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Today we fly to Boston to interview Carlo Ratti, architect and engineer, author of the book “Open source architecture” and director of the MIT Senseable City Lab. Graduated from Turin’s Polytechnic School and Paris’ École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, he holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy and a PhD in Architecture (and IT) at Cambridge University, England.

Esquire magazine included him among the “2008 Best and Brightest”, Forbes among the “Names You Need to Know” of 2011, Wired in “Smart List 2012: 50 people who will change the world”. Fast Company named Carlo Ratti among the “50 Most Influential Designers in America”, Thames & Hudson between the “60 innovators shaping our creative future”, Blueprint Magazine among the “25 People Who Will Change the World of Design”.

He was relator at TED in 2011, curator of “BMW Guggenheim Pavilion” in 2012 in Berlin, director of studies at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design of Moscow and he was named “Inaugural Innovator in Residence” from Queensland administration. He’s also member of Italian Design Council, of World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Urban Management and he supports our project: The Open Source School.

Carlo, how has your experience with school been? (as a student or as a teacher)

My path at school has been a slightly unusual. At high school, school was often an alibi - a duty to complete in order to start doing “something else”. Sometimes, this “else” was equally connected to the sphere of knowledge, but was not part of any traditional curriculum. It was, instead, sort of a rebellion against the established order. Something similar also happened during my university years, which I spent continuously running after a diverse range of interests. First a graduation in engineering in Turin’s Polytechnic School and in Paris’ Ecole des Ponts, then a specialization in architecture (and IT) at Cambridge.

I am now living the university system from the other side of the fence, as an MIT professor. Because of that, I try to encourage students to leave the common roads and finding new paths, often on the borders with other disciplines. Knowledge, in fact, comes out of diversity.

We very often learn starting with a confrontation with something different. That’s why my MIT class is composed by students coming from very diverse educational backgrounds, places, experiences, cultures. The same happens in the Senseable City Lab - a research laboratory around cities, where engineers, architects, mathematicians, sociologists and scholars of many different fields come working side by side.

Tell us about your dream school

First of all, a free school. Extremely meritocratic, while non coercive at the same time. I am thinking to Einstein’s nice quote saying that “curiosity is a delicate plant that, together with stimula, mainly needs freedom”.
Secondly, I think that easy access to knowledge - Internet played a revolutionary role in this - allows us to study in a new way. Not by following a pre-compiled textbook, summa of a specific knowledge, but rather by gathering the elements we need to solve a problem. A laboratory-school where people try - together - to give meaning to the great practical or theoretical problems of existence.

Finally, a border-line school: a place where research of new things prevales on the time spent on studying things that have already been discovered. A school that generates more doubts than certainties.

How do you envision an “open source school”?

A school where eveyone is both teacher and student. A school where peer-to-peer dynamics are at least as important as the top-down ones. There is a good experiment happening in this sense in Paris - Ecole 42.

A school that opens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A school with no planned courses, where students are free to organize their days to complete the projects assigned them by the educational team.

Other students are there correcting them, through a cross-checks system. And conferences and meetings are held, above everything else.
In this sharing logic, also physical space becomes important. I imagine a flexible one, where classrooms are not only places for frontal lessons. Instead, a school made of laboratories, workshops, meeting and playing areas. A space where services and instruments are shared, as in FabLabs - fabrication laboratories.

Well, I imagine an open source school as a FabLab for consciousness.

We tried to create an environment like this working with Renzo Piano Foundation on a reconstruction project for a school in Cavezzo - one of the cities that most suffered from the recent earthquake in the Emilia region. The space we built has a strong relational character, where you can work on multiple activities in a flexible way. In visual continuity with the spaces of the two pre-existing schools, the new gym and the surroundings, the area between the two schools became a huge inhabited greenhouse, where - among the trees - workshops, connecting spaces and a multi-function hall came to life. We called this project Learning Garden - a garden to grow ideas in.

What would it change if an “open source school” existed?

I believe it would introduce an acceleration in knowledge production and transmission - also thanks to the higher enthusiasm with which students would dive into their studies.

If you were able to rethink the way knowledge is transmitted into school today, how would you envision that?

I would dream about a world where school and work become the same - almost like a game that accompanies us through our whole life. I like Constant Nieuwenhuys’ idea whom, thinking about a future where machines would have freed us from labour slavery, imagines a ludic dimension in the center of our lives.

"In the worldwide city of the future (..) a society of total automation, the need to work is replaced by a nomadic life of creative play, a modern return to Eden. The ‘homo ludens’, whom man will become once freed from labor will not have to make art, for he can be creative in the practice of his daily life.”

What does “researching” mean to you?

We mainly work on applied research, which to me simply means trying to change the status quo. Being curious around new solutions that can ultimately improve the environment we live in.

In which way do you think technologies can help us build a better world?

I think that technologies are necessary tools to a designer’s activity, who now finds himself dealing with a hybrid world, made of bits and atoms. Necessary tools to re-think the interface between us and the world around us. It’s very important for design to be future-looking.
I think that architects have to be more ”future-facing” and engage in what we call Futurecraft. As Herbert Simon wrote,

“The natural sciences are concerned with how things are (..) Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be, with devising artifacts to attain goals (..) Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Herbert Simon, The Science of Design, 1988).

I believe that designers must challenge what exists today, introduce new and alternate possibilities, and ultimately pave the way towards a desirable future. This is not dissimilar to the conceptual framework of ‘speculative design’ – proposed by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby at the Royal College of Art – a process that neither attempts to solve problems nor predict the future. Rather,

they understand design as a “catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality,” speculating on how things could be.

Even earlier, Buckminster Fuller’s Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science (CADS) was a systematic approach to design, “to solve problems by introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices.” He believed that design could pull society into a brighter future (or, to put it in a slightly haughtier way, “I just invent, then wait until man comes around to needing what I’ve invented”).
However, the designer must peddle abstract ideas. Crucially, the work must be made tangible – not necessarily creating fully functional products and systems, but demonstrable concepts that promote interaction and debate. The goal of design is to generate alternatives and open up new possibilities.

The momentum of the crowd can project ideas into the future and spark development; as a result, our work is meaningless unless it ignites imaginations.

At the urban scale, this implicates any and every citizen.
Living in space and creating space can go hand in hand. A system does not need to be fully developed, deployed, and succeed/fail – if it is tested, we can collectively adjudicate its desirability before wasting resources, ultimately accelerating the future. Broadly speaking, this frames design as evolutionary – where beneficial changes will steer development in a positive way. In fact, biological species do essentially the same thing, on an extraordinarily long timeline. Random mutations are introduced from one organism to the next, and if the mutation is successful, that organism will be more likely to reproduce. The best changes are incorporated into the species, and, over time, it evolves.
In a seminal 1863 text, Darwin Among the Machines, Samuel Butler proposed this basic analogy, replacing ‘organisms’ with ‘artifacts’ and allowing for the synthetic kingdom to be classified into genera and species, an evolutionary tree of objects. Continuing the analogy,

the designer becomes what, in biology, is referred to as a ‘mutagen’ – an agent that produces mutations.

Specific design artifacts improve function or enable a new process, and on a broad scale, collectively drive change and development in the synthetic world.

This, we call “Futurecraft”.

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