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What makes a great smart city?

Kenny MacIver — August 2016
As digitalization progressively reshapes key elements of metropolitan life, we ask founding partner at Carlo Ratti Associati, MIT professor and smart city expert Carlo Ratti how his ideal city might evolve.

As one of the world’s leading authorities on the impact of technology on the evolution of smart cities, Carlo Ratti is often asked how megatrends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and machine learning are likely to reshape our urban environments. Paradoxically, the MIT professor, architect, engineer and inventor, suggests that the majority of cities will not change dramatically in appearance.

“Tomorrow’s cities will look pretty much like today’s cities, in the same way as many of today’s cities we still live in [at least in Europe] are not that different from the cities of Roman or Medieval times. What will change dramatically in tomorrow’s cities is not so much the physical structure — as humans we will still need horizontal floors and vertical walls, façades to protect us from the outside [environment], windows to look outside.”

What will be different, Ratti says, will be the day-to-day lives of city dwellers. “In the same way that how we live, we work, we meet has been totally disrupted over the past 10 years, life in the city will be very different as a result of this new world of IoT.”

That is beginning to become evident in cities that have already deployed major IoT initiatives in a bid to gain 'smart city' status. “There are many cities trying out different things, from different points of view. You’ve got Singapore doing great experiments with mobility, Copenhagen with sustainability [applications], Boston with citizen participation. So it’s really about different cities trying out different ideas and then sharing the knowledge the acquire.”
Model city

And although he works around the world with numerous metropolitan authorities to help them realize their smart city ambitions, Ratti is reluctant to define what an ideal city might look like.

On that point he takes inspiration from Georges Perec, the 20th-century French writer. “When asked where he would like to live in Paris, Perec said, ‘I don’t want to live in one place. I’d like to have my kitchen in one part of the city next to the market, my living room next to the park and my bedroom in another place.’ So my ideal city would be the city that has the topography of Prague, the weather of Naples, the architecture of London, the fusion cooking of San Francisco and, why not, the nightlife of Rio de Janeiro.”

Read more about smart cities from Carlo Ratti:
The digital canvas presented by smart cities
How the digitalization of cities empowers people


• Carlo Ratti, founding partner at Carlo Ratti Associati, was a keynote speaker at Fujitsu World Tour 2016 in Milan. His latest book, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers and the Future of Urban Life, co-authored with Matthew Claudel, is out now.

• Photography: Ben Gold
First published
August 2016
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About: Carlo Ratti
Lecturer, architect, engineer and inventor Carlo Ratti is a professor at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. The co-author of ‘The City of Tomorrow’ and ‘Decoding the City,’ he is the founder of Carlo Ratti Associati which explores the dramatic impact of digital technologies on architecture, planning, design and urban life.

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