Carlo Ratti / Slideshow

Architect, engineer and designer Carlo Ratti is continually evolving the dynamic between architecture and technology. With a focus on how data can reconstruct architecture, here he discusses new approaches to the way we perceive our surroundings.

The amount of data we generate today is unprecedented.  For instance, the amount of data produced from the dawn of civilization up until 2003 can be estimated in five exabytes. According to Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt, as of 2010 “that same amount is created every two days” – and today, we can presume that it’s even faster.

This unprecedented condition is commonly referred to as Big Data. It allows us to create a digital copy of our physical world, and hence is opening up new opportunities in the social sciences (the so-called emerging field of “computational social sciences”) as well as in architecture, which is based on the understanding of our physical environment in order that we can modify it.

An example of today can be seen in the countless flows of a city that we are able to capture as they happen, helping us to better respond to their conditions – be it for planning a new neighbourhood, designing a bicycle path or taking the appropriate actions in real time to address an emergency…

The history of architecture is a sea of revolutions. New techniques for perspectival drawing and geometrical projection in the age of Leon Battista Alberti paved the way for Renaissance classicism.  The audacious and innovative steel structures of engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Gustav Eiffel – and, later, the poetic concrete work of Eugene Freyssinet – revolutionised attitudes to space, scale and the expression of structure. Similar revolutions have happened repeatedly throughout the past, and define our histories – and our spaces.

We are once more at one of those defining moments, as the digital revolution becomes architectural. Increasingly, architectural projects must not only be designed in terms of their intellectual and conceptual bearing – and not only attend to issues of built form, structural innovation, tectonics, choice of materials and rigorous design details – but their design will also entail an embedded architecture of software and electronics, a complex mesh of systems that operate together as a singular cybernetic, sentient mechanism.

Besides being the shelter of old, soon every constitutive element of built space will be transformed into a context-aware, decision-making entity. Our environments are increasingly adaptive and responsive, enabling rich customisation and personalization, identifying and satisfying the divergent individual needs of its users.  Perhaps in the end this radical rewriting of the history of space is nothing more than the old dream of Michaelangelo: after sculpting the Moses, he allegedly threw a hammer at it and shouted “Perche’ non parli – Why don’t you speak?”. Thanks to today’s new sentient technologies, our buildings and cities are finally learning to speak.

Carlo Ratti is a civil engineer and architect who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the SENSEable City Laboratory. He has co-authored over 200 publications and has contributed to Domus, Scientific American and The New York Times. His work has been exhibited internationally at the Venice Biennale, the Design Museum Barcelona, the Science Museum in London and The Museum of Modern Art in New York. 




A project by the MIT Senseable City Lab. Photo: Max Tomasinelli