An architect and engineer by training, Professor Carlo Ratti teaches at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Laboratory, and is a founding partner of the international design and innovation practice Carlo Ratti Associati. He takes the virtual stage at KODW this year to talk about ways we can deal with the pandemic situation.
Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT Senseable City Lab and Founding Partner of Carlo Ratti Associati | US / ITALY
Session: INITIATIVES TO DEAL WITH THE COVID-19 SITUATION
Can you share a little about yourself?
People say that I have a rebellious personality – I like to question the status quo. Yet, I see it as curiosity. I like the dialogue in Truffault’s masterpiece movie “Jules et Jim” between Jim and his professor Albert Sorel. “So what should I become?” — “A curious.” — “It’s not a job.” — “It’s not a job yet. Travel, write, translate…Learn to live everywhere. Start right away. The future is for the curious in their profession.”
In more practical terms, I wear three different hats: I teach at MIT in Boston, where I direct the Senseable City Lab; I am involved with the international design and innovation practice CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati; and I have contributed to the founding of different startups. The vision behind these different activities is the same, although the focuses are different: projects, research, products.
What inspires you?
Nature. How we can design cities that integrate better with the environment.
What is your design philosophy?
Bridging the world of the natural and that of the artificial. This can happen in different ways. First, we can use sensors, Internet of Things and artificial intelligence to lend buildings the ability to respond to its inhabitants as if they were alive. This is the approach that we have followed, among others, at the Agnelli Foundation headquarter, which creates personalized indoor climates. In a different way, we can also weave nature itself with our buildings, like what we are doing for instance with The Greenery, a private house under construction for Francesco Mutti near Parma. The building revolves around a 10-metre-high ficus tree, whose trunk and leafy branches will enter the living space and put nature at the centre of the daily life.
In general, I believe in the concept of biophilia, developed by my Harvard colleague E.O. Wilson: an innate connection between humans and nature. Biophilia is what makes us yearn for green space in a highly urbanized setting, and it plays an important role in home and office design.
Can you tell us about your company and your specialization?
CRA is a design and innovation company based in Turin, Italy, with branches in New York and London. We embrace every scale of intervention. A famous adagio from the Bauhaus era went: “we should design everything from the spoon to the city”. We could now say: “from the microchip to the planet”. Our team is split into three divisions, namely THINK, DESIGN and MAKE to fulfil our multi-scale, multi-disciplinary mission. The common thread among all three divisions is to envision a more human built environment, embracing the definition of design that was given by Herbert Simon: “the natural sciences look at how the world is. Design looks at how it ought to be.”
What are some of the key and projects that you have undertaken and those that are in the pipeline?
We have several exciting projects underway. I would like to single out the Italian Pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai. Even though the event has been postponed to 2021, construction is well under the way. The structure uses organic materials like orange peel, coffee ground, mycelium as well as plastic collected from the oceans. This corresponds to the concept of circular economy to minimize waste, and it is especially important considering the pavilion’s relatively short life span. In a similar way, the pavilion’s roof is made of three boats, which have landed in Dubai via sea and will keep sailing after the Expo is over. Beyond circularity, this is a tribute to floating, reconfigurable architecture and to Italy’s maritime heritage.
Shifting the focus to Southeast Asia, we have teamed up with BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group to build a skyscraper in the Central Business District of Singapore. Its key feature is the copious amount of greenery in its middle part – a true tropical forest high above the city. Besides offices, the building will also contain service residences, retail shops and expansive social space, thus crafting an immersive and responsive environment.
You will be one of the key speakers at KODW. Can you tell us about what you will be sharing during your session?
I will talk about the future of the office. While we are getting accustomed to working from home in this period of time, the office is still a valuable site for us to forge what sociologists call “weak ties”, our relations with acquaintances outside of our social circle. Weak ties are crucial to foster creativity and challenge our preconceptions. As some countries are returning to office work, it is a good time for us to rethink the design of the workspace to make it more conducive to the creation of weak ties.
Another project featured in my presentation will be CURA. CURA is a mobile and modular ICU pod converted from shipping containers, constructed with the objective to extend the capacity of hospitals to fight coronavirus. With all the necessary equipment built into the structure, it can be mounted to a healthcare institution within an hour. To protect the medical professionals who work inside, biosafety is guaranteed through negative pressure. It is a project we developed and produced in an open-source framework, engaging experts from a wide range of professions. CURA began in March, and the first prototype was already installed at a temporary hospital in Turin in April. It demonstrates the power of bottom-up endeavors – which give us the ability to come together and make quick response to unforeseen situations as COVID-19.
How has city design change over the years? How does this influence the way we work and live?
I like to believe that our cities are becoming more “senseable”. By this I mean that they are acquiring the ability to sense, to be responsive and to be sensible places to live in. Compared to the term “Smart City”, “Senseable City” to us has a human ring to it – it is not technology for technology’s sake.
What do you think will be emerging trends in the urban landscape and technology in this “new normal”?
I don’t expect the urban landscape to alter too much as a result of coronavirus. Let’s take the long view: our cities have already survived damaging pandemics in the past, and they always came back. Sixty percent of Venice’s inhabitants died during the black death in the 14th century, but the city recovered nonetheless. Over the centuries we went back to crowd its breathtaking “calli” and “campi”.
The “trends” caused by COVID-19 will probably manifest themselves as behavioral changes, transitions that had already begun but are now accelerating. Software more than hardware. Practices like smart working and sharing micro-mobility (bikes and e-scooters) had been in the periphery of our living habits, but now they are solidly on the radar. Their impact, however, could be revolutionary. If every company in New York were to cut back its office space by, say, 10 or 20%, prices might tumble. The city might finally become affordable for the young and the less well-off population.
Overall, our lives might gain an increasing level of flexibility. Compared to the more homogenous codes of professional practice and modes of transportation from the past, we can expect a broader range of options where individuals can choose the ones that most comply with their lifestyles.
What do you think is the best way to use design to engineer a better world to live in post-pandemic?
There is no way to tell which way is the best unless we test things out. The uncertain times of the pandemic actually encourage us to experiment, use the city as a testbed for innovative concepts. Trial and error are going to be an ingrained part of the process, something the government and the public should be aware of and accommodate.
What do you think of the current global design scene?
The global design industry today is at an important crossroad, which could lead us to either utopia or oblivion, to put it in the words of American designer and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller. We could hit oblivion if we continue focusing on irrelevant issues. On the contrary, it will be utopia if we rise to the challenges of the Anthropocene – from climate change to urban segregation.
Finally any advice to established as well as upcoming designers and those involved in the design industry?
“Stay foolish, stay hungry.” They are not my words – they are Steve Jobs’ ones – but they are the best piece of advice I could share!
Catch Carlo Ratti’s session on August 27 2020. For more info log on to: https://www.kodw.org/en/event/potential-topic-reinventing-systems-through-design/