Dear our wonderful Non Architecture community,

We are getting in touch in the middle of the week with a special newsletter because we have some great material to share. A while ago we contacted Carlo Ratti, one of the three jurors of our BUYING competition for a very constructive interview that we would now like to share with you! Carlo Ratti is an architect and engineer, he leads CRA design and innovation practice (New York and Turin) and directs the MIT Senseable City Lab. Grab a seat and launch into a thrilling read here:

[Non Architecture] In February 2018, you gave a lecture in Amsterdam at Pakhuis de Zwijker titled “The Autonomous City”. You might not remember it, but when the debate was opened to the audience, I asked you a question. I wanted to know how you saw automation changing the job market, eventually leading to a “jobless” society. I used the answer you gave back then for the introduction article of our book on offices. Today I would like to follow up on that question and move the discussion to retail. In the scenario of a post-work society, how are we going to acquire goods and services? In your opinion, is the model of a sharing economy a potential and relevant answer to this question?

[Carlo Ratti] First of all, good news for architects: I do not think that the digital will take over everything! Physical experiences will remain, but we will probably see a bifurcation in the way we shop. On the one hand, we will increasingly use digital services to purchase down-to-earth products – such as toilet paper, laundry soap, milk and so on. Shout out to Alexa or Siri and they will constantly replenish your recurrent supplies…

On the other hand, I see a blossoming of “experiential” shopping. Think about choosing fresh food produce: we will always enjoy going to a physical store where we can touch and smell. The store, in turn, can become increasingly focused on providing us with unique experiences. The great success that a chain such as Eataly, with whom we have been working at CRA, has been experiencing all over the world is an example.

The sharing economy can also plan an important role. For instance, at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, we were interested in exploring how a better understanding of the origins and processes behind each product could foster new relationships between consumers and producers.

Given the greater sharing opportunities enabled by the web, why not think of the supermarket as a free exchange place, open to everyone?

In keeping with the Italian tradition of food cooperatives, some areas will be dedicated to micro-producers, such as the “Cesarine” association: housewives whose aim is to “protect and spread the heritage of knowledge, tradition, and culture hidden in the thousands of recipes of our regional cookery.” A sort of “Airbnb-style” product sharing, where everyone can be both producer and consumer.

[NonA] Within a sharing economy, the way goods are produced, distributed and acquired differs considerably from what we know today. Could we imagine direct spatial consequences of this change in the way retail space is organized? Is your project for the Patrick Henry Commune already showing some of these innovative aspects?

[CR] Yes of course! Imagine a system that allows a better, bottom-up matching of products and people. In general, one of the main spatial consequences of the sharing economy – and of the so-called fourth industrial revolution as a whole – is that it encourages an overlapping of those urban functions that used to be strictly separated until a few decades ago. At CRA, we have been working on several projects that explore this new scenario. Both the Patrick Henry Commune master plan in Heidelberg and the Caserma Lamarmora in Torino investigates this topic. We pursue a model of development that shifts from the zoning diktat of the 20th century to a more flexible mix of functions for co-living, co-making and co-working: from labs for Makers to residences for students and locals and retail spaces.

[NonA] Several of your projects, including the Future food District and the Supermarket of the Future, propose an enhanced customer experience. In these projects technology provides additional data and insights to users, in order to better inform their purchase. How could architecture transform to allow this technological shift?

[CR] It is indeed what we tried to do with our project the Future Food District Supermarket, which we developed at design practice CRA for Italian supermarket chain Coop at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, imagining new experiences around products. In the Future Food District, as a shopper puts her hand close to a product, extra information about the food appears on a suspended digital mirror above. Through these “augmented labels,” each product can communicate its nutritional properties, its origin, the presence of allergens, waste disposal instructions, and other data. in general, I think that architecture needs to change to create new experiences. We might say that the design of experiences has never been as important as it is now. As we were saying, even if high-tech retailing is becoming widespread, this is far from equating to the demise of physical stores.

[NonA] On a deeper level, enhancing the purchase experience can serve multiple purposes. In you collaboration with the Italian supermarket Coop, you aimed to generate awareness on environmental issues in relation to food production and consumption. In this specific case, there was a shared objective for the benefit of society, but we could imagine that similar strategies could be used for less noble purposes. Do you think designers have a certain responsibility for the ethical adoption of technology and protection from misuse? And if so, to what extents can they determine the use of these tools?

[CR] I believe that today more than ever architects and designers face a fundamental choice.

Borrowing the words of the great American designer and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller, we can say we are at a “Utopia or Oblivion” crossroads.

Oblivion, in the case we are not able to measure ourselves against the great changes that are taking place – sustainability, climate change, the impact of new technologies in the built environment. But utopia, in the event we can become architects of the transformation of the “world of the artificial” – starting from our cities and all their components – houses, offices, retail spaces. This is not an easy step, as new skills and enlargement to other disciplines are needed.

[NonA] At Senseable City Lab (MIT), and within your collaboration with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Studies (AMS), you participated in the development of various projects in relation to logistics. One example is Roboat, the automated boat carrying goods around the Amsterdam canals. In a world where online shopping is becoming increasingly more popular, and physical shops tend to become showrooms for online purchases, how impactful will be the development of urban logistics in the way we design and experience cities? What should we do as designers to deal with this change?

[CR] Logistics is surely crucial – both for normal commerce and e-commerce. Now, if we think about the technological advancements brought about by digital technologies, I would say that two terms are most likely to encapsulate our mobility experience in the near future: sharing and multimodality. This will impact logistics as well. Let me explain how this might unfold.
On the one hand, new digital technologies can allow for a higher degree of coordination and, therefore, the potential to replace our car-centric urban mobility experiences with a greater variety of (more sustainable) options – to move people as well as goods. Furthermore, greater data collection and information on real-time location and routes would also allow transportation hubs to form and dissolve as required, creating dynamic nodes supporting a new series of micro-exchanges in the built environment and a ubiquitous multimodal system.

[NonA] We would like to close with an open question. Do you have any additional advice, insight or feedback for the designers entering our competition and for all the members of our community? What else shall we consider when we think about the shop of tomorrow?

[CR] Borrowing Frank Lloyd Wright’s words I would say: “people, people, people”!

Fascinating, right ? Don’t forget our DYING and RE-DRAW are still running!