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Senseable cities:
an interview with Carlo Ratti

Since the nineties, many sociologists and urban planners have been predicting the imminent end of the city. The reason is simple: in the era of Internet, urban life would retain all its disadvantages (traffic, pollution and more), while the benefits offered would become less and less important. After all, why live close to the movies, bookshops, record stores and shopping malls when you can buy everything on the Internet? The web also guarantees immediate access to an ocean of communications, information and education, making it possible for anyone, anywhere in the world to act and interact as if they were at the centre of the globalized world. 

Instead, things went quite differently: more than twenty years after the mass diffusion of Internet, more than half the world’s population live in urban centres, and forecasts for the future say that this percentage will continue to grow. How is this possible? “The drive behind the urbanization in act today is of unprecedented reach and intensity,” explains Carlo Ratti, architect and professor at Boston MIT, where he is in charge of the Senseable City Lab. “Internet has not killed the city by any means, it has merely redefined the ways in which we live the space, meet and spend time together.” 

Paradoxically, the shift towards urbanisation also concerns the creative, professional and intellectual classes one would have expected to abandon the city and repopulate rural areas: according to Ratti, “the socialisation dynamics possible in big urban centres are essential for supporting productivity and creative processes”. The same dynamics for which, even today, most people prefer to work at the office: “A few decades ago we also believed that, by enabling distance communication and work, the Internet would have made the fixed workplace a thing of the past. It is true that today we can work anywhere – from home, in an airport lounge or at a Starbucks’ tables – and we are no longer confined to a fixed desk. However, at the office something unique still happens: we get to interact with colleagues.”

So what is happening is the opposite of what we expected: the Internet is not causing people to abandon the city; thanks to the Internet of Things (i.e. all objects that can connect to the web, from traffic lights to bins, refrigerators and cameras), if anything it is becoming integrated by the cities, transforming them into smart cities. Smart cities where, for example, the use of new technology and big data analysis promises to make them safer, cleaner and more liveable places. Carlo Ratti, however, prefers to call them senseable cities: “Cities not only become smart. The changes go deeper, it is almost the beginning of a new era: an era in which technology is so entrenched in the space we inhabit that it finally ends up in the background of our lives; as an omnipresent but unobtrusive element. At the centre of this change is man.”

From this point of view, senseable cities take on a very clear meaning: “Our city becomes a space capable of perceiving, responding and adapting to the needs of each individual - a city where technology is at the service of citizens.” Big data plays a crucial role here, making it possible to analyse traffic or the amount of waste produced in real time, to report inefficiencies or other problems through apps, thus allowing public administration to view a dynamic map of the most pressing issues and maximise the efficiency of interventions: “This huge volume of data,” adds Carlo Ratti, “provides us with greater knowledge of the city and allows us to design as well as inform citizens of what is going on in the urban environment in real time. This is the same data that makes the apps we use each day on our phones work. It is important for us to identify new ways to use this information in our favour, transforming it into open data available to everyone”. 

A sea of data, which, if used properly can result in significant benefits and, more importantly, trigger a change in people’s habits: “This is what happened a few years ago in Seattle, with the TrashTrack project by our Senseable Lab”, Ratti tells us. “Through a series of electronic labels we started tracking around 3,000 samples of objects thrown in city trash and mapped their trajectories. Waste often crossed the United States, even ending up in Florida and causing massive pollution. So, after demonstrating these absurd routes to some volunteers, we noted how many people decided to adopt different and more sustainable consumer choices: for example, eliminating the purchase of plastic bottles.”

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