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Where the digital and the physical meet: Connecting bits and atoms

Participatory design is playing an increasing role all over the world. In Europe, it is manifest in this year’s architectural biennale in Venice and in the search for new housing models. We spoke to Professor Carlo Ratti, who directs the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a multidisciplinary research initiative, which explores the interaction of people, digital technology and the city.

PROFILE: When you investigate the interface between people, technology and the city, actors from many different fields are collaborating in an interdisciplinary way. How do you describe the role of architects within this network?

Carlo Ratti: I believe that architecture has always been concerned with designing interfaces between people and the environment. However, when we lived in grottos, such interfaces were primarily made of atoms; today they are much more complex, and cannot exclude real-time information flows. I do not think that the definition of architecture has changed – simply, we need to face a new reality. With all of the above, architecture is increasingly becoming a multidisciplinary, collaborative science. At the Senseable City Lab and Carlo Ratti Associati, we work in teams with people from all over the world. Each researcher has a different background, skills and personal history. Several come from architecture and design, but we also have mathematicians, economists, sociologists, and physicists. »Diversity« is one of our greatest assets. I think the architect today is well placed to play an orchestrating role, what we could define as a »choral architect«. We see the architect as someone who can coordinate several voices, harmonising them into a better ensemble. We explore this topic in our book »Open Source Architecture«, arguing for a paradigm shift from the ego-fuelled visions of architecture of the 20th century to a collaborative, inclusive, network-driven process inspired by 21st century trends such as crowd-sourcing, open access and mass customisation.

PROFILE: In your research , you collaborate with partners such ascities as well as companies. How do you see the role of the public and private sector in developing innovative solutions for urban environments?

Carlo Ratti: The city is always the result of a communal effort from multiple actors working together. As a lab dealing with urban research, we think that we need to be as fluent with industry partners as with metropolitan governments, individual citizens and disadvantaged communities. Collaboration is at the core of what we do. Government certainly has an important task to play in supporting academic research and promoting applications in fields that might be less appealing to private capital – unglamorous but crucial domains, such as municipal waste or water services. The public sector can also promote the use of open platforms and standards in such projects, which would speed up adoption in cities worldwide. But, most importantly, governments should use their funds to develop a bottom-up, innovative ecosystem geared towards smart cities. Similar to the system growing among US policymakers, diplomacies must go beyond supporting traditional incubators by producing and nurturing the regulatory frameworks that allow innovation to thrive. Given the legal hurdles that continuously plague applications like Uber or Airbnb, this level of support is sorely needed. However, governments should steer away from the temptation to play a more deterministic and top-down role.

PROFILE: Who is the author, owner or liability holder in the constellation of Open Source Architecture?

Carlo Ratti: In fact, the Open Source Architecture book itself originated as a co-authored Wikipedia page involving Paola Antonelli, Adam Bly, Lucas Dietrich, Joseph Grima, Dan Hill, John Habraken, Alex Haw, John Maeda, Nicholas Negroponte, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Carlo Ratti, Casey Reas, Marco Santambrogio, Mark Shepard, Chiara Somajni and Bruce Sterling. The book manuscript continued that way, with multiple voices. However, open source does not mean handing over liability to simply anyone. A specific tension at the core of the discipline is whether or not the future occupants of buildings, with no professional training, can be confronted with decisions that involve complex structural, regulatory or mechanical knowledge. The architectural production chain is a colossal and intricate admixture of different contributions by different people at different stages. Open processes can be integrated at specific points in this chain, according to the skill set, role and purview of any given stakeholder. The easiest form of opening the process is to have users respond and provide feedback to what architects propose.

PROFILE: Interactive communication plays an important role for the future of cities, mobility and people. We are »sensing« the city and the city is »sensing« us. What are your paradigms for sensing?

Carlo Ratti: Sensing and actuating are the basic principles of life. As highlighted by Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, this is how processing works in the human brain – and increasingly in the digitally enhanced world around us. The concept of Senseable City is simply the manifestation of a broad technological trend: the Internet is entering the spaces we live in, becoming the Internet of Things, allowing us to create myriad sensing actuating loops that were not possible before. Applications are manifold: from energy to waste management, from mobility to water distribution, from city planning to citizen engagement. So we do not want to focus on specific applications: in our projects, we aim to explore how the Internet of Things is opening up a new approach to the study of the built environment. We want to investigate and intervene at the interface between people, technologies and the city – developing research and applications that empower citizens to make choices that result in a more liveable urban condition for all. We like to imagine that our cities are becoming »Senseable« – with its double meaning, both »able to sense’ and »sensible«. We like the word »Senseable city«, as opposed to »Smart city«, as the former puts the emphasis on the human – as opposed to technological – side of things.

PROFILE: Looking back to the 20th century, there were in - tentions to implement participatory design in architecture; today it is widely agreed that these efforts have failed. Why is now the right time?

Carlo Ratti: There is an interesting comment by Christopher Alexander, an iconoclastic mathematician turned designer turned activist, who offered several models of participatory design in the second half of the 20th century, including his well-known Oregon Experiment. In this project, Alexander offered a radical new approach to designing best-fit yet cohesive environments for a large community of stakeholders; one that would allow decisions to be made continuously by the entire group, rather than be guided by a strict, original and singular master plan. However, the Achilles’ heel of the project – one that Alexander had not anticipated, despite the sophistication of his methodology – was the difficulty of attracting stakeholders to the actual, nitty- gritty, raise-your-hand-and-vote process of making decisions. His system worked so hard to make a seamless and flexible participatory process that it did not account for student apathy. In 1994, architecture critic Greg Bryant wrote that the students »are apathetic… because no one asks them anything.« I believe that today we have new tools to involve people in the process. The Internet lowers the barriers for participation and has created a new culture of sharing. I believe that this is one of the key contributing factors today.

PROFILE: How does the open source network affect the meaning of value?

Carlo Ratti: Open source architecture opens up new possibilities to create and share value. It was the Swedish sociologist Thorsten Veblen, who coined the phrase »conspicuous consumption« more than a hundred years ago. Veblen observed that families would indulge in unnecessary purchases in order to express their status. Could the concept of »conspicuous consumption« – which defined much of 20th century consumer culture – be at a turning point? Over the last ten years, the internet and social media have brought new ways to be conspicuous. The medium of conspicuous consumption seems to have changed: bits instead of atoms. Being conspicuous, but without consumption? Could such changes also apply to the production of architecture?