New visions to bring nature back to the city


Carlo Ratti, architect and engineer, is co-founder of the international design and innovation studio CRA - Carlo Ratti Associati (Turin and New York) and is director of the MIT Senseable City Lab

Joseph Schumpeter, the great Austrian economist, wrote that human progress comes from two alternative paths: “From doing new things, or from doing things that have already been done in a new way.” Which path will our cities follow in the near future? I believe that, in order to try to answer this question, we need to look closely at a couple of concepts that we have long thought of as opposites: natural and artificial.

In our digital age, natural and artificial are converging more and more. Let’s think about our own bodies as human beings: for at least a decade, the vast majority of us have led a permanently connected existence. Mobile phones, computers, tablets and wrist devices have become appendages of our body, from which we do not separate even while asleep. As the natural moves towards the artificial, we have already become a hybrid of technology and biology: cyborgs.

Not only has our body changed: cities and buildings are now preparing to carry out a similar transformation, but in the opposite direction. The more pervasive the Internet of Things becomes, the more the artificial is moving towards the natural. On the one hand, the evolution of digital technology, between sensors and actuators and artificial intelligence, allows buildings to become responsive, adapting in real time to the surrounding conditions. On the other hand, there are more and more design experiments which incorporate green elements, organic materials or solutions for urban agriculture directly into our cities.

From the two-way convergence between natural and artificial, something extraordinary is bound to emerge. A new ecology that connects buildings, individuals and cities. Paradoxically, just as our bodies take on the appearance of cyborgs, in the heart of our metropolises we find ourselves closer to nature than we have ever been. Moreover, as the technological connections and stimuli of digital space intensify, our need for real connections increases, defined in a physical space capable of stimulating encounters, exchanges and experience.

In recent years, with the CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati design studio, we have worked on many projects that try to bring the natural and the artificial closer together. One of these is VITAE, a new multifunctional medical research centre, with offices, laboratories and experimentation spaces, under construction in Milan, onto which a 200-metre vineyard is grafted. We owe one of the most fascinating concepts of the contemporary world to my colleague Edward O. Wilson, a biologist at Harvard: that of “Biophilia”, humanity’s innate search for a balance with the natural elements. Here then, that urban vine becomes the fulcrum of connection with the rest of the city, following a path that starts from a public square at street level and goes up to the top of the building. The project, developed with Covivio and one of the winners of the Reinventing Cities international competition, will fit into one of the most stimulating neighbourhoods of the capital of Lombardy, in the Symbiosis area, not far from the Prada Foundation.

VITAE’s architecture will take shape in the coming months, but we already hope today that, when the construction site is completed, everyone will be able to live together again at close quarters, even crowded together, without fear. Of the two possible avenues of innovation outlined by Schumpeter, the most attractive and desirable today appears to us to be the second: doing things that have already been done, in a new way.