Carlo Ratti on real-time cities and omnidisciplinary design

As the physical and digital worlds converge, how will the designer’s role evolve? How should today’s architects and engineers think about building tomorrow’s cities? Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, has spent his career exploring these questions. His new book, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life, will be released later this month.

I spoke to him in May.


You’re trained as both an engineer and an architect. What do you consider yourself?

Let me tell you first how I think of design. I like to use the definition given by Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize winner and a great researcher and sociologist from the past century. He once said, “Design looks at how the world could be, as opposed to science, which looks at how the world is.”

If that is your definition, you can’t really say, “I’m going to look at design as an architect, as an engineer.” You really want to look at the complexity of the world and then bring together different disciplines to explore what tomorrow could be.

You really want to […] bring together different disciplines to explore what tomorrow could be.

You’re also a prolific inventor and writer. How do you see the connections between these activities?

I see them as different hats. One hat is research, which is what we do at the Senseable City Lab. One hat is design, which is what we do at Carlo Ratti Associati. And then the third is ventures: products and start-ups that develop products. There’s also a little bit of writing and dissemination.

There’s also a new exciting space between architecture and computer science: the Internet of Things. I like to explore this from different points of view: research, products, projects, and also public discussion. This notion of the public intellectual is very important. Unlike in the 20th century, when architects were convinced they already had the solutions, today we’re not the ones to make the solutions. We can discuss solutions with the public, and then it’s important to nurture that discussion with writing.

Image from Senseable City Lab project exploring localized heating

Why do you think that transition has happened? Why are today’s architects interested in being facilitators?

The architect can be more than a facilitator. We discuss this in our book Open Source Architecture. The architect can come up with ideas, but those ideas should explore the potential of the present, and then the public has to respond. It’s a more collaborative way to make decisions.

Not all architects today think this way; some people are still anchored in the 20th century mentality. But this is dissipating. Some of the tragic mistakes of 20th century architecture are still very much with us — the negative aspects of the Modernist and International styles. A lot of that came from the idea that just one person could make decisions for all of society. Cities are too complex for just one person to make the decisions. We should be very careful about thinking that we can still impose solutions on society.

The zeitgeist now is really much more collaborative. That’s what we’ve seen over the last 10 years.

Cities are too complex for just one person to make the decisions.

Picking up on some of your talks online, can you tell me what a real-time city is and how designers need to think differently in order to design for it?

The real-time city means we can interact with the city through real-time data. That radically changes everything.

The way we interact with another animal or with an environment outside ourselves is based on a real-time exchange of information. We see each other, we sense each other; there’s a constant feedback loop in our brains.

Traditionally, architecture has not been like this. We would interact with it, but it wouldn’t move, it wouldn’t respond. The same with the city. More and more, city architecture will behave like a real-time living system. It will respond to us in a dynamic way.

When you’ve got real-time data, that means many things. It means you can find the closest Uber to drive you from point A to point B; you know when there’s a traffic jam and which way to go from A to B. But it can also mean many different things inside buildings. For instance, our design office is doing some of the largest coworking spaces in Europe right now, and we’re developing this idea that these office spaces can respond to you. They tell you if you have available seats, sort of like a car-sharing system. If there’s nobody in the room, the room will go on standby, pretty much like your computer. People will know where others are in the building — they can come together in an easier way. It becomes this dynamic relationship between humans and the environment.

workplace of the future

The workspace of the future, as envisioned by Carlo Ratti Associati

You describe the Senseable City Lab’s approach to designing cities as “omnidisciplinary.” How is this different from how things have been done in the past?

I think it’s related to the definition of design I mentioned before: a way to look at the transformative potential of the present. If you take that as your starting point, you want to bring together all the disciplines you need without any limitations.

A few months ago we launched a project called Underworlds that engages with people from planning, architecture, civil engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, and most importantly, biological engineering. We’re looking at DNA sampling in the city. We didn’t bring together so many different disciplines just for the sake of it; it was really a result of thinking, “What is the objective?”

The beautiful thing today is that disciplines are coming together more easily because the internet allows knowledge to flow more freely.

I’m sure it’s still not always easy or comfortable to work with such a varied group, though.

I think one of the causes of discomfort that can occur in these large teams is the artificial segmentation of the disciplines. Different groups talk in different ways; it’s often difficult to understand each other.

But what’s particularly exciting in the lab is that people that are eager to learn from one another. What brings them together is this idea of design: the transformative potential of what they’re doing. That’s the glue that keeps all the disciplines together.

Image from Carlo Ratti Associati project “The Mile”

But that artificial segmentation is changing as well. It was a necessity in the past, when access to knowledge was limited in space. When I was finishing my PhD at Cambridge in the early 2000s, just to get a scientific article you had to go to a specialized library and look. It would take hours. Today, with a click you could find it in seconds. Almost everything in terms of scientific articles and books is online. You can find information very quickly, and you can connect the dots between disciplines.

So those artificial boundaries are collapsing. If you look at Nature or other top scientific journals, two decades ago the most-cited articles were written by one person from one very well-defined discipline. Today, the articles with the largest amount of citations come from groups of researchers from many different disciplines. That is quite exciting.

So you can imagine that eventually the need for disciplines erodes?

I think it goes both ways. Of course nobody can absorb all human knowledge today. A few thousand years ago, you could dream of collecting all of human knowledge in a book — Saint Thomas Aquinas tried in the Middle Ages. Nobody can try to do that today, but you can create new connections between disciplines.

It’s a little bit the idea of consilience that was proposed by the great biologist Professor Edward O. Wilson at Harvard. He proposed this idea of unity of knowledge, and the internet is making that a reality.


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