“Singapore Can Think a Bit More Crazily”

Known for creating spaces that can sense our presence and respond to us, Professor Carlo Ratti shares how he makes his ideas come alive.

Italian Architect Carlo Ratti is probably the only person in the world who has garnered rave reviews for creating a “watered down” version of a building.

“Singapore Can Think a Bit More Crazily”, Carlo Ratti
The Digital Water Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain. (Photo: www.dwp.qaop.net)

Together with his team from the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Professor Ratti built the Digital Water Pavilion in Spain. It was constructed out of curtains of water and fitted with sensors to detect the presence of visitors, so that the curtains would part to let them in. The “water walls” also double up as display spaces – thanks to computer-controlled nozzles, the water droplets can be shaped into various texts and images.

The first of its kind to digitally manipulate water as building and display material, the Pavilion was named by TIME magazine as one of the “Best Inventions of the Year” in 2007 and was part of the 2008 World Expo in Zaragoza, Spain.

It is an example of how technology can change the way we see and interact with space. Sensors and computers that control them have made it possible for once-static structures to respond to us in real time.

“Singapore Can Think a Bit More Crazily”, Carlo Ratti
The water droplets can be controlled to create different patterns and text, which is another interactive feature of the Pavilion. (Photo: www.dwp.qaop.net)

Bright ideas

Besides manipulating water to create dynamic environments, Prof Ratti has also experimented with lights.

His 2010 Flyfire project with the MIT SENSEable City Lab attempts to construct 3D displays from tiny flying LED lights that can be controlled to morph into different shapes in the air.

Though the project is still being developed and has its critics (one criticism is that it may not work in environments with strong winds), if successful, it could change the face of public communication. For instance, the way we view advertisements in public spaces could be transformed. Good-bye, 2D posters and billboards; hello, 3D moving canvases.

How does the 42-year-old get inspiration for bright ideas like these? The tip he gives sounds almost too easy to be true: “You don’t need to think too hard about it to get ideas. Sometimes the ideas just come when you’re relaxing.” The idea for Flyfire hit him when he was about to fall asleep on a flight. “Travelling is a good time to think about things,” he says.

Prof Ratti and his team then spent two years developing the project before they scored their first successful prototype, which shows that innovation does not stop at “Eureka!”

Quoting inventor Thomas Edison who gave the famous adage “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”, he says: “Being innovative is not just about being inspired but making things happen.”

Bettering lives

If at this point, you think he is only interested in innovative ideas with little care for how they provide tangible benefits for the present, think again.

Prof Ratti, who is also trained in civil engineering, is involved in projects that enable city dwellers to lead more sustainable lifestyles. That is why he and his team at the MIT SENSEable City Lab are studying how real-time data about the city can be harnessed to change human behaviour for the better.

Capitalising on smart networks created by the ubiquitous use of smartphones, they worked with the Copenhagen Municipality to develop the Copenhagen Wheel, a bicycle that stores energy generated when biking and braking, and releases it for moments when the cyclist needs more power. The bike also has sensors to track real-time information like traffic conditions and pollution levels.

Cyclists can then use the information to plan smoother and more environmentally friendly routes with their smartphones.

“Singapore Can Think a Bit More Crazily”, Carlo Ratti
The Copenhagen Wheel, thanks to its ability to detect data such as pollution and traffic congestion levels, enables cyclists to make better decisions in route-planning. (Photo: senseable.mit.edu/copenhagenwheel/)

Teamwork works

Though it seems he has no problem coming up with ideas on his own, Prof Ratti stresses the importance of teamwork during brainstorming.

“We need to be able to listen to people’s ideas, we need to be able to share ideas and then creativity can come in a more collective, bottom-up way,” he says. He tries to make listening and sharing ideas a daily practice wherever he works, whether it is at the MIT SENSE-able City Lab or his architectural design company, carlorattiassociati, which has offices in Turin, London and Boston.

The MIT SENSEable City Lab also has a presence in Singapore. Prof Ratti has been making yearly trips here since 2010 when the Lab started developing LIVE Singapore!, an open platform that transforms real-time information about our city into visualisations (read more about LIVE Singapore! in Challenge Jan/Feb 2012).

Singapore, get crazy

“Singapore Can Think a Bit More Crazily”, Carlo Ratti
Italian architect Carlo Ratti explores how new technologies are transforming the way we understand, design, and live in cities. (Photo by Lars Kruger, www.lumivere.com)

Affirming Singaporeans’ eagerness to try new technologies, Prof Ratti thinks that this country can be an ideal base for urban experimentation, such as creating new architecture that emerges from our changing lifestyles.

For instance, flexible work arrangements mean more people are going to work outside the office in the near future. Prof Ratti believes that could translate to designing more open air working spaces with richer greenery.

“In terms of design, Singapore can think a bit more crazily,” he says. After all, thinking out of the box may require us to stretch our imagination – just a little.

Other Projects from Carlo Ratti

  • During a competition for the London Olympics last year, Prof Ratti and his team came up with the idea of The Cloud, an observation deck consisting of large plastic bubbles on top of 120m-tall towers. It will be an interactive space that displays real-time information, such as weather updates, using LED lights. Though the idea did not materialise for the Olympics, there are ongoing discussions with other major cities in the world to build it in their countries.
  • In 2011, the MIT SENSEable City Lab worked with General Electric to analyse data from over 7 million medical records in the United States and create the “Health Infoscape”, which sheds light on seemingly unrelated medical conditions (for example, insomnia could be associated with abnormal weight gain). Researchers are using the data to find out how environmental factors lead to certain illnesses.
    Mar 14, 2013
    Chen Jingting
  • link facebook
  • link twitter
  • link whatsapp
  • link email