Editing Real-World Problems

An interview with Carlo Ratti

With the rise of the IoT and AI, we have begun viewing innovative technology as a standalone disruptor. The introduction of a single technological advancement now has the power to instantaneously change our everyday lives. However, this is much more systematic and evolutionary in nature. Change is created by building on the past with small mutations or improvements that slowly form the future. Although these may not be able to provide a single solution that will immediately solve global problems, we can continuously take incremental steps in the right direction that encourage us to abandon our previous unsustainable behaviors.

We are bound to the notions of our present life – but alternative possibilities allow us to imagine ourselves within a different world. A world that not only adheres to our everyday needs and desires, but that also has the best interest of the natural environment and global community at heart. Through a collection of four immersive installations, EDIT: Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology, presented by the Design Exchange from September 28 to October 8, 2017 in Toronto, will challenge our problem-riddled present with thought-provoking alternatives. Organized within the pillars of Shelter/Cities, Nourish, Care, and Educate, the multi-sensory exhibits will act as an “edit” of real-world problems and displayed how design thinking coupled with innovative technology can help elicit change.

Carlo Ratti, curator of the Shelter/Cities exhibition, will showcase architectural innovations and technologies that bridge the gap between city and nature. His exhibition, “The Green and the Grey,” will envision what urban communities can – and should – be. An architect and engineer by training, Carlo Ratti is the director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab and co-chair of the World Economic Forum Global Council on the Future of Cities and Urbanization. He spoke to MISC to share his thoughts on building better spaces for tomorrow.

What first drove you to pursue a career in architecture and the built environment?

I always liked the idea of design, as defined by Herbert A. Simon: “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 is inclusive – it is not bound to architecture,
urban planning, or engineering, but it leads to an omni-disciplinary approach.

For those unfamiliar with “smart cities,” can you describe what they are and their relevance for today?

First of all, allow me to say that I’m not a big fan of the expression “smart city.” I prefer to use instead the term “senseable city,” with its double meaning, both “able to sense” and “sensible.” The word “senseable” puts more emphasis on the human – as opposed to the technological – side of things.

The senseable city is simply the manifestation of a broad technological trend: the internet is entering the places we live and becoming the Internet of Things, allowing us to interact with the space around us in new ways. Applications are manifold, spanning from energy to waste management, from mobility to water distribution, from city planning to citizen engagement.

In your opinion, which cities are currently on their way to becoming senseable cities?

I do not see a particular city, a “winner takes all.” Conversely, I see many cities experimenting with different facets. For instance, Singapore is carrying out exciting work in mobility, Copenhagen in sustainability, Boston in citizen participation.

What is the role of designers in the development of senseable cities?

I think that the role of the designer is to challenge the present by introducing alternate possibilities to pave the way toward the future. This is not dissimilar from Buckminster Fuller’s idea of comprehensive anticipatory design science (CADS) – a systematic approach to design used “to solve problems by introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices.” Quite interestingly, Buckminster Fuller was proposing an evolutionary framework for design. In this context, we can think of the designer as what, in biology, is referred to as a “mutagen” – an agent that produces mutations and accelerates the transformation of the present into what it “ought to be.” It’s a process we call “futurecrafting.”

How are you currently using futurecrafting to envision the cities of the future?

Through futurecrafting, we posit future scenarios (typically phrased as what if questions), entertain their consequences and exigencies, and share the resulting ideas widely to enable public conversation and debate.

We believe that design can be used as a systematic germination of possible futures, intervening at the interface between people, technologies, and the city.

Research and applications can be developed that empower citizens to make better choices about where they live.

What is the importance of engaging the general public in your work?

Huge! Decisions about our collective urban future should be made collectively.

You’re going to be curating one of the four featured exhibits at EDIT: Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology, presented by the Design Exchange. Can you discuss your vision?

We are pleased that our Shelter/Cities exhibition will be debuting at this first-ever biennial expo-meets-festival in Toronto at the East Harbour between September 28 and October 7. EDIT is a celebration of Canada’s past on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, but it looks into the future. What inspired the exhibition was a vision from over a century ago: that of French anarchic geographer Élisée Reclus, who wrote: “People must have the dual possibility of gaining access to the delights of the city, with its solidarity of thought and interest, its opportunities for study and art education, and, at the same
time, the freedom that is nourished by nature and is realized through the varieties of its open horizons.” Through my exhibition, “The Green and the Grey,” we want to explore how new technologies allow us to bring nature to cities in new ways – helping to fulfill Reclus’s century-old dream.

To learn more about EDIT: Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology, visit editdx.org.

the author

Stephanie Kaptein

Stephanie Kaptein is a senior foresight analyst at Idea Couture.