DATA DRIVEN

It’s not just the cities of the fu­ture that will be trans­formed by raw data and sci­ence-driven de­sign. The ir­re­press­ible Carlo Ratti, di­rec­tor of MIT’S Senseable City Lab­o­ra­tory, wants to help to­day’s ur­ban­ists see that the rev­o­lu­tion is al­ready here.

Azure - - CONTENTS - By Su­san Ner­berg Por­traits by Bren­dan Zhang

Our cover story on the ir­re­press­ible Carlo Ratti, the Ital­ian ar­chi­tect who uses raw data to make cities smarter, greener and health­ier By Su­san Ner­berg

Carlo Ratti has barely sat down to stir sugar into his espresso when he starts telling me how to shape the fu­ture of ur­ban life. The speed at which he’s talk­ing is a give­away that this is his favourite sub­ject, and I doubt he re­ally needs that caf­feine. He’s ex­plain­ing to me how his Senseable City Lab­o­ra­tory here at MIT in­cu­bates tech­nol­ogy-driven ways of trans­form­ing cities to bet­ter serve peo­ple and to pro­mote hu­man in­ter­ac­tion. “To see the po­ten­tial for trans­for­ma­tion, you ask de­sign ques­tions, ex­plor­ing how things could be,” he says. “Then you use sci­ence, which looks at how things are, to find the an­swers. To­day we have the ad­van­tage of us­ing tech­nol­ogy in our sci­en­tific work to cre­ate an al­ter­na­tive uni­verse.”

When Pal­la­dio wrote his trea­tise on ar­chi­tec­ture in the 16th cen­tury, the ma­te­rial and method at hand were stone and ma­sonry. Later, Le Cor­bus­ier rec­og­nized the far-reach­ing changes that en­gi­neer­ing and re­in­forced con­crete would bring. Now, Ratti claims, the raw ma­te­rial of data will rein­vent ar­chi­tec­ture just as pro­foundly. “What’s cru­cial to­day in ar­chi­tec­ture is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween de­sign and re­search,” he says. “The reper­toire has ex­panded with the in­ter­net, and it’s grow­ing fur­ther with the in­ter­net of things. This is all changing how we in­ter­act with the en­vi­ron­ment, so it’s vi­tal for ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers to learn how we can play with this new ma­te­rial.”

Ratti’s souped-up sense of cu­rios­ity in­ter­rupts his own trea­tise as he spots a woman across the atrium with a pair of skis. This is un­usual, con­sid­er­ing we’re in Bos­ton and it’s a swel­ter­ing mid-may af­ter­noon. “Let’s find out where she’s go­ing,” he says, march­ing to­ward her. It turns out the woman isn’t go­ing any­where; she’s a stu­dent sell­ing her old rac­ing skis. “Well,” he says, be­fore re­turn­ing to mat­ters at hand, “I had to find out.” This sense of want­ing to know has driven Ratti, now 46, far. As well as run­ning the Senseable City Lab, he works with clients in his de­sign stu­dio, Carlo Ratti As­so­ciati, in his home­town of Turin. With a mas­ter’s of sci­ence in civil en­gi­neer­ing from Turin and Paris, and a PHD in ar­chi­tec­ture from Cam­bridge, he’s fig­ured out how to line up art and sci­ence, to merge a vis­ual reper­toire with one based on tech­nol­ogy.

As the work done at the Lab and the Turin stu­dio demon­strates, re­search means us­ing tech­nol­ogy and big data, the lat­ter of which has some peo­ple con­cerned about pri­vacy. “But to plan some­thing, you first need a sur­vey,” he says, “and big data is noth­ing more than

a so­phis­ti­cated sur­vey that al­lows us to make real what ur­ban­ists in the past could only dream of.”

