.” The rise of the automobile, for instance, has literally boxed people in. He recalls the first time he visited Beijing, in 1999. “It was amazing to see that most people were still getting around on bikes. But the last time I went, the bikes were largely gone. Instead, cars are everywhere, there’s pollution, and fitness levels and opportunities for interaction have deteriorated.” Hopefully, that’s changing again, with a boom in bike sharing, led by Mobike and Ofo. In the meantime, New York is slowly becoming a bike city, and in Copenhagen 41 per cent of trips already happen by bike, while policies are increasingly implemented to keep pedestrianizing the city centre. “We need to find more new ways of designing cities that bring people together again.”

Design can clearly be a catalyst for positive change, so it’s no wonder Ratti was invited to curate one of the five themes that forms part of EDIT (Expo for Design, Innovation and Technology), which is being held in Toronto from late September to early October. To put together the exhibit, Toronto’s Design Exchange teamed up with the United Nations Development Programme to invite five influencers, including Bruce Mau and Jamie Oliver, from different fields. The idea is to explore how design, innovation and technology can be used to improve the lives of people, no matter where in the world or under what circumstances they live (the tagline is “Prosperity for All”). Ratti’s exhibit, The Green and the Grey, fits right in, showing, among other things, a scenario in which technology is used to bring nature back to cities where it’s been lost.

Garden of the Four Seasons, a collaboration between Carlo Ratti Associati and Citylife, is an enclosed garden in Milan that showcases all four seasons.
Garden of the Four Seasons, a collaboration between Carlo Ratti Associati and Citylife, is an enclosed garden in Milan that showcases all four seasons.

Ratti tells me that as humans we have an innate biophilia, or love for nature. “To be honest, I don’t think we’ll ever have a city where, for instance, we’ll be able to grow all our food, because in a place like Toronto there’s not enough sunlight year-round,” he says. “But today, for the first time, we can use technology such as LEDs and hydroponics to increase green space. While we’ll still have the American Midwest and the Canadian Prairies producing much of our food, we’ll be able to grow closer to where we live,” he says. “And keep in mind that green space is not just about farming; it’s about bringing back nature in the form of an ecosystem with animals. It’s about mixing the artificial and the natural.”

Great architects have failed to build better cities because they thought and acted as if they had the solution, Ratti theorizes. “The essence of being an architect in the 20th century was simplistic: replace something old by imposing something new, without ever asking what people wanted or what they needed,” he explains. “Our role today is not to provide the solution; it is to provide different possibilities for the future.” The task, then, becomes to push the boundaries, to start a discussion and to allow experimentation to happen. “In
21st century, changes have to be a collective act. And technology will allow us to get there and build a framework that allows for open-source design and citizen feedback. It’s like evolution – where the designer is the mutagenic agent.” It takes a village to raise a city.

Azure presents Carlo Ratti’s Curator Keynote at EDIT on Friday, Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. Event information can be found here.

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