Interview with Carlo Ratti

Carlo Ratti

Carlo Ratti is a civil engineer and architect who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the SENSEable City Laboratory. He is a regular contributor of articles on architecture to the magazines Domus and Casabella and the Italian newspapers Il Sole 24 Ore and La Stampa.

He is one of the most relevant specialists in Smart Cities at this moment, and his work and vision is behind several projects and research around the Future of The City. He has shared his knowledge in this informative interview about his past, present and future and his projects and vision.

You are both Engineer and Architect. Engineer was first in time, but you knew in advance you wanted to have this kind of eclectic knowledge or you discovered your vocation in Architecture later?

I discovered it later. It was a kind of random walk, as I was following the things I liked. As Steve Jobs once put it: the dots lined up only retrospectively, a posteriori...


How was the beginning of your relationship with this Smart City idea. What projects or milestones in your career pointed you at this direction as part of you professional trajectory?

I think it was when I was at the MIT media lab in the early 2000. I realized that the issue was not anymore the interface human- computer, but a new triad: human-computer (now distributed and networked)-space. I think that this is the main equation of all the work we are currently doing on smart cities...


What does the intelligence of the cities rely on? What kind of infrastructure does the city need to support this intelligence?

Here is how I would describe it:

What is happening at an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One racing. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. The car was transformed into a computer that was monitored in real time by thousands of sensors, becoming “intelligent” and better able to respond to the conditions of the race.

In a similar way, over the past decade digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Broadband fiber-optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are increasingly affordable. At the same time, open databases—especially from the government—that people can read and add to are revealing all kinds of information, and public kiosks and displays are helping literate and illiterate people access it. Add to this foundation a relentlessly growing network of sensors and digital- control technologies, all tied together by cheap, powerful computers, and our cities are quickly becoming like “computers in open air.”


Are people ready to adopt this smart city way of life? Smart has to do with technology and Technology is quite a powerful transformation tool. But with great power comes big responsibility. Do you take into account this potential social impact in your research about Smart Cities?

Yes, I believe that we should always start from the human component. Technology is only a mean to achieve that...


How far are we from living in real and complete Smart Cities? How it should be your perfect city? Is there any real example today resembling your ideal place for living 10 years from now?

I am not sure... I think that there is not just one solution fit all. there are currently many experiments in cities all across the world - for instance Singapore is leading the way in transportation, Copenhagen in sustainability, etc.


SENSEable City Lab is one of your current projects. Could you please describe it to our audience? How is it evolving after 7 years of existence? What challenges have you already faced? You have real world projects already (Singapore, for instance), what are you planning for the next future?

We want to keep on exploring (and hence contribute to shape) our common urban future. As next projects we are planning to focus on cities in developing countries...

The lab's method is the following:

The Senseable City Lab begins its project and research work with a vision for an urban future, or "urban demo". This vision is tailored to a particular city's needs and can be motivated by the challenges a place may be confronting, or by opportunities for providing new experiences or services due to advances in digital technologies. Urban demos are designed to be showcased at large public events and exhibitions to stimulate debate between citizens, public administrators, and industry. Following an urban demo, the Lab typically engages in more traditional academic research - analyzing the data that has been collected and producing research papers.


Behind this SENSEableCity idea is the more general concept of digitalization of the city. The same way you can sample analog signals to reconstruct them, filter them, process them, is it possible to process a city the same way, real time using “digital city filters”? Is there something like a Nyquist theorem for cities so you can decide which is the minimum sampling rate to get an accurate reconstruction of the city? If not, is there any risk of getting a (kind of) reconstruction of the city with aliasing?

Nice question, but I do not think that the goal is just to reconstruct a city in the digital space. I think it is more about creating cyber-physical systems where people and the built environment seamlessly interact...


Latest smartphones as Samsung Galaxy S3 has an enormous number of sensors. It has something to do with the interest from manufacturers in order to collect data from us in this Smart City vision? Or it’s just a coincidence. Are you talking with technology manufacturers or services designers to assist their R&D departments?

It seems to me that most sensors are determined by the needs of phones and the app space. However, as a byproduct, this is helping greatly make the smart city vision a reality. For instance, since a few years each of us is a walking camera. or a walking accelerometer. And this is opening up unprecedented opportunities in the way we describe and interface with our environment.

Incidentally you might be interested in this project, which leverages the accelerometer built in most of our smartphones


You collect an enormous number of samples (data) from sensors. How do you face the fact you need to secure and protect them just not to get them stolen or even worst, manipulated. Is security a concern for you?

In all of our projects we make sure that all information is anonymized beforehand - on our servers there is no one single bit of personal information... but security and privacy are major concerns in our society. This is why we recently promoted a forum called "engaging data" to contribute to that discussion.


Is there any work in progress in Spain related to Smart Cities? Which projects in the world are you more interested in?

Yes we are working in Spain with both BBVA and Ferrovial. There is currently a very interesting debate about smart cities in Spain - as Spain invested a lot in construction over the past decades and is looking at new ways to use its built infrastructure...


How does the Smart City concept intersect with other fields as architecture, transportation, energy, communications, or even with education, or with our culture (the society instruction manual and users guide, so to speak)

I believe that it intersects with all of them - all of them are part of urban living!


 Thanks a lot for your time

 All the best…

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