You have said that every city can be transformed into a smart city. How radical would a solution have to be?
Ratti: I would say that it’s not about systemic solutions – it is more like an incremental process that is already being applied in many dimensions. Let me explain it with an analogy. What is happening on an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One car racing. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. Cars were transformed into computers that were monitored in real time by thousands of sensors, thus becoming “intelligent” and better able to respond to the conditions of the race. In a similar way, over the past decade digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Cities are quickly becoming like computers in open air.
As this transformation takes place, will we see it happening?
Ratti: From an architectural point of view, the city of tomorrow will not compulsory look dramatically different from the city of today - much in the same way that the Roman urbs were not all that different than the city as we know it today. The key elements of architecture will be there in the future, and our models of urban planning will be quite similar to what we know today. What will change will be the way we live in cities.
Might digital technologies create a positive loop in which we change our behavior with regard to waste or the use of water?
Ratti: It is funny you ask, as we have been working extensively on sewage and waste management. Our Trash Track project focuses on how pervasive technologies can expose the challenges of waste management. We use hundreds of small, smart, location-aware tags, which are attached to different types of trash that can be followed through a city’s waste management system. An important aspect of Trash Track is that data can lead to behavioral changes. It can provide citizens with information that empowers them to take better-informed decisions or even have a role in changing the city around them, which results in a more livable urban condition for all. One thing we learned is that just sharing information can promote behavioral change. People involved in the project were able to follow their trash. Afterwards, one person told us: "I used to drink water in plastic bottles and throw them away and forget about them. Now that I know that those bottles go to a landfill just a few miles from home. I cannot do that anymore." The Underworlds project focuses on sewage, to open up a new world of information on human health and behavior. We are currently designing prototype smart platforms that collect sewage, filter it and use computational techniques to analyze genetic material and identify viruses and bacteria, as well as spotting specific chemicals. It is like measuring the human microbiome of an entire neighborhood.