Designing Resilience: The Intersection of Digital Technology and Physical Space

“There’s a convergence between the artificial world and the biological one,” says Carlo Ratti. “Our buildings, our cities, can start to respond to us as if they were living beings.”

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“I do not think that the definition of architecture has changed,” says Carlo Ratti in an interview with urbanNext. “Architecture has always been about the interface between us and the environment, us and what is out there. However, that interface has been changing because of technology.”

Ratti and his multidisciplinary architectural design firm Carlo Ratti Associati based in Turin, Italy, has been dedicated to clarifying and enhancing this “interface” between humans and our environment for over a decade. Ratti, whose profession could be defined as a hybrid between architect, engineer, inventor and educator, is most interested in harnessing how certain digital technologies can play a role in the advancement of this interface.

“What is happening in the city is very simple. It’s that all the technologies that change our lives in the past 10, 20 years are now entering physical space.” Ratti, who also heads the Senseable City Lab at MIT, identifies a huge potential in digital technologies to augment urban infrastructure and subsequently quality of life in cities, but only if the impact of smart city technologies on the citizens is closely monitored. “You could say a smart city is the one with the smart citizens, which means that citizens are engaged in the dynamics. Ultimately, this is not about technology, but is really about citizens, about humans and how we respond to things.”

The Supermarket of the Future, Coop Italia’s flagship store, integrates digital mirrors with product information to give shoppers a more informed understanding of where their food comes from and what it contains; image via Business Insider

Carlo Ratti Associati has launched a project called Supermarket of the Future, which utilizes data and digital interfacing tools to help shoppers make better-informed, more sustainable decisions about consumption. The project, which was originally launched as a prototype at the Milan Expo in 2015, has recently been integrated into a functioning supermarket in the flagship store of Coop Italia.

MakrShakr is an automated robot serving up crowd-sourced cocktails; image via WIRED.

Ratti’s firm is also interested in the integrating of robotics into architectural design. “Robots are going to have a big impact on our lives,” he states in the interview. “Some of our projects try to make robots more accessible to people, work with the educational dimension of robots because we think it’s really important that we know more about them so that we can actually better understand some of the transformations that are going on.” Most notably, the firm has been working on MakrShakr, a startup generating the world’s first bar fully operated by a robot. MakrShakr will allow users to design their own cocktails, which will then be prepared by a robot, and the recipe will become public for sharing.

For Ratti, designing with digital technologies is an investment in future resilience. “What we can do today is actually design systems that respond in a much more dynamic way [than] normally, to be much more resilient … There’s a convergence between the artificial world and the biological one. Our buildings, our cities, can start to respond to us as if they were living beings.”

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