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Carlo Ratti: ‘The future is ours to create’

Architect, engineer and inventor Carlo Ratti talks to Ian McMurray about how the future will be shaped jointly by technology and by people.

One of the real pleasures and privileges of ISE is the ability to see and hear some of the world’s most prominent experts sharing their knowledge and passion on topics that are hugely relevant to the show’s exhibitors and visitors. In recent years, futurist Michio Kaku has outlined the path towards ‘perfect capitalism’, while award-winning architect Ole Scheeren and Cirque du Soleil president and CEO Daniel Lamarre have also graced the RAI with their presence, as has futurist Lars Thomsen.

This year saw Professor Carlo Ratti, an architect, engineer and inventor, who directs the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is founding partner of the design practice CRA, deliver the Opening Keynote Address shortly after the conclusion of the Smart Building Conference during which he participated in the one-day conference’s closing roundtable discussion.

Ratti was named one of the ‘50 most influential designers in America’ by Fast Company and highlighted in Wired magazine’s ‘Smart List: 50 people who will change the world.’

It’s up to us to make the decisions about how we want to live in the future. We have it in our power to invent the way things will be

His theme for ISE was how the future will be created, and the role that each of us should play in ensuring it’s a future that we’re comfortable with. “The future is not written in stone,” he says. “It’s up to us to make the decisions about how we want to live in the future. We have it in our power to invent the way things will be.”

For Ratti, the future is open-ended, with multiple potential scenarios capable of being played out – many of them enabled or facilitated by technology. He sees IoT being capable of radically changing not just how industry works or how we live in our homes – but entire cities also. He and his team at the Senseable City Lab spend much of their time modelling those scenarios and attempting to assess their implications.

“Through design and science, the Lab develops and deploys tools to learn about cities – so that cities can learn about us. The way we describe and understand cities is being radically transformed – as are the tools we use to design them,” he explains. “It’s all about the convergence between the digital world and the physical world, together with the convergence of a whole range of technologies.”

Ratti is a passionate believer not just in what he and his team are doing, but that their findings are made known as widely as possible. “What’s most important,” he believes, “is not what we’re doing, but that what we’re doing becomes public knowledge. We need to have an open conversation. The results of our work should be out there for people to consider. At the end of the day, decisions about how we will live in the future should not be made by giant corporations or scientists or states – they should be made by the citizens themselves, fully armed with the knowledge of the different possibilities. It’s they who should decide what kind of cities we will live in in the future.”

He is also a believer in the idea that who and what we are – our DNA – will always, if eventually, assert itself in what we allow technology to do for us, and the extent to which we embrace it. Ratti cites as an example Facebook, and how it is to some extent only the technology manifestation of the long-held human desire to communicate and to share stories – whether around the village well, via letters or phone calls, or using the internet.

“But,” he cautions, “we need to be careful that we remain masters of that technology, rather than letting it master us. Technology is seldom without unforeseen consequences. What the future will be is for us to decide,” he concludes. “What’s vital is that we have all the information we need in order to make the best decisions.”

This interview is taken from the ISE Daily Executive Issue 2018.