Carlo Ratti is the Director of the MIT Senseable City Lab and Founding Partner of Carlo Ratti Associati. An architect and engineer by training, his work has been exhibited in several venues worldwide, including the Venice Biennale, MoMA in New York City and MAXXI in Rome.


Daniel Araya: Carlo, why is there so much focus on smart cities right now? How did you come to be interested in smart cities? How does this interest overlap your work?

Carlo Ratti: The idea of the “smart city” is linked to the convergence of the digital and physical worlds – something that began happening only a few years ago. I have always been interested in architecture and urban planning – and in the potential of designing architecture through the use of new technologies. It’s probably also something related to my university education– somewhere in-between technology and design.

Since the launch of infrastructure projects like IBM’s Smart Planet and CISCO’s Smart Communities, the discussion on smart city planning has grown substantially. What do people mean when they describe a “smart city”? What are some examples of well-designed smart cities?

I would say that a “smart city” is a city that leverages digital intelligence to improve citizens’ lives. Personally, I prefer to use the term “Senseable City”. Senseable has a double meaning, it means “sensible” and “able to sense” – I think this definition is a better way of explaining my own vision of the future of cities, which is focused more on people than on technology. Unfortunately, large multinationals often focus too much on the technology side of the equation.

Regarding your second question, I do not think that there are particular examples to follow, to be honest with you. But I do think that there is a lot of experimentation that is helping to guide us. For instance, Singapore is exploring new approaches to mobility, Copenhagen to sustainability, Boston to citizen participation…

In my new book, Smart Cities as Democratic Ecologies , you differentiate between policy approaches to designing smart cities within the United States and other countries around the world. How is the U.S. approach to smart cities different?

I would say that in the United States, the general idea of smart urban space has been central to the current generation of successful start-ups. We all know Uber: a smartphone app that lets anyone to call a cab or be a driver. Beyond Uber, there is the learning thermostat Nest, the apartment-sharing website Airbnb, and the recently announced ‘home operating systems’ by Apple and Google (to name only a few). All of these innovations represent a new frontier in the application of digital information within the United States– particularly as digital information inhabits physical space. Similar approaches now promise to revolutionize most aspects of urban life – from commuting to energy consumption to personal health – and as such, they are receiving eager support from venture capital funds.

Some critics argue that the corporate push for smart cities has introduced a host of social policy concerns linked to top-down urban planning. What are the main problems with smart cities as they are so far conceived?

Yes, sometimes smart city projects are deployed in a top-down way. In general, I believe that governments should use their funds to develop bottom-up innovation ecosystems geared toward smart cities, in ways similar to the kind of ecosystem that is growing in the U.S. In my view, policymakers should in fact go beyond supporting traditional incubators by producing and nurturing the regulatory frameworks that allow innovations to thrive. And considering the legal hurdles that continuously plague applications like Uber and Airbnb, this level of support is sorely needed.

At the same time, governments should steer away from the temptation to play a more deterministic and top-down role in developing smart policies. It is not their prerogative to decide what the next smart-city solution should be – or worse, to use their citizens’ money to bolster the position of this or that technology marketed by multinationals. The common focus on ready-made, proprietary, and typically dull offerings represent a route that should be avoided at all cost.

I wonder whether we shouldn’t be thinking about moving beyond the era of top-down design altogether.  Adam Greenfield, for example, makes the argument that smart cities should be redesigned to leverage open and free data sharing. How might we open cities to greater citizen co-creation? Could we create open source cities?

It’s an interesting point. Networks allow new ways to share information – and hence new, bottom-up social dynamics among people. We are seeing more and more examples of this bottom-up innovation across the world: people coming together online to transform their city. We see this in 311-like applications to report minor urban issues, all the way to collaborative design platforms. This is the right direction in my view.

Singapore is probably one of the best-known “smart cities” today because of its’ efficient government. And yet many people still argue that paternalistic societies like Singapore suffer from an innovation deficit. What, in your view, is the key to developing cities that enable “innovation ecologies”?

Yes, I’ve personally noticed this in the course of my work. Governments and businesses are often eager to for novel and innovative ideas at first, but then soon become wary of taking any risk: “How many times has this been implemented before?” (I mean, by definition, if a technology has been implemented before, it is no longer novel!). Contrast that with the prevailing attitude in California’s Silicon Valley – one of the world’s most productive innovation ecologies – where risk-taking is rewarded, and failure is tolerated.

Innovation demands an environment where top-down ideas are challenged so that new and better ideas can advance. In some cases it will also need a good dose of chaos – the opposite of optimal efficiency. The most creative solutions often emerge and thrive in less regulated and “messy” environments. In other words, the challenge is sometimes “less smartness” and more experimentation– if smart is not to be an empty word!

Daniel Araya is a researcher and advisor to government with a special interest in education, technological innovation and public policy. His newest books include: Augmented Intelligence (2016), and Smart Cities as Democratic Ecologies (2015). He has a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is an alumnus of Singularity University’s graduate program in Silicon Valley.

He can be reached here: www.danielaraya.com and here: @danielarayaXY.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length