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‘Innovation and Technology Should Be Open to Everyone, Not Only to the Rich’

International Laboratory for Experimental Urban Design has recently opened at the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism. It will be headed by Vicente Guallart, a Spanish urbanist, chief architect for the city of Barcelona in 2011-2015, who will be joining HSE shortly. Mr. Guallart has talked to the HSE News Service about what the laboratory will do, what the Advanced Urban Design master’s programme, the principle of learning by doing, and the application of technology in the city life.

— What exactly led you to Moscow? Why, after serving as a chief architect of Barcelona, did you decide to establish the laboratory here? How did your collaboration with HSE's Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism start?

— I had several offers, after my period of work in the city of Barcelona, to start working in different places. But I like to work in unknown places to discover new things during sharing process when I both learn and give. From that point of view I think Moscow still is an unknown place for many people in the world. And then the leadership of Alexey Novikov [the school’s dean] was crucial. Alexey is an exceptional man, he's a geographer, he has a strong connection with international economy and culture, he's working now on a very dynamic position in architectural world and I'm always attracted by people of this kind. He was the person to invite me and I understand that working with him and people around him will be an interesting opportunity.

— What kind of educational and project-based collaboration are you planning? As far as I understand launching the lab is only the first step?

— Eventually we are going to develop a master program on city and technology. I want to do this program in collaboration with other cities around the world. The new education for the future is related to the distribution of knowledge. People who have the best access to the new knowledge and experience, they also flying back and forth, talking to other people. More and more we need to study the way we will work in the future. From that point of view to be connected is fundamental.

In order to develop a city model we need to have the right data. In general we make decisions by intuition and not having proper data. So the way we collect and visualize the information and the way we analyze facts will allow us to develop the policy for the city

The other fundamental bastion of my educational approach is the idea of learning by doing. It's like with piano. You don't learn the theory of music before starting to play -- you go directly to play. In my experience in the Institute for Advanced Architecture in Catalonia, what we did was to take the students and create the laboratory with the best machines, electronics, everything so that our students (most of them being urbanists) learn about technology and making things. