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© Carlo Ratti

interviews

Futurecraft

by Carlo Ratti
January 14, 2019

Carlo Ratti is an architect and engineer, directs the MIT Senseable City Lab, and leads CRA design and innovation practice (New York and Turin).

Part of your mission at Senseable is to anticipate planning and design changes critically — how large a part does climate change play in this? 

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we are facing, nobody can ignore it and in particular urban design and planning. One possible approach clearly is to make cities more efficient and sustainable: after all, they cover only 2% of the planet but are responsible for around 80% of CO2 emissions. As such, better cities can be a major part of the solution. Another approach is that of working on adaptability – or even on geoengineering – to mitigate the effect of climate change.

Being unbound by methodology allows you to meet a task where it’s needed most – do you think that government institutions, and top-down planning, has that freedom? Or are they bound by something that disallows real movement and solutions? 

I would not say that we are unbound by methodology – rather, we tend to rely on the idea of “futurecraft”. This is something that is rooted in Herbert Simon’s definition of design, which he put forward in his book "The Sciences of the Artificial": “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are… Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.” I like to see our work as something that contributes to the production of mutations, accelerating the transformation of the present into how it “ought to be”. I think design can be used as systematic germination of possible futures, intervening at the interface between people, technologies and the city.  You are right, however, that this approach is the opposite of the traditional top-down approach often used in urban planning.

 In 2009 Senseable did a project titled Trash | Track — that asked questions about where waste ended up and how it got there. Why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the removal-chain? What were your findings from that study on an analytical / critical side vs. the data side?

The supply chain has been thoroughly studied and redesigned over the past decades as it was easy to capture value from this streamlining exercise. It is more difficult to do the same with what we can call the “removal” chain – and hence it has not changed that much. Studying it is a long term focus of ours. Recently we have been engaged with a follow-up version of the project that took it to the international scale: with Monitour, by putting GPS trackers on pieces of electronic waste, we discovered previously unknown e-waste routes, including rogue ones, departing from the U.S to China. 

Going back to our Trash Track project you mentioned, we had Seattle residents put geo-localizable tags on pieces of their trash, so we could follow them through the U.S. waste disposal system. Using this data, we analyzed the inefficiencies of the disposal chain, with results published in different scientific papers such as this one in IEEE Pervasive Computing. Visual results were then communicated widely through exhibitions, news outlets, and other media – as we think that it is always important to create feedback loops with people and help shape public opinion.

Does this research leave you optimistic about the future of waste?

Technology can suggest better futures – for instance, a condition where all trash is tagged and can be disposed of in the best possible way. However, it will be up to us to decide which futures to enable… 

Since launching Trash | Track in 2009 do you think our systems have changed with respect to this research? How do you think micro-economies, public and private sector, compare to larger government sectors in regard to effectiveness in terms of adaptation?

I do not think that there is a general solution. I believe in bottom-up initiatives, for instance by stimulating a rich startup ecosystem in urban innovation. However, that isn’t to say that governments should take a completely hands-off approach to urban development. Governments certainly have an important role to play. This includes supporting academic research on cities and promoting applications in fields that might be less appealing to venture capital – unglamorous but nonetheless crucial domains like water services or municipal waste, as we were just discussing. The public sector can also promote policies and develop open platforms and standards.

How much do you think policy factors into waste?

Policy is crucial. The challenge is that when it comes to industrial waste, such as electronics or plastic, we need to reach global agreements, which is always difficult. Think about being able to enact that all disposable plastics should be biodegradable – or reach similar consensus to what was achieved with the “Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer” in 1989.

Do you predict that design will adapt to our needs?

I think that it does if we follow Futurecraft – as only designs that respond to our needs are selected by this method. Furthermore, with the spread of digital technologies, design can become more responsive to our needs. All materials are becoming embedded in electronics. As the IoT revolution unfolds, what we are beginning to see is a wide-spread fusion between the physical and the digital – or ubiquitous computing, to use a term coined by the late American computer scientist Mark Weiser. These technologies allow designers to imagine that architecture can develop responsiveness, learning from people’s needs. As digital systems slip quietly into the background, and we enter the age of “calm technology,” as Weiser called it, an entirely new generation of consumer products will be introduced— the so-called everyware —imagined as intuitive, integrated, and invisible, an unobtrusive class of devices and systems that scarcely demand any attention from users.

Architecture – and, more broadly, urban design – has often been described as a kind of “third skin” – after our biological one and our clothing; and yet we have to acknowledge that this skin has been the most rigid and uncompromising of the three, almost a corset. We see the disruptive, digital technologies of the Internet-of-Things (IoT) revolution as having the potential to make this skin more flexible, allowing the built environment to start adapting to us and generating a living, tailored architecture that is molded by the life inside it.

You often solve and address complex problems with seemingly simple tech. Is it intentionally simple for users? Or is it a function of needing vast amounts of data?

Technology – or Big Data analytics - can be very complicated. But we want to make sure that the questions we are addressing are very accessible to people. We want to create a feedback loop with citizens – as they should be the ones to decide which city they want to live in. Again this is the basis of Futurecraft.

But there is a more general point. Embracing the IoT revolution is not about ushering in an era of complex technology, but creating a network between the physical and the digital technologies that are becoming ever simpler to use and manage. As we were saying, we are nearing the dream of Weiser, who in 1996 predicted that “technology will recede into the background of our lives” and we will enter an era of “ubiquitous computing, or calm technology,” with digital technologies integrated more seamlessly into our lives.

What are the largest barriers for carrying the work you do out of the institution and into larger practice?

The key barrier is being able to break barriers between disciplines. Cities work in silos, and so do universities and companies. In order to address these problems, we need to break the silos down…