Lunch with Prof. Carlo Ratti

19 Jan. 2016

This year’s annual WEF guest professor was Carlo Ratti from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, who took time and energy from a frenetic journey that started in Singapore and would proceed to Davos.

On January 19th, 11 alums from as far as Lausanne and Fribourg joined Carlo for lunch at Loft5 in Zürich, to hear this visionary architect and engineer in person. In an interview with WIRED magazine, he states that his projects “focus on how new technologies are changing the way we understand, design and ultimately live in cities…on one of our projects, Underworlds, collects and analyses biochemical information from sewage water.” Ratti, who prefers to design, rather than predict our future, sees the most significant recent development as “the internet, which by then will have entered not only into our lives, but also into our bodies.”

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We were eager to hear more. Here an excerpt of the discussion that made time fly before Carlo headed off to meet the politicians, rock stars, and (what he ironically called) “plutocrats” in the “equalizing snow” of the alps:

In the age of big data, Ratti’s research focuses on multiple aspects of the city. According to one of his studies, ride sharing could reduce the number of taxis in NYC dramatically (I think he said from 12k to 8k). Referring to his Davos message, he explained that the role of government will be to regulate and drive integration of software protocols and interfaces so the efficient use of urban resources (not just fresh air and vehicles, but the actual number of streets could be closed to traffic), can become reality. Today a driver needs to have several phones mounted on his dashboard to choose between all possible requests from proprietary platforms. Without intervention, market forces and winner-take-all business models will perpetuate absurd practices like these.

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The conversation inevitably turned to the urban future, when he asked us what our favourite cities were. Sydney, Paris, London, were among the top, while Carlo praised the juxtaposition of nature and manmade habitat in Darwin, Australia.
He playfully imagined a mass customization of the urban experience, in which residents wish for “the topography of Prague, together with climate of Naples, the nightlife of Rio, and the fusion cooking of San Francisco”.

We asked MIT’s Director of Senseable Labs about the building projects he is working on. His architecture firm, Ratti Associates is currently building Singapore’s highest skyscraper: “Yes, we do a lot of brick and mortar work, but we want to create dynamic interactions in the cities they are in. Buildings should respond to us like human beings. Can heating, lighting, and cooling for example follow you interactively as you move in the rooms?” By the way, it is worth watching the presentation of “Architecture that senses and responds” in his TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/carlo_ratti_architecture_that_senses_and_responds?language=en

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We heard that the future of the city has two possible scenarios: 1) either be run centrally by a single corporation (he named IBM but probably didn’t mean them literally), or 2) an ecosystem which is run bottoms-up by its residents. Which one would we prefer?

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And in spite of what we might expect from a data guru, Carlo Ratti sees technology as central to most change, but not exclusively so:
“Why are we here together today? We could have had a skype lunch and talked about the same things. But you can’t substitute or model experiences. All of us have come together for just that.”

Bublu Thakur-Weigold ’88