Think. Design. Make. Carlo Ratti on the future of our cities

A transdisciplinary and multidimensional approach is essential for shaping the city of tomorrow
Thinking about the past, the future and its challenges, artificial intelligenceand nature-positive design between “thinking, designing and making” are the topics of the Archiproducts interview with Carlo Ratti, who is among the jurors of the Special Sustainability Mention of the Archiproducts Design Awards 2022

An architect and engineer by training, Carlo Ratti teaches at MIT where he directs the Senseable City Lab. He is a founding partner of the international design and innovation firm Carlo Ratti Associati.

Over the past decade, Ratti has lectured globally on the topic of Smart Cities. His work has been exhibited at international venues, including the Venice Biennale, MoMA in New York, the Science Museum in London and the Design Museum in Barcelona. 
Wired Magazine included him in their list of “50 People Who Will Change the World”. 
Ratti currently co-chairs the World Economic Forum – Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow. 

Interview with Carlo Ratti

Who was Carlo Ratti as a child, and what did he dream of doing when he grew up?
As a child, I spent a lot of time in the country, where my father – an engineer like my grandfather – decided to move with the family. As a teenager, I did well in school, but I was often confrontational towards the established order. I read Ivan Illich and became fond of his anarchical vision, which, to a certain extent, continued to influence me as an adult. At university, I began to follow a course of study and work that might have appeared confused – engineering, architecture, computer science and a bit of writing on the side. It took some time, but eventually, the scattered dots lined up.

Among your projects, which one do you identify with the most?
All the projects by our design and innovation firm CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati reflect our values and vision. We recently completed the construction of CapitaSpring, a 280-metre high tower designed with BIG for the developer Capitaland. Located in the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District, the building encloses an oasis of lush tropical nature dozens of meters above ground level – a kind of suspended public space.

CapitaSpring - Photo Finbarr Fallon 2

CapitaSpring – Photo Finbarr Fallon

What projects do you have on the drawing boards at the moment?
We are very interested in projects relating to decarbonization.

We are currently working on the first Hot Heart prototype. This project, created by CRA with a large team of engineers and environmental experts, won the ‘Helsinki Energy Challenge’ organized by the Finnish capital to gather ideas and plans to decarbonize the metropolitan heating system by 2030.

Hot Heart - Carlo Ratti Associati 3

Hot Heart – Carlo Ratti Associati

The project creates ten large artificial floating islands that function as thermal batteries. Energy from renewable sources is stored inside as hot water, which is then redistributed into the municipal heating system.
Over the past few months, we have started defining the development plan. We are planning to build a small prototype off the coast of Helsinki – a floating dock to test the system before scaling up to the urban level.

Your firm’s profile reads, “CRA aims to explore the intersection between the natural and artificial in the built environment, often leveraging digital technologies as part of a multidisciplinary mission to THINK, DESIGN, and MAKE innovation in the urban space.”
So what do you think the city of the future will look like?
In its outward form, it will probably not be too different from today’s – to the same extent that our cities are not that different from the Roman urbs. We will always need horizontal floors to stand on, vertical walls to separate spaces and fences to protect us from the outside world – the ‘Fundamentals’ as my colleague Rem Koolhaas would say.

That said, while the key elements of architecture will always be the same and our planning models will be very similar to the ones we know today, what will change will be the ways of experiencing the city through new technologies. From this point of view, to understand and, above all, shape the city of tomorrow, it will become essential to cut across different dimensions – starting with planning and widening the spectrum of action within a multidisciplinary approach. And here, I return to the three verbs from your question: think, design, make. These refer to the three divisions of CRA studio, with which we are trying to imagine our urban future.

CRA Think develops the studio’s vision with editorial and curatorial projects. CRA Design faces design on all scales, from product design to urban planning. CRA Make is active in construction and prototyping, developing innovative solutions for the future of building, as well as researching materials.

Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. How do you see the world less than ten years from the stroke of midnight on the climate change clock?
Between the pandemic and the return of war to Europe, the last two or three years have not exactly been easy for our planet. But even so, I am optimistic for at least two reasons.

One: environmental issues are firmly at the top of the priorities of the younger generations. 
Two: in more parts of the world, bipartisan political agreement is being reached to take bold action on climate change. I look to Northern Europe, but not only there. Many cities under the umbrella of organizations like C40, for example, have committed to achieving carbon neutrality over the next few years.

What are today’s challenges, and what is your thinking about the future?
I would echo the still-very-topical concept that the great inventor Buckminster Fuller expressed a few decades ago when he spoke of the alternative between Utopia and Oblivion. If architects cannot face the epochal changes underway, and if they continue to only tinker with form, the consequence will be oblivion. But if they can look complex and uncomfortable realities in the eye – like the climate crisis, the intersection of natural and artificial or informality and urban segregation – then it might be possible to invent a different future.

