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Building sensible and “senseable” cities of the future: a Q+A with Carlo Ratti, Kenichi Soga, Geoffrey Thün and Carol Menassa

The multidisciplinary panel discussion is part of the first installment of CEE’s Building the Future Lecture Series.

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering recently launched our new Strategic Directions website, detailing the five principles guiding our vision of the future of pedagogy, research and service. The Building the Future Distinguished Lecture Series provides a forum to discuss each strategic theme and build a broad community that includes industry professionals, researchers, educators, and students. In the first installment, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor and Director of the Senseable Cities Lab Carlo Ratti touches on Enhancing Human Habitat Experience, the first of the Strategic Directions. Ratti explored the future of sensible and “senseable” architecture and engineering in his lecture on shareability networks, design and smart city technologies. 

After the lecture, U-M Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Carol Menassa moderated a discussion between Ratti, Kenichi Soga (Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley) and Geoffrey Thün (Professor of Architecture and Senior Associate Dean for Research and Creative Practice at A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning). 

The panelists shared thoughts on rethinking timelines when designing for the future and considering equity in every step of the planning process. What follows is an excerpt of their discussion, which has been shortened for clarity. The entire lecture and panel discussion can be found here, along with the rest of the lectures in the series. 


Carol Menassa: In the US there is significant focus on improving the technology with cars and autonomous vehicles and autonomous mobility. When thinking about the urban environment and our own infrastructure — the bridges, the streets, the roads — why isn’t there much focus on how we can make shifts in those infrastructure to support better urban mobility and sustainable environments?

Carlo Ratti: When we build a new bridge or a key piece of infrastructure — we build it for 50 or 100 or even 200 years. And when you think about technology, it’s surprising to think that in 2000 people couldn’t figure out that we could have self-driving cars — a few colleagues of mine brought the paper in the early 2000s where they were asking: “what are the jobs that will always be safe from automation?” And one of them answered “truck drivers” because they couldn’t foresee self-driving cars coming in. So technology is changing much faster, certainly not on the scale of fifty or a hundred years. Somehow we need to build our infrastructure in a flexible way. And I don’t think it’s that much about redoing the infrastructure. I think it’s about using it better. Today, the most interesting thing is how we can transform our cities with less asphalt, less concrete. Concrete is really not the best thing you can do also in terms of CO2 emissions and all of that. And circularity: so less concrete and asphalt and more Silicon, more intelligence. Instead of thinking about building more infrastructure, how can we repurpose and better use the one we have, especially through intelligence, through data, through sensing and through systems that allow us to make the most of it?

Kenichi Soga: I echo that with what Carlo said: having a more flexible design — that we don’t do — is important to think about. I do a lot of underground construction design and that’s the thing. We design everything for 120 years. And typically when we bury a pipeline you’re not going to see it for another 120 years. And for me, a missed opportunity is that we can put intelligence in a pipeline. There may be a possibility to use these systems even though you don’t see it, and I think that’s where the adaptation and flexibility of our designs should change rather than trying to say, okay, it’s 120 years design life because as Carlo says, cities change so rapidly. The industry we have right now may be different in twenty years time. And we also see in other cities, they have big industry but then [the city has] declined because it doesn’t have that industry anymore. So, the change in industry is going fast. Society is changing more rapidly than the hundred years of our bridge. If we can make our infrastructure a little bit more sensing then it allows us to understand what’s going on, and then when looking at how demand changes as Carlos nicely presented, we can see how hard infrastructure can be adaptive, meaning it can expand to cater to the sort of demand in an elegant way. 

Geoffrey Thün: I completely concur with Carlo’s comments on rethinking the material compositions and systems with which we construct our environment, and also with comments regarding this question of how we can think through the lens of adaptation to begin to demand that our infrastructures can do more. Central to that discussion is really a fundamental paradigm shift. And I’m making this comment in the context of thinking around the frameworks of logic that drive Civil Engineering discussions in the last 200 years, which is that we have tended to think around systemic performance through singular lenses. Infrastructure of the future needs to be conceived of operating in multiple domains.

When we talk about sustainability I guess I wonder what we’re talking about. Are we talking about the minimization of negative impacts of action? Are we talking about generating resilience, which is a separate issue, which is primarily around responding to specific peak events? Are we talking about achieving systemic circularity? What are we talking about sustaining? Are we talking about sustaining the dominant systems that characterize our urbanism, that is systems of poverty and systematic disparity? I think these are the kinds of questions that need to be central in the training of the next generation, who are going to think about the future of infrastructure. We need to center this idea of multifunctional infrastructure, that which can serve multiple constituencies around multiple agendas as a new model through which we ask: how can we produce abundance rather than optimize towards minimization of an issue in a framework of scarcity? How do we think about changing the paradigms in which our infrastructures operate as part of the moment of their conception?

Menassa: We cannot avoid the question of COVID and its impact on how we are using our mobility systems and our infrastructure. How has COVID impacted how you imagine the future of the urban built environment?

Ratti: I think first of all, we’ll be surprised at how much we’ll want to go back to our streets. I see a lot of pent up demand for being back together, [although] digital is great. We can also be more sustainable.Teaching has been much more sustainable and conferences have been much more sustainable over the past 12 months, and we should certainly keep some of that, but there’s something very dangerous about digital, which is that it tends to lead to polarization.

We end up in echo chambers where we only talk to people who are similar to us. It’s so easy to just exclude all of those who challenge our comfort zone and [exist] in this echo chamber and little by little become more and more radicalized. There’s one antidote today and that is physical space. Physical space is the space of the city, the space of the office — it’s a space where we are challenged all the time, where we meet people we don’t necessarily want to meet. We meet random people who might open our minds with different ideas. So, I would say post-COVID is certainly not the end of the city. I think we need cities in public spaces more than ever because that’s where we come together; that’s where we can really make sure the city performing that primordial function, which is bringing us together so that together we are more than each of us individually.

Soga: I have also been thinking about it. With aging infrastructure, we designed it for a very long time and have been talking about it for a hundred years, and we also do prediction, [which is] a policy of [asking] “how is this infrastructure going to be used?” So you predict the usage of demand for the long term. But I think COVID really taught us that if something happens, the demand can change rapidly. And therefore our infrastructure design has to cope with that kind of change as well. Although we think about 120 years, we have to think about design in a much shorter timeframe and see how the infrastructure is used. That’s something that I realize and hopefully many of us realize, is that the demand can change rapidly. And that’s a paradigm shift in terms of how we design our infrastructure. So I think that caught us. 
Thün: The issue that has been most centered and surfaced during the pandemic has to do with issues of disparity that become legible and visible across the questions of race, gender, issues of disability, age, across citizens in space. And this is the primary question for me around how we collectively within professional organizations, both in the training of our next generation and in the advocacy that we undertake for the next infrastructures that we build, can start to conceive of the aims of infrastructure as essentially being those systems and their physical materialization that enables the good life for all citizens. And if we can’t think about how to address fundamental issues of inequity at the moment where we begin to think about servicing society, then we will produce more of the same regardless of the levels of technology that we integrate into these systems. That’s the most pressing issue that’s really been made vivid by the pandemic.


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Mason Hinawi

Marketing Communications Specialist
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering