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„The best way to predict the future is to invent it“. MIT’s Senseable City Lab

The latest issue of Arts Management Quarterly sheds light on the relationship between the arts sector and urban development. Feasible visions for the city of the future are also the Senseable City Lab's main topic. The SCL is one of the interdisciplinary research and transfer centers affiliated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We talked with Prof. Dr. Carlo Ratti, founder and director, about how the SCL merges modern research and creativity in applicable developments.

© JCT 600/ Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

Arts Management Network: What are the idea and the goals behind the MIT senseable city lab?

Prof. Dr. Carlo Ratti: I founded the Senseable City Lab at M.I.T. in 2004. At the time new technologies were promising exciting transformations in communication, transportation and fabrication. We tried to imagine how these developments could impact urban studies and how the unprecedented interaction of digital and physical would affect the way we understand, design and ultimately live in cities. Since its inception, the Lab has grown quickly from a 2-person endeavor to over 40 researchers, but more than 200 researchers from all over the world have worked in SCL during these years. We aim to explore how ubiquitous computing – i.e. the increasing deployment of sensors and hand-held electronics in recent years – is opening up a new approach to the study of the built environment. We want to investigate and intervene at the interface between people, technologies and the city – developing research and applications that empower citizens to make choices that result in a more livable urban condition.

AMN: Which research areas are associated there? How can I imagine these interdisciplinary working cooperations?

CR: At the Lab there are over 40 people, coming from many countries and many disciplines. Each researcher has a different personal history, different skills and a different cultural background. Some of them come from architecture and design, but we have also mathematicians, economists, sociologists, physicists. I think that “diversity” is a really important aspect in any team activity - especially in the creative disciplines.

AMN: How are innovation and creative thinking brought together with scientific standards and quality assurance?

CR: In the words of Herbert Simon, echoing Albert Einstein: “sciences are concerned with how things are… and design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.” What we are trying to do is indeed explore how things could be using a rigorous scientific method - i.e. doing design with science.

AMN: Is the transfer of the research outcomes into society and economy an important task at the senseable city lab?

CR: Absolutely! The role of the lab, however, ends with what we call an "urban demo", i.e. an idea made tangible into the city. From there the path to implementation can be manyfold – through one of our partner cities and companies or through the start-ups innovation chain.

For example, we founded a start-up to produce the Copenhagen Wheel project - a system that transforms any ordinary bicycle into a hybrid vehicle that also function as mobile sensing units. You can control your e-bike through your smart phone and share your data with your friends and city, for contributing to a fine-grained database of environmental information from which we can all benefit. This was a successful project. 

Another project we installed at the Venice Biennale is called “Local Warming”: Large quantities of energy are wasted every day on empty offices and partially occupied buildings. They are constantly being heated by automated centralized systems. Here an opportunity arises to change the status quo of climate control through the use of dynamically controlled highly localized heating. Local Warming uses sophisticated motion sensing and autonomous control systems to accurately track people and provide a fine-grained control over personal climates. An individual thermal cloud follows the user’s movement through space, providing the necessary heat to bridge the difference between the internal body temperature and the ambient temperature. Aware of the subjectivity of the notion of comfort, Local Warming learns from individualized user interactions. By doing this, people, not space, are the ones being heated improving energy efficiency by orders of magnitude. 

AMN: The key issue of the senseable city lab is the city of the future. What does this term mean? How will the cities change with regard to intelligent techniques and social development?

CR: First of all, never try to predict the future: nothing ever looks as dated as old science fiction, as the saying goes. However, the future is central to the act of design (how the world could be, as mentioned above). Alan Kay famously said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it – implying that prediction is essentially the designer’s responsibility as she creates ideas. Regarding our cities, tomorrow they will be more intelligent and “able to sense” - and hence able to respond better to citizens.

AMN: Is the specific character of a city also an important part of urban planning?

CR: In 1961 the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observed: ‘Everywhere throughout the world, one finds the same bad movie, the same slot machines, the same plastic or aluminum atrocities, the same twisting of language by propaganda.’ Witness the problem of universalisation: a toxic byproduct of the globalisation process. We believe that this issue could today be addressed by allowing place to manifest itself through the human lens − in other words, through the vibrant network of people who contribute to a project. Something that we propose to call 'Networked specifism'.

Prof. Dr. Carli Ratti studied architecture and engineering in Turin, Paris and Cambridge. He was program director at the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow and curator of the BMW Guggenheim Pavilion 2012 in Berlin, among others. Today, he leads the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and works for the Global Agenda Council for Urban Management. His work has been exhibited worldwide and has received numerous awards for innovation.

See also Arts Management Quarterly No 127 "Culture and Urban Development"

Management Topic: Policy & Research
Cultural Area: General
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Nov 06, 2017