Cities, Infrastructure and AI

In this interview to Carlo Ratti (architect and engineer, founder of CRA studio based in Turin and New York, director of Senseable City Lab at MIT Boston) we want to explore critically the impact of digital technologies on urban space and its communities, focusing on the evolving relationship between this same space and individuals, within a scenario where buildings and services are increasingly able to supply our needs, independently from great infrastructures and control systems.

Luca Tricarico – Let’s talk about Smart Cities: are they a model replicable in every context or the cause of the growing gap between big cities and rural areas?

Carlo Ratti: First, I admit that I don’t like that much the label “smart city”, since it’s way too focused on technological implications; I prefer talking of “senseable city”. 

That been said, we are talking of a global phenomenon, resulting from the pervasiveness of digital technologies in our lives and our cities. It started in the last twenty years and will intensify, allowing us to design new solutions to timeless challenges – from mobility to energy consumption, from pollution to waste disposal, from urban planning to civic engagement. 

In this context, a lot of cities around the world are experimenting focusing on different issues: mobility in Singapore, sustainability in Copenhagen, civic engagement in Boston, urban greening in Milan. In light of this last point, I believe it interesting to think about different models of development so that we don’t have to think of a necessary gap between urban and rural areas, emerging and developing countries.

At first all new technologies are expensive and tend to accentuate social and geographical differences. But things can change with time, let’s take as example cell phones: they were available to few people in advanced countries, now they are enhancing a phenomenon called leapfrogging, which explains the rapid social and technological development in emerging countries like Africa, where the majority of states adopted directly the wireless technology and cell phones are used in way more innovative ways than in Europe or the US. Another example is that of China, where they leaped from cash to smartphones as payment system.

LT -In your book La città di domani you claimed that the architectural space of the future will be able to “see”: what is the meaning of this statement? What will be the consequences on urban life?

CR: Thanks to IoT technologies the architectural space is gaining the ability to see us, that is to recognize and react autonomously to the presence of individuals. What will be the consequences of this scenario on urban life? It’s the question we are trying to answer as curators of the next Bi-city, Urbanistic and Architecture Biennale of Shenzhen (UABB 2019).

At the Biennale we will discuss about this new scenario taking as starting point for the analysis the recent developments in the field of deep learning: it’s a matter concerning all of us, because it helps us to imagine the city we really want to build in the future. We will develop an open platform for professionals, research centres, thinkers and students from all over the world. Everyone interested to our theme “Eyes of the city” can participate to the Open Call on until the 31st of May.

LT- In which way is AI reshaping cities? How is it changing the way in which we plan both public and private spaces and which international models, in your opinion, do represent this tendency?

CR: I think we should not talk about changes in shape. I’m sorry to disappoint fans of movies such as Metropolis or Blade Runner, but i believe that the aspect of cities in the future won’t be so much different from that of today. After all, cities of 2016 are very similar to cities of roman or medieval age in their structure. 

We can imagine the boldest technological and architectural innovations but in our homes we will always need horizontal planes, facades, windows as interfaces to the external world and walls to separate rooms (sorry, Frank O. Gehry and deconstructivists!). We will be able to use new materials and interactive walls but, at the end of the day, the essential components of a house – those defined as “Fundamentals” by Rem Koolhaas during Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014 – won’t change significantly.

Instead, what will really change are our ways of experiencing the city. Moving, managing energetic resources, doing shopping, working, hanging out, communicating: our daily activities will be conducted differently. If you think about a typical day in the Nineties, without cell phones and Internet off and on, it seems so strange today! In the near future we will face similar evolutions, thanks to AI and a space able to “see” us. 

LT – Sustainable mobility and AI: which are the product and process innovations more interesting at the moment? What is their impact on citizens’ quality of life and, most of all, on the environmental dimension of urban systems?

CR: There are a lot of innovations in way of development and different are the ways in which they will impact on urban infrastructures and the quality of our lives.

Innovations in mobility have always had a great impact on cities. We can take as example motorised transport, which shaped urban space during the XVIII century. Today we are witnessing again a great change, produced by digital technologies, data and AI: self-driving cars, for example, will impact more on the road infrastructure than  on driving experience.

Imagine how will function a self-driving car: after taking us to work, it could go back home and pick our sons or give a lift to our neighbours’ son or to everyone else. It could become a hybrid transportation system, half public half private, reducing the number of vehicles around the city.

A similar change could affect parking lots. In a research conducted at our lab at MIT Boston based on data from the city of Singapore – one of the most advanced in the mobility sector – we observed that, in a context of self-driving cars, parking lots could be reduced up to 70%, thus modifying the urban landscape. Think of how a city could change if, instead of cars, there would be trees or small gardens all around. However, there are also less positive implications, as I discussed with Assaf Biderman in a recent article published on Scientific American. It depends on the decisions we will take as citizens and public administrators.

LT- Studies and researches claim that AI will become essential in converting informations produced by cities into project activities able to acquire, evaluate and analyse data and use them for different purposes: from traffic management to parking lots, from the use of water and energetic resources to municipal services. In your opinion, which are the skills needed by PA to take this opportunity?

CR: In recent years, digitalization has pervaded the physical world thanks to IoT. I’ll make an example to show the potential and impact of technologies and data on physical space (thus on the urban dimension). Nowadays we waste a lot of energy to heat and cool big empty buildings. In our studio (CRA – Carlo Ratti Associates) we tried to reduce this asymmetry by means of the synchronization of human presence and temperature control systems. This idea has been applied to a project for Agnelli Foundation in Turin. The building has been equipped with geolocalization detectors so that heating/cooling systems activate in the user’s presence creating a sort of “termic bubble”; otherwise, the building goes in stand-by to save energy, in the same way of a computer when it is not being used.  

LT- In light of your recent appointment as curator of Shenzhen Architecture Biennale (this year dedicated to the role of AI in cities) did you notice any differences in the way this topic is addressed by East and West? What do we still have to learn and in which way can we contribute to this precious confrontation?

CR: In China new technologies such as AI and biometric recognition are much more spread than in western countries. I believe that this kind of difference makes one think about how technologies can pervade our daily life. For this reason, I would think in wider terms about how technologies is subjected to heavy criticism these days and I do think that technology in itself isn’t the real problem. To quote Melvin Kranzberg: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”. As I said before, policies will determine if new technologies will have a positive or a negative impact. I’m optimistic and I believe it’s important to start an open confrontation on these issues. 

LT- In Italy we have a lot of infrastructures designed and built in a scenario of great conflicts about the financial sustainability of their projects (such as Tav, Ponte Morandi, Varianti di Valico, Ponte sullo stretto, Mose). How can new technologies promote transparency in both projects and economic policies?

CR: The monitoring systems of great infrastructures demands for many and often expensive resources: this is the reason why control procedures are applied only to infrustructures in critical conditions. In the specific case of bridges, it is necessary to make a distinction between main bridges – those situated along highways which are (or at least should be) regularly checked, and secondary bridges, which are monitored in case cracks or breaks are detected. 

In case of modern bridges it is possible to insert detectors which collect data about the state of the structure. But, in case of older structures, the retro-fitting is really expensive so it is necessary to develop new techniques of data collection. In our lab at MIT, in partnership with ANAS, we studied the way in which smartphones can detect vibrations and gather important informations about bridges. This is an example of how crowdsourcing and data sharing contribute to make our infrastructures more safe (More infos about “Good Vibrations” project here