Berlin Lab

Carlo Ratti: Getting Your Hands Dirty with Data

Author’s note: Last fall, shortly after the Berlin Lab Team was announced, I sat down with the four Lab Team members (José Gómez-MárquezRachel SmithCorinne Rose, and Carlo Ratti) to get a general feel for what they would be exploring during their time at the Lab. At that point they had very rough ideas of what their focus might be. But now, just days before the Lab opens, their plans are a lot more concrete—and thus a lot more exciting. Speaking with them privately about what they have in store, I was struck by just how much there is to look forward to in the weeks ahead. And so I thought it would be worth taking a quick glance at what Berliners can expect from the programs each will be presenting at the Lab. Enjoy.

Carlo Ratti wants you to get your hands dirty with data.

That’s right. If the other Lab Team members want you to get dirty out in the playgrounds, the bike lanes, the watershed, the metro, the politics, or even in the interactions between the people in all those places in the city—Carlo wants you to get dirty with the data about those things.

Architect, engineer, and director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Carlo investigates how digital technology is merging with the physical realm by looking at how we sense and act on our built environment, and how the latter then responds to us. At the Berlin Lab, he’s especially interested in looking at how this mergence can contribute to increased and more meaningful participation—how getting our hands dirty with digital data can help us get our hands dirty elsewhere, better.

For example, in one of his workshops visitors will work with MIT engineers using image processing to measure and map interactions and flows in a public space in Berlin, detecting pedestrian paths, behaviors, group dynamics, and so on. They will then make small spatial interventions—such as moving street furniture or inserting new objects into the space—and do the same, to determine how various types of physical arrangements influence social movement and activity in public space.

In another workshop, they’ll physically visualize the complete footprint of different food and trash objects.

“It’s a very interesting time in urban studies, where all of those technologies that have changed our lives over the past 15, 20 years—anything from networks, the Internet, cell phones, and so on—all that is actually entering the space of the city, and it’s allowing us to understand the city in a new way, but also to shape it and respond to the city in a new way. It’s a kind of nonincremental way of looking at urban life. It is a major transformation,” he told me.

“That’s what leads us to look at all different aspects of urban life, from the waste chain to participation in building and shaping the city, through this lens.”

Along with this theme will be other (nondata) dirty sides to his time at the Lab, including the completely crowdsourced construction of a structure whose fate will be decided by Berliners at the end of the Lab’s run. One of the days I’m looking forward to the most will include a large-scale panel discussion about the consequences of how a place is perceived by tourists and the people who live there, in terms of the effects this perception has on locals. This will be discussed through the lens of the large debate currently happening in Berlin around famous historical sites, like Checkpoint Charlie, and how they should be shaped: Who gets to define the image and narrative of the city and its history?

Take a look at the calendar for listings of Carlo’s programs at the Lab (from July 19 to July 28). New programs are still to be announced, so be sure to check back often.