Chaos is also needed to build a Smart Nation

Disrupted gets tips from one of the world's most influential designers, Carlo Ratti, on how to merge the digital with the physical

CARLO Ratti is a lot of things: architect, engineer, activist, and voted one of the world's most influential designers. He runs his own design and innovation firm Carlo Ratti Associati, and teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he directs the MIT Senseable City Lab, which looks at how new technologies are changing the way we understand, design and live in cities.

In Singapore, he is perhaps best known as the designer and architect behind the redevelopment of Golden Shoe Car Park. The new landmark 51-storey tower on 88 Market Street only this week revealed its name: CapitaSpring. When completed some time in 2021, it will be among the tallest and greenest buildings in Raffles Place.

Here, Professor Ratti shares his thoughts on Singapore's digital city aspirations and using technologies to mould physical spaces.

Unique place for a digital city

"Singapore is a city - but also an island and a nation. As such, it is a natural living lab for testing new technologies. I have had the opportunity to try this first-hand through my serving on the government's Committee on Autonomous Road Transport, which has helped turn the island into one of the world's leading places when it comes to experimenting with self-driving cars.

In fact, Singapore has always been at the forefront of innovation and mobility - and now is exploring how self-driving cars can meet the country's future transport needs, while preparing the land transport system for their deployment."

Higher education is key

"Innovation in the space of smart cities requires universities. Singapore's higher education ecosystem today is very promising with not only national champions, but also foreign universities such as MIT, ETH Zurich, ESSEC Business School, Munich's TUM, the University of California Berkeley, Yale University and many others."

Wanted: Flexible, interchangeable spaces

"I believe that this flexibility (spaces whose uses can be changed depending on function) is largely dependent on the manifestation of a broad technological trend: the Internet is entering the spaces we live in, and is becoming Internet of Things (IoT), allowing us to create a myriad sensing-and-actuating loops in cities that were not possible before. Applications can be manifold: from waste management, to mobility, to energy, public health, civic participation and more.

As IoT enters architecture, our buildings and houses are starting to become increasingly adaptive. Using digital sensors, our buildings and offices can learn how to respond to people who are inhabiting them.

Architecture has often been described as a kind of 'third skin' - in addition to our own biological one and our clothing. However, for too long it has functioned more like a corset: a rigid and uncompromising addition to our body.

I think that new digital technologies and distributed intelligence have the potential to transform it, and give form to an endlessly reconfigurable environment. In the future, we could imagine an architecture that adapts to human need, rather than the other way around - a living, tailored space that is moulded to its inhabitants' needs, characters, and desires."

Space he's most impressed by

"I like spaces that bring us closer to nature - something that has become a leitmotif in the city in recent years."

Most iconic building

"I hope it is CapitaSpring, the 280-metre tower we jointly designed with BIG for CapitaLand. One of the project's aims is to marry city and nature, making the latter accessible to everyone (even while working). In this building, green areas are made accessible to the public at different heights, allowing outdoor exuberance to extend throughout the entire tower. Working in nature will be essential in tomorrow's buildings."

'Less smartness' may be more

"I remember that Mr Lee Kuan Yew famously urged Singaporeans to take more risks, a vital component of his three attributes of global competitiveness: entrepreneurship, innovation and management. 'The American economy has taken off because of the enterprise culture and willingness to try,' said Mr Lee in an interview with the New York Times in 2001. 'I think it's going to be a very arduous business changing the mindsets (of Singaporeans).'

In the course of my work on the island, we have personally noticed a pattern - government and business eagerly seeking novel and innovative ideas at first, but soon furtively asking: 'How many times has this been implemented before?'

By definition, if a technology has been implemented before, it is no longer novel! Contrast that with the prevailing attitude in California's Silicon Valley - one of the world's most productive innovation ecologies - where risk-taking is rewarded, while failure is tolerated.

Fostering an innovation culture will not be easy in a country where the educational system has historically been shaped by the stigma of failure. Innovation demands an environment where top-down ideas are challenged, so that new and better ones can advance. In some cases, it will also need a good dose of chaos - the opposite of optimal efficiency.

The most creative solutions often emerge and thrive in less regulated and 'messy' environments. In other words, at times 'less smartness' might be needed if 'smart' is to be more than an empty label."