Carlo Ratti practices in Italy and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the SENSEable City Lab.

He is an architect and engineer by training, and is currently serving as a member of the World Economic Forum ‘Global Agenda Council for Urban Management’, and curator of the ‘Future Food District’ pavilion for the 2015 World Expo in Milan.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about working with smart cities, why designers need to use big data, and how Italy approaches architecture.

What is Italy’s approach to design? How does this differ from Australia’s approach?

Italian designers always feel the need to confront the past. This is a big incentive, but also an obstacle in developing ideas that could break with tradition. My impression is that Australian designers are more prone to experimentation.

Can you tell A&D about the work you’re doing around smart cities, urban sensors and big data?

Over the past decade, digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Broadband fibre-optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are increasingly affordable.

At the same time, open databases – especially from the government – that people can read and add to are revealing all kinds of information, and public kiosks and displays are helping literate and illiterate people access it.

Add to this foundation a relentlessly growing network of sensors and digital-control technologies, all tied together by cheap, powerful computers, and our cities are quickly becoming like ‘computers in open air’. In fact, the amount of data we generate today is impressive. According to some estimates, the amount of data produced from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003 is now generated every couple of days – an estimation itself a few years old.

At the MIT Senseable City Lab, we are researching how this resource could be used to analyse and solve different city issues. We think it has big consequences, especially when it is ‘open’, as it can be transformed into responses by citizens and government. This can help to promote behavioural change and civic engagement.

How did you get involved with big data? Why should designers be using big data?

‘Big Data' helps us better understand the world around ourselves. It can be a useful instrument in solving a number of urban issues such as traffic, energy consumption and air pollution.

Collecting data and responding accordingly is actually the basis of city planning – over a century ago, Élisée Reclus might have called it surveying and planning. An architect would research and understand the topography, the site, the context and then plan accordingly. Basically, it was a process of sensing and actuating. Today we are doing the same, but just imagine what we can do with access to such a staggering amount of robust, real-time data.

Can you explain the Future Food District you’re involved with? Where did inspiration come from?

The Future Food District (FFD) is one of the projects that will stand at the heart of the EXPO 2015, themed ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. Visitors will have the opportunity to explore the ways in which the production, distribution, preparation and consumption of food are evolving, primarily because of new and developing networks. It is something we could call the Internet of Food and People.

What is one change in the industry do you think needs to happen in the next five years?

Collaboration. Moving from the old idea of the ‘Promethean’, top-down architect into more collaborative and interdisciplinary design. Perhaps a new ‘choral architect’?