In one of your lectures, you said that Covid has accelerated the transformation of urban centres into ‘Smart Cities’. What are the best examples in this regard?
First, I would like to clarify this point. For years, I have been very critical of the use of the term ‘smart city’, a name that gives the impression of technology as a mere technological accident. Our interpretation of the same concept refers to the ‘senseable city’, which seeks to unite digital sensors’ ability to ‘feel’ with more exquisitely human ‘feeling’ understood as the ability to listen to and integrate the needs of citizens in the construction of the city.

In the first months of COVID, governments and municipal officials were faced with an unprecedented situation. There were no ‘best practices’ to refer to, and the only choice was to experiment boldly. A rapid approach – based on trial and error – accelerated the pace of projects, compressing what would have taken years into months or even weeks. Cities became laboratories for testing new visions and receiving comments and feedback from citizens.

CRA pioneered this approach in the Prishtina urban study, commissioned by the nomadic European biennial Manifesta during its 14th edition in Kosovo. The study proposes a series of temporary interventions in public spaces, then asks citizens to use them and express their opinions (if only by “voting with their feet”, meaning deciding whether or not to use the new spaces at all). The biennial will end on October 30, but based on the feedback, the city decided to make some of the urban projects permanent or, at any rate, extend them over a longer period.

Urban Vision for Manifesta 14 Prishtina - Photo Ivan Erofeev 4

Urban Vision for Manifesta 14 Prishtina – Photo Ivan Erofeev

Starting from the opportunities offered by artificial intelligence, how can innovative solutions create more inclusive cities? 
As I said, I think it is essential to focus on people first. Governments should encourage citizens to act first through ‘bottom-up’ processes. Our dream is to see the growth of participatory approaches to the city of the future.

“Nature-Positive Design”. How do you define this term, and do you really think it is really possible?
To answer, I will paraphrase the words of the German architect and critic Gottfried Semper. In ‘Kleine Schriften’, he said that architecture has its individual character, but at the same time, is in harmony with itself and its surroundings.

I interpret this harmony by searching for a new balance between – or the dual convergence of – the natural and the artificial. In one direction, the digital – with its sensors, actuators and artificial intelligence – allows us to ‘animate the artificial’, for example, by making buildings responsive and adaptable to their surroundings in real time. In the opposite direction, we can bring nature towards the artificial by incorporating authentic pieces of nature into projects – not only plants but also organic materials deployed to create truly circular projects.

Three examples of your work, on different scales, in which you have applied Nature-Positive principles?
Today, we are witnessing the increasing integration of the natural and the artificial. I believe that the designer’s task is to accelerate this convergence by using technological tools as well as botanical elements or new organic materials.

On a smaller scale, an example of such an approach was the Circular Garden project that we developed with CRA and Eni during 2019 Milan Design Week at the city’s Botanical Gardens. This large installation of architectural structures used mycelium, the vegetative roots of mushrooms. The idea is that by experimenting with such materials, we can create architecture that is born from the earth and, at the end of its life cycle, returns to the earth without generating waste.

The Circular Garden - Photo Marco Beck Peccoz 5

The Circular Garden – Photo Marco Beck Peccoz

Another example is The Greenary residence designed with Italo Rota for Francesco Mutti. The private home near Parma winds its way around a ten-metre-tall ficus tree in the centre of the living space. All domestic spaces on multiple levels are organized around the tree.

The Greenary - Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani and Alessandro Saletta 6

The Greenary – Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani and Alessandro Saletta

Finally, on an even larger scale, I would mention the Italian Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020, designed with Italo Rota and Matteo Gatto and F&M Ingegneria. From the very beginning, we asked ourselves how to make this Pavilion reconfigurable and circular so that it would not be dismantled at the end of the Expo, as often occurs after large temporary events. With these assumptions, we designed a multimedia façade with two million recycled plastic bottles. We also used innovative building materials from algae to coffee grounds, orange peels and sand along with an advanced climate mitigation system as an alternative to air conditioning.

Italy Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai - Photo Michele Nastasi 7

Italy Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai – Photo Michele Nastasi

Several times in your interviews, you cite the advice that Professor Albert Sorel gives to one of the characters in Truffalut’s Jules&Jim: ‘Travel, write, translate, learn to live anywhere… and start now. The future belongs to the professionally curious!’. Are you still of the opinion that the future belongs to them?

What advice would you give to a young architect entering the world of architecture today?
Today’s designers face major global challenges – climate change, urban segregation, the integration of digital technologies in the built environment.
To face these issues, they need much broader knowledge than what is provided by traditional university education, particularly in Italy. My advice to young architects would be to think of themselves as a new figure, a ‘choral architect’, as we noted, for example, in our essay on “Open Source Architecture” (published in English by Thames & Hudson and in Italy by Einaudi).
These new professional figures study and borrow knowledge from other disciplines. As young designers start out and grow their own practices, a transdisciplinary approach will help mobilize experts and communities from different fields to solve problems on the most diverse scales, from the local to the national and global.

Carlo Ratti - Photo Sara Magni 8

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