Carlo Ratti Associati - building flexibility for the future

Carlo Ratti discusses how cities, buildings and infrastructure can be designed for a changing future

Data and data sharing is the key to planning future-proof cities, says Ratti.
Data and data sharing is the key to planning future-proof cities, says Ratti.

Rapidly changing technology is creating the need for architecture and infrastructure that can adapt to meet demands work and living spaces that have not yet even been considered, according to Carl Ratti, architect, engineer, MIT professor and futurist.

Speaking at the Italian Design Day event hosted by the American University of Dubai in March, Ratti discussed how different disciplines such as architecture and technology are coming together, armed with data on how people interact with the urban environment, to develop new ways to think about how space can be used.

As the director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and founder of Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA), Ratti is closely involved with many projects that are trying to work out how buildings and spaces can be future-proofed.

One such project is Singapore’s CapitaSpring building. The 280m tall high-rise, due for completion in 2021, was jointly designed by CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group. Green space is a key feature of the development, including the partial conversion of the street outside into a public park, the incorporation of a four storey, 30m high ‘green oasis’ – a multi-level garden atrium – one-third of the way up the tower, and a rooftop space which will be home to Singapore’s highest urban farm.

The tower was built on the site of a former carpark, and although the development includes several levels of car parking above the main lobby, the space has been conceptualised to be something more than just a car park.

One of the main drivers for this is the rise of self-driving vehicles, Ratti explained. Autonomous vehicles used for ride-sharing or public transport can reduce the total number of vehicles to serve the city by as much as 50%.

The project has looked at how car parking space can be built with flexibility, so that in future, it can be easily adapted into usage such as sports pitches, or maker spaces.

"Initially, the city wanted us to build the parking space below ground, but Singapore… wants to move totally to self-driving cars,” Ratti said.

“Self-driving [transport] needs much less parking space, so what we decided to do was to see if we can the parking space above ground, can we make it flexible, so that this space can be used for something else? So the parking from the beginning, was designed as something that can be adapted and turned into something else.

“It is very important that we can make urban design today more flexible, so it is future-proof."

Another project developed by CRA, with Google’s Sidewalk Labs urban ideas lab, is the Dynamic Street. The project uses a prototype paving slab, designed by CRA. These hexagonal blocks can be picked up and moved easily, meaning that a whole street can be reconfigured from a roadway to children’s play space, or a pedestrian plaza, in a matter of hours or even minutes. Each paver can have lights integrated into it, and they could also have ‘plug and play’ elements, to accommodate vertical structures such as poles, bollards or even basketball hoops.

Autonomous transport systems can be programmed to use the road at rush hour, but to take other routes at other times, allowing for more flexible use of the street space.

“The Dynamic Street creates a space for urban experimentation,” said Ratti. “With this project, we aim to create a streetscape that responds to citizens' ever-changing needs.”

Changing the design of cities to future proof them is highly reliant on having an accurate picture of the city and its systems, and in sharing that data across disciplines.

Ratti gave the example of a project conducted by MIT SENSEable Labs from 2012, which analysed GPS data from all New York cab journeys taken in 2011. This allowed researchers to understand how much more efficient public transport would be if cab riders were willing to share, which in part influenced ride-hailing companies like Uber to introduce ride-sharing services. This innovation would not have been possible if New York city authorities had not implemented an open data-sharing program under Mayor Bloomberg.

“It is very important to share data... we share data, we share knowledge about the city, then all of us can think about how to transform the city,” Ratti said. “You get digital information about the city, you analyse it and you can design it in a different way.”

Creating flexibility and future proofing design can be a long-term process, he added. CRA is the ‘Futurist’ for a major project in New York, the redevelopment of the Sunnyside rail yards in Queens. Currently a functioning part of the city’s transport network, the city is currently undertaking an 18-month program to plan the redevelopment of this 180 acre site.

“Sunnyside… will be finished decades from now, so how can you make it compatible with the way we will move, live, shop and so on?

“I think it is important we need to future proof more and more, to make what we design today compatible with different futures,” Ratti said. “The infrastructure we build today will last for decades, fifty, one hundred, two hundred years, but actually the way we use it might change in five or ten or twenty years, so we need to find a way to design it to make it, as much as possible, compatible with different futures.”

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