It’s doubt­ful that many of those dreams were about sew­ers, but the Lab’s Un­der­worlds project is a sig­na­ture suc­cess story. It uses sen­sors in­stalled in sewage pipes to mon­i­tor waste for bio­chem­i­cal com­po­nents that of­fer clues as to nu­tri­tion, stress lev­els, dis­ease, drug use and other fac­tors that could help cities de­vise bet­ter com­mu­nity, health and so­cial pro­grams or change zon­ing laws to in­clude, say, more green space or gro­cery stores where these are lack­ing. Dur­ing the pro­to­type phase, ro­bots were de­ployed to gather sam­ples from the sew­ers of Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, al­low­ing the Lab to track stress lev­els among the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion by mea­sur­ing cor­ti­sol lev­els dur­ing exam time. The project can also be used as an early-warn­ing sys­tem to de­tect – and con­tain the spread of – con­ta­gious dis­eases, as well as to track things like fen­tanyl use, en­abling in­ter­ven­tions that could pre­vent over­doses and save lives. “Un­der­worlds is about show­ing dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios, including dystopic ones, so that we can de­tect and fix prob­lems. But we’re also work­ing on projects that let cit­i­zens make choices based on real-time data.” The Lab’s LIVE Sin­ga­pore! scheme uses a city-wide network of sen­sors to give Sin­ga­pore­ans ac­cess to pub­lic trans­porta­tion data, weather, in­store stock of prod­ucts, traf­fic flow and more. And the Turin stu­dio’s

Su­per­mar­ket of the Fu­ture – first show­cased at the 2015 Mi­lan World Expo and im­ple­mented ear­lier this year at Coop Italia’s new flag­ship gro­cery store in Mi­lan – has cus­tomers tap­ping the store’s in­ter­ac­tive screens for in­for­ma­tion on where a prod­uct was made, how much CO2 was emit­ted dur­ing its ship­ping, and whether chem­i­cals were used, al­low­ing shop­pers to de­cide whether they want to eat a pesticide-laden ap­ple or an or­ganic one. When con­sumers are em­pow­ered to make these kinds of in­formed choices, they can also push for eco-friendly changes.

Us­ing the build­ing blocks of big data, Ratti’s firm also dreamed up the Dig­i­tal Wa­ter Pav­il­ion (for the 2008 World Expo in Zaragoza, Spain), in which real-time sen­sors and dig­i­tal soft­ware were used to de­sign dy­namic, flow­ing ar­chi­tec­ture that could be re­pro­grammed to fit dif­fer­ent cityscapes and needs. The Lab was also be­hind the cre­ation of the Copen­hagen Wheel; in­stalled on the rear wheel of any bi­cy­cle, the de­vice “learns” the biker’s stride to boost pedal power, mak­ing the ride eas­ier and faster. It also uses a smart­phone app to track fit­ness data and in­for­ma­tion about the rider’s sur­round­ings, including car­bon monox­ide, NOX, noise, am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture and rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity.

But for Ratti, true trans­for­ma­tion will only take place when ar­chi­tec­ture crosses the bound­aries of tech­nol­ogy, elec­tron­ics, math­e­mat­ics, bi­ol­ogy and so­cial sci­ences, as oc­curs in Un­der­worlds. “For me, there’s no doubt that ar­chi­tec­ture in­cludes all these ar­eas,” he says. That’s why, at the con­cep­tual and ex­per­i­men­tal Senseable City Lab, Ratti brings to­gether re­searchers from wildly dif­fer­ent fields of study. Un­like in his Turin of­fice, where the staff are mostly ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers tasked with meet­ing a client’s pro­gram needs (as avant­garde as those may some­times be), the Bos­ton team also com­prises econ­o­mists, en­gi­neers, data sci­en­tists, bi­ol­o­gists, math­e­ma­ti­cians and data vi­su­al­iz­ers. “Part of what makes Carlo such a strong lat­eral thinker is his multi-faceted back­ground,” says New­sha Ghaeli, a re­search as­so­ciate and project lead at the Lab who re­cently took Un­der­worlds from test case to start-up. “But he’s also a great re­la­tion­ship builder, rec­og­niz­ing and hon­ing tal­ent in oth­ers and valu­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion,” she says. “And you can’t build a bet­ter city with­out look­ing at the big pic­ture and lis­ten­ing to its many voices.”

For Ratti’s col­lab­o­ra­tors, there is no typ­i­cal day at the of­fice. At the Turin stu­dio, the boss has no as­signed desk. “Carlo sits down be­side whomever he needs to col­lab­o­rate with on a given day,” says Emma Greer, the ar­chi­tect and soon-to-be part­ner who also dou­bles as the CRA “chief of staff.” It’s a struc­ture that pro­motes cross-pol­li­na­tion, much like in Bos­ton, where ideas are gen­er­ated at light­ning speed thanks to a multi-ta­lented team. “We have more ideas than we have peo­ple and fund­ing to test them out,” says Ghaeli. These work sce­nar­ios mimic the cities Ratti dreams of, where con­ver­gence, col­lab­o­ra­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion flour­ish.

