Berlin Lab

The Senseable City: An Interview with Carlo Ratti

Carlo Ratti, Berlin Lab Team

The Lab Team in Berlin will have an overarching theme of making and doing—empowering everyday citizens to create and improve their own cities. Within this theme, Lab Team members have each chosen a special focus based on their skill sets and backgrounds.

Architect, engineer, and director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Carlo Ratti will focus on (you guessed it) the Senseable City—merging the digital and the physical realms by understanding how we sense and act on our built environment, and how the latter then responds to us.

This is the third in a series of four interviews with Lab Team members to provide a sneak peek of what we can expect from their programming in Berlin. Be sure to check out my interviews with cocurator Maria Nicanor about the overall programming structure in Berlin, and with Lab Team members José Gómez-Márquez and Corinne Rose. Stay tuned next week for the final interview in this series, with Lab Team member Rachel Smith.

First off, let’s talk about your main topic—Senseable Cities. What does this mean, and how do you hope to explore it at the Lab?

The Senseable City is about how our environment is becoming more responsive thanks to technology, and how our cities are starting to talk back to us.…

We’ll approach this by looking at many topics that are related to the Senseable City. We’re looking at senses, we’re looking at ways to describe the city, of mapping what’s going on, and ways to respond to that. So really looking at ways that the city becomes something that talks to us .…

It’s about different ways of understanding what’s going on in the city in real time, to sense it, to reveal the hidden dimensions of the city, and the way that all this can inform us in city making to respond to that.

Until now the Lab has really focused on our relationship with the city in how we interact with it. But in many ways your work reverses the relationship by having the city interact back with us. Why is this important when we’re talking about notions of comfort in the city? Why do we need to focus on the reverse side of that relationship?

Comfort is about having something that responds to you. Comfort is about something that adjusts to what you are. Comfort is not when you have something that is a piece of stone, that is what it is regardless of who you are. There’s a different level of comfort when things in the environment actually are starting to adjust and talk back and respond to you. It’s something that we couldn’t do before that we can do today, thanks to technology, and something that goes back to a very primordial human drive, kind of like Michelangelo’s dream of having things talk back to us.

You work with a lot of hard data. At the Lab, do you plan to look for new ways to use data we already have, or actually collect new data? If so, what, and how do you hope to use it?

Actually both. So for instance, having people go and collect water samples from all across the lakes in Berlin to see where it’s safe to swim and not, and to teach them that. People do a lot of swimming in the lakes, so that’s a way to actually get a measure of exposure to possible pollutants in the water and actually learn how to do that. So from that to taking existing data: we’re planning, for instance, on getting information from the telecommunications sector to see how different communities are organized in Berlin, how Berlin is structured in terms of neighborhoods. It’s a little bit along the lines of something you can see in the New York Times called the Connected States of America. Well, we’re planning on doing the same type of thing on the level of the city of Berlin and see how different neighborhoods can come together and communicate.

You’re used to working in a high-tech lab, whereas the BMW Guggenheim Lab is very open and simple. Have you come across challenges, or perhaps benefits, working in such a relatively naked environment?

Well, we’re planning to actually make the environment much more interactive. We’re calling this Lab Plus, and the plus is actually adding to the piece of infrastructure we have at the moment, and adding a number of additional functionalities.… The Lab will become an interface with the local community.

How has the experience been, combining your expertise with that of the other Lab Team members? Where does it fit into the team?

It’s been a great experience from a professional point of view and a human point of view. Both with the other team members and Maria, who has been the main curator…. It’s been great group dynamics, and I think the way the team was built was extremely synergistic; the competencies that come from such different backgrounds actually came together very nicely.… I think the roles change all the time, and they keep rotating, and I think that’s what is the most exciting.

Can you think of three words to describe the process of working on this project so far?

Participatory, creative, and fun.

. . .

Photo: Lars Krüger

  • Matthias K.

    I would appreciate more interaction with Public Infrastructure like availability of parkinglots or repair status of street lights.
    But I don’t want always be nerved by each stone in the Street telling me its history and current status.

  • Anonymous

    Where do you live Mattias? I dug into a few tools that help citizens both report and track the progress of non-emergency problems in an article I wrote earlier this year here: Some of the tools I mention are available around the world. 

    A lot of other cities have been launching some pretty cool phone and internet apps – San Francisco launched a pretty neat parking application that indicates both availability and price comparisons in real time:

    It also wouldn’t surprise me if someone has uploaded a tour to GPSmyCity ( that would, indeed, tell you the history of paving stones in any given tourist town, should you change your mind…