Rethinking the Future with Carlo Ratti


Super Mario Bros. remains one of my favorite videogames. The game is still a best seller for Nintendo and they have produced multiple versions for every new console.  Mario and Luigi, two plumbers, spend their days cavorting in a magical sewer world rescuing princesses and defeating weird reptile monsters.  Last year, Mario and Luigi took on new life as robots.  Sewer robots. Carlo Ratti and his team at MIT have great plans for these two plumbers and how they can help create sensing cities.

Ratti recently spoke at an MIT Europe conference in Vienna, which is where I learned about the Mario and Luigi robots.  I usually do not pay much attention to news about sewers and that is why I am a year late to the party.

To understand why these sewer robots are important and not just gross, we need to start at the beginning.  Ratti is an Italian architect, designer, inventor, entrepreneur, innovator, and professor.  He also chairs the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Future Cities.

He is Included in numerous “best and brightest” and “top names to know and watch” lists.   Despite the long lists of accolades and epitaphs, he is, in fact, incredibly charismatic and personable and he genuinely cares about the future.

However, Ratti has a bone to pick with the term “smart city”, which has become a corporate buzzword.  He prefers the term “sensing city”.  It is a highly-nuanced term that uses data to drive decision making which includes the instant results gleaned from the “internet of things”. This determines, in part, how things react.  The other part of the response is the human involvement in the moment.  It is the “convergence of digital and physical space” according to Ratti.

Self-Driving Cars

His presentation is filled with data visualizations, not charts and bar graphs but maps with colorful lines and dots, each dot representing where an Uber trip started or ended and each line the journey that the driver took.  “We have been collaborating with Uber to remove cars from roads”, he says, “using the data that we gathered in several cities, including New York and Vienna, we have been able to generalize ‘shareability’ laws.”

Looking at the data on the shared ride economy, public transport, car ownership, and a whole host of other streams, Ratti feels that we may be able to satisfy current transportation needs with only 20% of the vehicles on the road today.   “And with autonomous intersection management and self-driving cars, we can reduce traffic delays even more”.  Which means we “need to think about how we make parking spaces now and how we can repurpose them for the future”, he says, as a picture of a converted parking garage containing a gym and a lounge space flashes behind him on the screen.

Shape Shifting

Ratti changes gears faster than a self-driving car and focuses on office spaces and not just on how we get there.  He asks, “If work is digital, why do we still go into work?” That is a valid question.  And so, his follow up is that we need to repurpose workspaces.  “To create open spaces to work together and exchange ideas.” And so, even large companies like Google create co-working spaces, which means it is not just the province of the idea driven entrepreneur any longer.

Not only do we need to reimagine how we work but how buildings function.  “Local warming: You can just heat next to people as opposed to warming the whole space.  We created a heat bubble that would follow you at your preferred temperature.  Some people were freaked out; some people loved it.”

But back to Mario and Luigi.  Ratti and his team created the two aptly named robots to collect data from sewage.  Sounds gross.  However, as Ratti points out, this is precisely what John Snow, the first epidemiologist did to trace the Broad Street cholera epidemic in Victorian London.   Ratti thinks that by gathering data from sewers, we can prevent epidemics at the start – before they cause immense amounts of damage to human life and social systems.

Back to the Future

Carlo Ratti is rethinking everything.  From grocery stores that tell you where your apples are from to buildings made of water – both of these things are actual inventions, by the way.  And he recognizes that this might mean we will not have the same jobs in the future as automation has already taken over some roles and will continue to do so.  “Automation and robots freak people out” for just this reason Ratti says thoughtfully.

We need to manage the transition, “we can build a better society – mechanization usually takes over jobs that are not interesting and we can focus on things with higher added value and greater interest”.

And this is not the first time that we have transitioned.  The industrial and steam revolution in the 1800s rocketed us into the 20th century.  Just like last time “the most successful technologies will not address new needs but will give new solutions to old needs – like going back to the future”.  As “we will still need horizontal surfaces to walk on and walls to protect us” in the cities of the future, regardless of whether “they may sound different because of the lack of traffic”.

Ratti has departed from Vienna – on his way to design week in Milan, where he will gain more inspiration to continue to rethink how we interact with the digital world.

You can learn more about Carlo Ratti and his various projects by listening to his 2011 TEDTalk, at MIT, Carlo Ratti Associati, or by searching for his op-ed pieces in international newspapers.

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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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