Interview

"We’re inventing the city of tomorrow today."

What will the city of tomorrow look like? The MIT professor and founder of architecture practice CRA, Carlo Ratti, has some interesting answers to this question and explains how modern technologies could reconfigure existing structures and change our habits.

Interview Tanita Hecking  Photo Sara Magni

Mr. Ratti, do we even need Smart Cities?

Yes. We may not want them, but we need them. Our cities are full of shortcomings, which are clearly reflected in traffic and pollution. We are continually striving for a better quality of life, but the only way we can achieve this is with technology and progress. In fact, there are many ways technology can improve a city. Singapore does a lot in terms of mobility, Boston with citizen participation, Copenhagen with sustainability. What is certain is that our cities must become better, and by that I mean above all more environmentally friendl.

 

And how exactly can we make the city of tomorrow more sustainable? 

We shouldn’t build it the way we did in the twentieth century—a lot of resources were wasted back then. Cities weren’t planned in an optimal and useful manner. There was a greater focus on densifying the space and creating a separate living space for everyone. As a result, many things were not used as effectively as they could have been. One example is our apartments, which are empty most of the time. Technology such as real­time data could make it possible to use all areas of life more efficiently.

 

So sustainability is about efficiency?

Not just that. In the twentieth century, people filled the landscape with cities. Today it’s exactly the other way around in that we want to bring nature back into the city. My design office and I recently designed a pavilion for the opening of this year’s Design Week in Milan. It stood on the Piazza del Duomo, had a garden in the middle and emulated all four seasons.

Sustainable and smart: the city of the future reflects nature–but inside it is driven by algorithms.

Sustainability is an important aspect for the future, but some changes aren’t visible immediately. Will we see this technological transformation in the way we build homes?
Technology will continue to change our lives, but not architecture itself. Buildings will become increasingly interactive, but fundamental elements such as ceilings, façades, roofs and windows will remain. They protect us from the environment, let light in and allow us to look outside. I like to call the city of the future a “SENSEable city,” because technology will allow us to feel the city of tomorrow.

In which areas will we still be aware of the change?
I hope that the processes where we use technology will become more natural. For example, typing on a smartphone or computer is very unnatural. It’s possible that we might google our thoughts instead. The internet could become an extension of our brain, but that is still a long way off. We are already seeing significant changes in the area of mobility, where we’re using apps and sharing systems to get around. In the coming years, autonomous driving will have an additional impact on our mobility.

How exactly?
It will drastically change our cityscapes. Self-driving cars could greatly reduce the total number of cars in cities. Around 95 percent of vehicles are not in use most of the time. We would need just a bit less than half the number of cars to ensure seamless mobility. This means fewer parking spaces and fewer parked cars. Big data could be used to generate the number of necessary cars, for instance.

Technological change won’t just transform our mobility. Job automation due to artificial intelligence is a hot topic. What skills will we humans need in the future?
Artificial intelligence, or AI, has thus far proved successful only in repetitive tasks, like assembly line work. Nonetheless, in twenty years around 50 percent of today’s jobs will have disappeared. We need to find ways to retrain people and teach them the skills that will be relevant in the future, like creativity. AI hasn’t yet succeeded in reliably taking on creative activities. And jobs that require contact with people, such as nursing, will outlast other professions. A friend of mine always says that one of the world’s oldest professions will be the one that survives all the rest—cutting hair.

 

 

Even if some professions are immune to automation, we must adapt. Is it at all possible to keep up with the pace of technological change?

I don’t think we’ve had a problem keeping up before, but now technological change is accelerating so quickly that it’s imperative that we adapt our speed to it. We must remember that we humans cannot suddenly improve our knowledge and skills in a very short period of time. That’s why we need to manage change well, so that it doesn’t run away from us. 

What difficulties do we still have to overcome in the process?

The greatest difficulties are connected with society. Many people are more passive and are more cautious about new technologies, especially in Europe. That is a big risk, because these technologies will continue to play an even larger role in our lives. If you want to manage change, you have to understand it.

Do you use modern technology in everyday life yourself? 

Yes, I like to carry out experiments on myself. Three years ago, for instance, I got rid of my car. Since then, I’ve only been riding my bicycle, taking public transport or using Uber. I don’t miss anything at all. Like many others, I use speech assistants such as Siri and Alexa, for example, to play music at home. For me it is important to try out technology to know if it works. New technologies have it easier in the United States and Asia, by the way. People there are more enthusiastic and try to perfect them.

We are sitting at the pool bar of the Kempinski Hotel on San Clemente, a small island that is part of Venice, and had to take a water taxi to get here. The sun is shining, a pleasant wind is blowing. Imagine, we meet here again twenty years from now. What will have changed? What will the surroundings look like?

I can hardly predict that. On December 24, 1900, The Boston Globe newspaper wrote a big article about what life would be like in the year 2000. They were thinking about moving sidewalks and airships, but couldn’t imagine many essential things like the internet and Uber. Though I hope that we do get to meet again in such a beautiful place and that climate change hasn’t yet altered the weather too much. I guess the physical space will look similar, but our way of life will be very different. With more information, we might be able to move better from place to place here in Venice. 

But do people even want this change? The way we move around in Venice is characteristic of the city. Won’t technology destroy the romance of it all? 

Yes, that’s true. We’ve already lost the romantic image of getting lost in a city and drifting around the environs. With GPS, we’ve developed a world in which we can always orient ourselves. A few weeks ago, I was hiking in the mountains of Kazakhstan and knew exactly where I was in the world. But it will always be possible for us to switch off the technology. We live in a very exciting era characterized by change. We alone decide how we will shape the future.