Ratti is a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he directs the MIT Senseable City Lab, a research group that explores how new technologies are changing the way we understand, design and live in cities. Ratti is also a founding partner of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati, which he established in 2004 in Torino, Italy. He is one of the presenters at the upcoming and& summit & festival (May 2, 3, 4, 5), which will playfully focus on the intersection of health, tech and creativity in Leuven, Belgium.

Gabrielle Kennedy invited him in for a long-distance chat.

Carlo Ratti

You are touted as one of “25 people who will change the world of design”.  Can you live up to this label?

I am flattered… However, I believe that “change” today comes from teamwork – it is a choral effort.

And considering the label further, is this even how it works anyway?  Is design really consciously used as an instrument of change or is it an incidental after-effect?

It depends what you mean by design. I like Herbert Simon’s definition, which he puts forward in the book "The Sciences of the Artificial": “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are… Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.” I like this definition as it considers design as a systematic germination of possible futures, intervening at the interface between people, technologies and the city. I would like to see our work as something that contributes to the production of mutations, accelerating the transformation of the present into how it “ought to be”.

Given the recent Cambridge Analytics leak …. is it possible when dealing with technology and data to make any pretense of privacy and ethics anymore?  It seems like these sorts of corrupt realities are no-brainers and will never stop.

Thank you for asking this question: this is a very important point. Ownership and accessibility of data is indeed a crucial issue that goes much beyond “Smart” or “Senseable Cities”. It deals with all the digital traces we generate online – when we use our smartphones, post on social media or browse the Internet. All of this produces a digital copy of our lives that sits somewhere in the Cloud and which is accessible just to some large corporations and governments.

I am particularly concerned by such asymmetry and I believe that in order to address it we should have an open conversation. Towards this goal, at MIT we have been working extensively on the ethical and moral issues connected to Big Data and in recent years we have convened a Forum called “Engaging Data” - involving leading figures from government, privacy rights group, academia, and business.

Can you explain your “bubbles of heat” project a bit more please.  Does it work only inside?  And in crowds is it even efficient?  Will ideas like this make people happier, more content, more comfortable even … or is this a solution-lead design to solving environmental chaos?

We equipped the old office building of Fondazione Agnelli, in Turin, with digital sensors that monitor many variables - such as temperature, light levels, and the rooms' occupancy status, - and we matched this information with data on people's occupancy. When a person gets into the building and sets his/her preferences in term of temperature or lighting, the building management system recognizes him/her, and automatically responds by actuating the heating/cooling/lighting system accordingly. Preferences can be changed via a mobile phone app at any time, so that a "thermal bubble" is generated, potentially following them as they move through the building.

What we aimed to show at the Agnelli Foundation is that by pursuing a tailor-made, non-standardized approach we can achieve not only a better comfort for a building's users, but also a substantial reduction in energy consumption. However, the idea of Office 3.0 goes beyond the above. Using occupancy information, we can provide a seamless platform for people to access the building, book meeting rooms, and schedule encounters – in a similar way to what happens with Foursquare/Swarm in cities around the world. In other terms, occupancy becomes a very valuable platform for improving a crucial aspect of today’s offices: that of fostering human interaction.

How will mastering-via-technology the way people interact with spaces change the way spaces look and feel?  Can technology be almost invisible? And if technology changes the way we interact with people is that for the betterment of society?  I worry that all these advancements do is even further alienate us from one another. 

Many questions… I’ll try to answer all of them. As the Internet continues its penetration in most aspects of our lives, we are entering what the computer scientist Mark Weiser called the era of “ubiquitous computing” – a time when technology is so distributed that it “recedes into the background of our lives.” As he wrote: “Ubiquitous computing names the third wave in computing, just now beginning. First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives.” I believe that this is what is happening today, making the digital and the physical world indistinguishable.

The above is opening up new potential for designers. Architecture has often been described as a kind of ‘third skin’ – in addition to our own biological one and our clothing. However, for too long it has functioned more like a corset: a rigid and uncompromising addition to our body. I think that new digital technologies and distributed intelligence 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 needs, rather than the other way around - a living, tailored space that is molded to its inhabitants’ needs, characters, and desires.

Can you talk about a spatial tech project or plan or speculation that could solve the social alienation concerns so many people have about a life overly driven by technology?

Who says life has to be driven by technology? Life is driven by our desires – technology is just a tool to achieve them. This is what inspires our projects such as “Living Nature” for the opening of the 2018 Milan Design Week: using technology to bring more nature in our cities. Think about Paul Valery:

In modern life, I like what allows you to lead a non-modern life in a more pleasant and easy way

On a bigger scale do you think it is the responsibility of designers like yourself to even have to think about social consequences?  I am in two mind about this.  Perhaps this is not something you need to even think about it.  Or is it? 

I think that as designers we have major social responsibilities. However, I believe that our approach should be fundamentally different than what we have seen in the 20th century. I would argue for a paradigm shift from the ego-fueled visions of architecture of the 20th century to a collaborative, inclusive, network-driven process to make our cities more sustainable. I think the architects and designers today are well placed to play an orchestrating role, what we could define as a "choral" one: being the ones who can coordinate several voices, harmonizing them into a better ensemble.

 Realistically how far away are we from cities with no private vehicles?  In your opinion which cities do you think might end up there first?

I think that in the next decade, self-driving cars will radically shake the foundations of the mobility industry, changing how we get around in the city. The interesting thing about self-driving cars is that they can easily be shared.  “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.  As a result, the distinction between private and public transportation might be blurred.

Different cities are already experimenting with self-driving. For instance, I have had the opportunity to try this first-hand through my serving on the Singapore government’s Committee on Autonomous Road Transport (CARTS) – which has helped turn the island into one of the world’s leading places to experiment with self-driving cars.

 Do you think there is a difference between innovations that solve problems caused by a capitalistic, post-industrial revolution world, and innovations that are not responding to these immediate problems. but speculating on a whole different way of being?  How would you desiccative your own work on this continuum?

I think that key innovations do not stem from solving a problem – but from following a dream. Think about the Internet – a dream that at its beginning seemed completely useless and that turned our to be the most important innovation of humanity. I think that we should go back to dreaming…

 But as always I come back to the social impact.  Just last month a self-driving uber killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.  Of course cars kill people all the time.  But what is your position on this? Should tech designers even have to worry?

It was certainly a traumatic event as it brought to the death of a person. However, we should always keep in mind the proportion of people dying every year all over the world because of car accidents caused by human mistakes (nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year globally, on average 3,287 deaths a day). My dad who - was an organic farmer and travelled only by bike - died 3 years ago when he was run over by a car. If self-driving cars can make our roads safer – as statistics seem to imply - I would be the first one to welcome them.

Be inspired by over 100 speakers & artists & explore more on future city life at the very first edition of and& summit & festival. Enjoy a 15% discount with the code damnlovesyou on www.andleuven.com