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The smart city and wider smart technology sector, like many new sectors, is made of many pioneering converts from its founding industries as well as a new generation of experts born into the field. Few, however, blur the lines between these two groups, and perhaps none more so than MIT professor Carlo Ratti.

An architect and engineer by training, Ratti directs the Senseable City Lab at MIT. He is also a founding partner of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati. He graduated from the Politecnico di Torino and the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, and later earned his MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Ratti has been listed as one of Esquire Magazine’s ‘Best & Brightest’, Thames & Hudson’s ‘60 innovators’ shaping our creative future, Blueprint Magazine’s ‘25 People Who Will Change the World of Design’, Forbes ‘Names You Need To Know’, and Fast Company ‘50 Most Influential Designers in America’. He was also featured in Wired Magazine’s ‘Smart List: 50 people who will change the world’ and two of his projects – the Digital Water Pavilion and the Copenhagen Wheel – were included in TIME Magazine’s ‘Best Inventions of the Year’.

This month Professor Ratti spoke exclusively to Memoori, on the development of the sector, the future of urban planning, his upcoming projects and all things Smart City – or “Senseable City”, as Ratti prefers to use.

Why do you prefer “Senseable” over “Smart” city, and how do you see the use of the term developing?

We prefer to use the term Senseable City – instead of Smart City – because it puts the human side, instead of the technology side, at the center. The word Senseable has a double meaning; it means “able to sense” and “sensible”. In fact, the common denominator of all of our projects is the fact that they are focused on people, rather than technology per se. Also, I believe that the term “smart cities” has been overused and sometimes abused over the past few years.

We have noticed that some people have started spontaneously to use the term “Senseable city” instead than “Smart city”. I believe that this is because of the necessity to define a more humanist smart city, which is precisely what our work aims to develop. We are more than happy when this happens, and we do encourage people to use “Senseable city”, also referring to the Lab’s work.

How has Senseable City theory come into practice and how has the development of the sector matched your initial expectations?

Our projects always focus on real urban issues – from energy to traffic, from waste to water management or citizen participation. When the Senseable City Lab started around 10 years ago, new technologies were promising exciting transformations in communication, transportation and fabrication. We tried to imagine how these developments could impact urban studies and how the unprecedented interaction of digital and physical would affect the way we understand, design and ultimately live in cities.

A few years down the line we can say that some fields we helped develop have become mainstream. Think about the use of real time information from cell phone networks for urban analysis – it was new when we unveiled it in 2005, but it is now available to everyone via Google Transit. While the key technological trends – Internet becoming Internet of Things or IoT – have remained constant, applications have changed and we kept on exploring new frontiers.

We have covered the on-going debate on city development from the top-down vs bottom-up, regarding citizen and government involvement in the urban design process. How do you see this debate, and the roles of each group?

We like to think about ourselves as agents for urban innovation. I like Herbert Simon’s definition of design: “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are… Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.” If we accept this definition, I think that the role of the designer is about challenging the present and introducing alternate possibilities, paving the way towards the future.

We like to call this paradigm Futurecraft, which is not so dissimilar from Buckminster Fuller’s Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science (CADS) – a systematic approach to design, “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 using an evolutionary framework for design. In this context, we like to think of the designer as a ‘mutagen’ – an agent that produces mutations and accelerates the transformation of the present into what it “ought to be”.

Regarding the role of governments, we think that they should encourage primarily citizens, through “bottom-up” dynamics, to take action. So, rather than focusing too much on the installation and control of hardware – fixed, static “sensing systems” – it is important to get people excited about creating apps and using data themselves. If we can develop the right platforms, people can be the ones to transform cities.

Considering the multi-faceted nature of the city – how will these different elements come together effectively, isn’t there a need for a centralized platform?

The city is an environment that naturally blends different scales and different technologies. I do not think that we need a single platform, but many intertwined ones. Concentration should be avoided at all cost; we should instead encourage bottom-up action by many different actors.

Algorithms increasingly run our cities. Centralized municipal systems can monitor the use of urban infrastructures from traffic lights to subway flows, from waste management to smart grids. Mayors all over the world are fascinated by the idea of real-time control rooms, in which all city information can be accessed (an example of this is Rio de Janeiro’s Operations Center, developed by IBM). Running all aspects of society using centralized algorithms seems increasingly feasible, with democracy giving way to data-driven decision making. It is easy to imagine how such a scenario might appeal to future government leaders.

Yet such an approach should be avoided at all costs. Decentralized decision-making is crucial for the enrichment of our society. It allows for a certain amount of randomness to enter in our lives and for new paths to be found, in a way that resembles the process of mutations in natural evolution. In fact, global optimization procedures look for solutions within a predetermined set but – in their present form – they exclude those game-changing paradigms that allow humanity to leap forward, and which are always based on a certain amount of randomness. One could say that if nature had used predictive algorithms for the replication of DNA, our planet would probably still be at the stage of a (very optimized) unicellular organism.

Distributed decision-making unleashes possible synergies between human and machine intelligence, opening the way to the promising prospect of natural and artificial co-evolution. Distributed intelligence might sometimes lead to less efficient solutions in the short term, but it will ultimately lead to a more creative, diverse and resilient society.

In our age of Big Data, cities are creating masses of useful information but also “noise”, which can be a burden for collection and analytic systems. Do we need a better balance to accelerate development?

Data gathering has been always at the core of city planning. Over a century ago, the great French geographer, Élisée Reclus, said that you need “surveying” before “planning”. One would need to research and understand the topography, the site, the context, and then plan accordingly.

Today we are doing the same, but just imagine what we can do with access to such a disproportionally larger amount of data. This possibility multiplies when data is open and citizens, as a community of knowledge, have the power to co-plan and manage their own cities.

Regarding the noise, I think that as much as possible we should filter it out at the end of the process, not at the beginning. Even what looks like noise at one point, could contain interesting insights.

What are you currently working on and what new Senseable City developments can we expect to see from MIT in the future?

We are working on many projects right now – from traffic to the use of big data to better understand urban communities, from energy consumption to water monitoring. One of the most interdisciplinary projects, focusing on the relationship between Big Data and Biological Engineering, is called Underworlds, which deals sources data about urban health through an analysis of bacteria and chemicals in the sewage system.

A similar relationship also featured in a project last year, when we developed a vision to tackle the issue of potable water supply – using Big Data and drones. With this project, called WaterFly, we envisioned a system in which drones move in swarm and scan the water quality in lakes and rivers. The drones would use cameras to individuate health risks from above, such as a massive presence of cyanobacteria, and then dip down to the water’s surface to scoop up a sample when that is needed. The project itself could not fix the issue of water pollution, but it would provide scientists with better data to advance the research.

Our future is urban, our future is one of Smart, or Senseable, Cities. While we can only speculate on how that future may develop, we can be fairly certain that Professor Ratti will continue to be instrumental and Memoori will be there to cover it. For more insightful interviews, in-depth reports and industry analysis, sign up to our weekly newsletter below.

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