[Portrait of an Innovator] Carlo Ratti offers city dwellers open source tools to help shape their town

By October 03, 2013
Carlo Ratti

Our featured Innovator of this early autumn season is Carlo Ratti. An engineer who graduated from both the Politecnico di Torino and the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées – highly prestigious engineering universities in Turin and Paris respectively – he later turned to architecture. His credo? To help change the relationship between people and the built environment, aka ‘cities

An innovator then? Yes and a globetrotter as well. “I’ve lived in lots of towns – in Italy, France, Great Britain, in the United States and in Asia. So my love of cities is part of my nature,” he tells us. At present Carlo Ratti is based at MIT, where he works as Director of the Senseable City Lab, which runs projects in conjunction with local communities based on open data. This means that large quantities of analytical data can be gathered to form the basis of mapping or spatial planning. This is an important assignment for him because although technology, especially mobile technology, has done a lot to change people’s day-to-day lives, the focus of innovation is now switching to the city itself.  “With the very special contribution that geolocation is making, urban spaces are about to undergo change,” he predicts. A project for a future Olympic village which the Lab has developed demonstrates ‘trains of data’ (a real-time public platform to communicate transit dynamics in Olympic host cities), smart car parks, plus a stadium designed to give spectators an immersive media experience “unlike anything ever witnessed before.” This ambitious project is the result of a number of trips all over the world to study movement and activities using geolocation.

So what’s the disruptive idea? Being interested in a bottom-up vision of the city of the future, rather than adopting an engineer’s stance which simply seeks to optimise spatial use. “A bottom-up vision of the city of the future is all about giving the citizen a part to play in his/her own town. Tomorrow citizens will be able to fashion their city anew,” says Carlo.  For example, the Urban Mechanics project launched in Boston is set to transform every Bostonian into an ‘urban mechanic’. Any citizen can use a dedicated app to gather and share information with a view to making a difference to his/her urban space. S/he can ‘report’ to the local authority by smartphone, sending photos and locations of such irritations as graffiti. The message is automatically shared in order to turn a simple complaint to the Town Hall into an opportunity for better community organisation.

Why this interest in the smart city? Carlo Ratti believes that although to a certain extent the development of the smart city is simply about underpinning the growth of the digital economy through the use of apps, this is not the central aspect when it comes to real change and innovation. He sees the smart city as part of a more comprehensive and ambitious movement. “It’s up to us to push the boundaries of the current system, to imagine, to design the lives we want to lead tomorrow,” argues Carlo. To this end, the stated objective of the Senseable City Lab is to gather insights, anticipate the radical changes that will shape our lives in the future, to understand them and to think through how far they ought to go.

How will this impact us? Carlo Ratti reminds us that the cities of today “work according to the 2-50-75-80 rule,” – i.e. urban spaces represent 2% of the surface of the planet, but account for 50% of the population, 75% of energy consumption and 80% of CO2 emissions – “so our job as citizens is to make our cities more efficient.” A current Senseable City Lab project in Singapore aims to offer people there the means to consult, gather and relay open data, which will “help to change the dynamics of the city.” In a similar project in Rio de Janeiro, the emphasis is being placed on ‘informal’ districts such as the ‘favellas’.

So what does the future hold? Well, science fiction fans had better rein in their imagination because the city of the future will probably not look very different from what it is today from a physical point of view. “Since way back in history we’ve needed land to build on, walls to protect ourselves and windows to look outside,” Carlo points out, suggesting that the real evolution will be in the way we interact with other people, and how we move around our cities: “What will change (…), will be the way we live, travel, work, meet people, walk around.” Basically, argues Carlo, while contributions from technology will help us move forward in all fields, technology “will tend to fade into the background and let people do what they want in a collaborative way.”

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