This broad ap­proach feeds Ratti’s pas­sion for how hu­mans can change the present. “The rea­son we have cities to­day is the same as when cities were first founded some 10,000 years ago: to bring peo­ple to­gether,” he says. “But along the way we’ve lost some pieces of what made ur­ban­ity great.” The rise of the au­to­mo­bile, for in­stance, has lit­er­ally boxed peo­ple in. He re­calls the first time he vis­ited Bei­jing, in 1999. “It was amaz­ing to see that most peo­ple were still get­ting around on bikes. But the last time I went, the bikes were largely gone. In­stead, cars are ev­ery­where, there’s pol­lu­tion, and fit­ness lev­els

and op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ter­ac­tion have de­te­ri­o­rated.” Hope­fully, that’s changing again, with a boom in bike shar­ing, led by Mo­bike and Ofo. In the mean­time, New York is slowly be­com­ing a bike city, and in Copen­hagen 41 per cent of trips al­ready hap­pen by bike, while poli­cies are in­creas­ingly im­ple­mented to keep pedes­tri­an­iz­ing the city cen­tre. “We need to find more new ways of de­sign­ing cities that bring peo­ple to­gether again.”

De­sign can clearly be a cat­a­lyst for pos­i­tive change, so it’s no won­der Ratti was in­vited to cu­rate one of the five themes that forms part of EDIT (Expo for De­sign, In­no­va­tion and Tech­nol­ogy), which is be­ing held in Toronto from late September to early Oc­to­ber. To put to­gether the ex­hibit, Toronto’s De­sign Ex­change teamed up with the United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme to in­vite five in­flu­encers, including Bruce Mau and Jamie Oliver, from dif­fer­ent fields. The idea is to ex­plore how de­sign, in­no­va­tion and tech­nol­ogy can be used to im­prove the lives of peo­ple, no mat­ter where in the world or un­der what cir­cum­stances they live (the tagline is “Pros­per­ity for All”). Ratti’s ex­hibit, The Green and the Grey, fits right in, show­ing, among other things, a sce­nario in which tech­nol­ogy is used to bring na­ture back to cities where it’s been lost.

Ratti tells me that as hu­mans we have an in­nate bio­philia, or love for na­ture. “To be hon­est, I don’t think we’ll ever have a city where, for in­stance, we’ll be able to grow all our food, be­cause in a place like Toronto there’s not enough sun­light year-round,” he says. “But to­day, for the first time, we can use tech­nol­ogy such as LEDS and hy­dro­pon­ics to in­crease green space. While we’ll still have the Amer­i­can Mid­west and the Cana­dian Prairies pro­duc­ing much of our food, we’ll be able to grow closer to where we live,” he says. “And keep in mind that green space is not just about farm­ing; it’s about bring­ing back na­ture in the form of an ecosys­tem with an­i­mals. It’s about mix­ing the ar­ti­fi­cial and the nat­u­ral.”

Great ar­chi­tects have failed to build bet­ter cities be­cause they thought and acted as if they had the so­lu­tion, Ratti the­o­rizes. “The essence of be­ing an ar­chi­tect in the 20th cen­tury was sim­plis­tic: re­place some­thing old by im­pos­ing some­thing new, with­out ever ask­ing what peo­ple wanted or what they needed,” he ex­plains. “Our role to­day is not to pro­vide the so­lu­tion; it is to pro­vide dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties for the fu­ture.” The task, then, be­comes to push the bound­aries, to start a dis­cus­sion and to al­low ex­per­i­men­ta­tion to hap­pen. “In the 21st cen­tury, changes have to be a col­lec­tive act. And tech­nol­ogy will al­low us to get there and build a frame­work that al­lows for open­source de­sign and cit­i­zen feed­back. It’s like evo­lu­tion – where the designer is the mu­ta­genic agent.” It takes a vil­lage to raise a city. senseable.mit.edu, car­loratti.com

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