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8 Questions with Carlo Ratti

Carlo Ratti is hard to define – part architect, part inventor, part engineer, part educator, he’s a very smart man and incredibly influential in his field. Educated in a selection of the best universities in Italy, France, and the UK in engineering and architecture, he now directs the Senseable City Lab at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, as well as practicing in his Italian design office, Carlo Ratti Associati. As if that wasn’t enough, he also presents on the theme of Smart Cities around the world, writes for various international publications, has presented on TED, and is even curator for the Future Food District pavilion for the 2015 Milan World Expo. Needless to say, we’re very privileged that he found time to speak to us.

 

1. Inventor, analyst, architect, designer.

How would you define yourself, or how would you like to be defined?

It’s always difficult to talk about oneself… Perhaps the best definition could be “pain in the ass” – someone who constantly tries to change the status quo. This attitude led me to become interested in different fields, from when I was studying engineering and architecture. If you would like a more poetic definition, I could quote François Truffaut‘s Jules et Jim. There’s a dialogue I always loved between Jim and his professor, Albert Sorel: “Mais aloes, que dois-je devenir?” – “Un Curieux.” – “Ce n’est pas un métier.” – “Ce n’est pas encore un métier. Voyagez, écrivez, traduisez…, apprenez à vivre partout. Commencez tout de suite. L’avenir est aux curieux de profession.” Yes, I’d love to be a “curieux de profession”!

 

2. What’s your recipe for creativity?

Again, being curious and thinking beyond existing boundaries. I believe that it is imperative to have an omni-disciplinary approach, working in a team with people from different backgrounds and competences. Diversity is a must in creativity.

 

3. Can you tell us about your favourite project of your career so far?

I am sure it will be the next one!

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4. You come from Turin, the same city as Feel Desain.

What hopes do you have for Turin and Italy over the next few years?

I love the historic city of Turin. Italy’s “centri storici” might have struggled to adapt to the technologies of the 20th Century – heavy, invasive, and incompatible with the country’s urban embroideries. Today, these beautiful cities can finally adapt to new and light technologies brought about by the digital revolution.

 

5. You’re the curator of the Future Food District pavilion at the 2015 Expo in Milan –

Could you tell us about your experience with this project?

The center of the District is a supermarket, developed in collaboration with Italian giant chain COOP. Here it will be possible to try a real shopping experience – it will be in effect a retail space. We want to show how the Internet of Things is changing the food chain – and how new technologies can allow us a more direct contact with food.

 

In particular, I am excited about the idea that products can tell us their stories. I always liked Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar when, visiting a Parisian fromagerie, he has the impression of being inside a museum or an encyclopaedia: “This shop is a museum: Mr. Palomar, visiting it, feels as he does in the Louvre, behind every displayed object the presence of the civilisation that has given it form and takes form from it.”

 

At the Expo, products will be displayed on large tables, avoiding the vertical barriers of traditional supermarkets. In doing so, we would like to promote a seamless interaction between people and food, as in an old market place. Moreover, by simply indicating products the user will be able to reveal augmented information – “augmented labels” able to tell properties, histories, paths.

 

Knowledge, in turn, can than be transformed into a more informed consumption, and can also prompt new modes of exchange between users and sellers. Could we imagine a supermarket as a place of exchange open to everyone? In the tradition of Italian cooperatives, some areas will be dedicated to producers/consumers, who can use the supermarket as a free trade area. A transposition of peer-to-peer dynamics to the world of food…

 

6. What first inspired you to focus your work on the relationship

between humans and the urban environment?

I have always been fascinated with cities – as complex systems that immensely affect our lives.

 

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7. What future projects do you have in the pipeline?

At Carlo Ratti Associati we are working on several design projects: from the design of a new square in Barcelona to a landmark structure for the Rio Olympics 2016, called Water Rings Pavilion. Also, we just completed an installation in Dubai, called “Cloud Cast”, a responsive system that generates a “cool cloud” that follows passersby.

 

At the Senseable City Lab we are still working on many projects dealing with urban mobility (for instance, HubCab). Also, I am most excited to explore the interface between the physical, the digital and the biological, as in our new project Underworlds

 

Finally, we are working on several start-ups, such as the Copenhagen Wheel and Makr Shakr. All of these endeavors start from the same vision, but  are developed at different levels: research, projects, and products.

 

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8. You study cities at the Senseable Cities Lab at MIT,

but which is your personal favourite city, and why?

I always get this question! I would like to reply taking inspiration from Georges Perec’s ideal home – split across all the arrondissements of Paris. So I would say that my ideal city has the climate of Naples, the topography of Cape Town, the fusion cooking of Sydney, the architecture of Manhattan, the frenzy of Hong Kong and… why not? The exuberant nightlife of Rio de Janeiro!

Finally, do you have a message for Feel Desain readers?

Feel more and less Design!

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