The Ideal City

Exclusive Interview with Carlo Ratti

«People must have the dual possibility of gaining access to the delights of the city, with its solidarity of thought and interest, its opportunities for study and art education, and, at the same time, the freedom that is nourished by nature and it is realized through the varieties of its open horizons.” In the late 1800s Élisée Reclus imagined an ideal city, a refuge for the mind from the overcrowded and polluted metropolis. Today, thanks to new technologies, the vision of the French geographer may become a reality. This is what Carlo Ratti believes. Ratti is an Italian civil engineer and architect who heads the Senseable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, The Lab is one of the world’s most important centres for the study of cities and how we live and move within them, Ratti spoke to “We Build Value” about the evolution of urban centers and their infrastructures in the coming decades: from self-driving cars to drones, which he does not think we will be “as widespread as many people make us believe.”

The President of the United States, Barack Obama, often speaks of obsolete infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt almost everywhere in the United States. How do you think we can solve this issue? Do you believe that the first economy in the world is really facing a problem of infrastructure?

“Yes, it's true. The largest infrastructure of the United States - and in many European countries -dates back to post-war era. A bit like the baby boomers, who are about to retire all together, aging rapidly and synchronously. Even in this case, however, technology can help us better monitor the situation, intervening only where it is necessary. One of the researchers in our group at MIT in Boston is starting to use accelerometer signals from our mobile phones to study the vibrations of a bridge or viaduct – managing to figure out beforehand whether there are dangers and if it is necessary to repair the structure. It is a personalized and less invasive remedy for  infrastructure, so to speak.”

The car industry is changing profoundly and maybe facing the biggest transformation in its history: in the coming years there will be more and more electric cars and vehicles without drivers. Do you think even roads will evolve? In what way?  Ports and airports were the core trade hubs for centuries. What will be the future for the transportation of goods?

“Autonomous or driverless cars can help with the development of new systems of mobility. Today, a car in the United States is used for only 5% of the time, on average. For the remaining 95% it is parked, unused somewhere. Based on some research done at MIT, we have calculated that, thanks to a system of driverless cars, only 30% of the vehicles in circulation today would be needed to cover the mobility needs of a large city. This number could be reduced by a further 40% the moment when people would be ready to share their commuting, applying dynamics of car-sharing. Of course, these are only theoretical numbers, which would need to be backed up by people’s real propensity to share.
The consequences would nevertheless be important. In the short term, we could for example, reduce the parking spaces that in U.S. cover an area as large as Puerto Rico. In the long run, there could be consequences for mobility infrastructure. For example, traffic-light technology is 150 years old and it was designed for carriages and horses. With driverless cars, new forms of intersections – based on "slots" – could replace conventional traffic lights, leading to a significant reduction in congestion and waiting time.”

“I think that ports and airports will continue to have a central role in the near future. Over long distances, in fact, it is difficult to imagine more competitive transport systems than ships – in terms of energy efficiency. On the contrary, I do not think we will see hordes of drones for the package deliveries in our cities. The flying machine is an old dream, dating back to films such as “Metropolis” at the beginning of the 20th century. Actually I think we will ever reach, due to the laws of physics. To keep a kilogram in mid-air you need to move a large amount of air at high speed. This is why helicopters consume so much fuel and make so much noise. The drones of the future will be useful for emergency missions or to carry sensors, but not as large-scale logistical infrastructure. But I think that we will see many autonomous systems for last-mile deliveries: tiny robots that bring carry a package to our doorstep.”

In the 20th century the efficiency of transport and communications had privileged the new American cities compared with old European cities, which were built in the time of horses and carriages. Will the smart city be an equalizer, or does it require a particular urban configuration?

“We cannot generalize, but I think that new technologies can be a great resource for European cities, which often couldn’t adapt to the technology and heavy infrastructure of the last century. The new technologies, light and invisible, are like a layer that can cover any surface in a built environment.  I would say that this is, for example, true  for fleets of driverless car, which could free up precious space in congested European urban centres.”

Sidney, Harbour Bridge
Your research, like that of others concerning the future, assume a very high rate of urbanization. What will be the future of the countryside and small rural settlements? Will there also be a smart future for them?

“Actually we are interested in urbanized territory in general, whether it be the city or the countryside. I think that in future we will have big cities and small towns, high-density urban centers and scarsely populated rural areas. I like to think that new technologies will help us live better in big cities.”

The reading and manipulation of megadata requires always bigger and more powerful centres that are capable of using them in the best possible way. Will there also be room for a democratic and individual access to data in the future?

“Data are nothing new. What is changing is simply the amount of information that is available today. In addition to updating us with what is happening in a given urban context in real time  – traffic or weather data, for example – they (data) can encourage more ethical behavior, dictated by awareness. We tested this, for example, with Trash Track, a project connected to the issue of waste developed at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. We labeled 3,000 waste materials with electronic tags and we mapped their journey around the United States. We noticed how some volunteers, after becoming aware of a plastic bottle’s journey, decided on their own to increase the use of glass instead of plastic.

In other words, data - if accessible - tell us about our lives and make us reflect on it and potentially change it. It is the actual use of these data, combined with new technologies linked to mobility, that will give an extra push to the development of infrastructure, giving it an even more precious role in the community.”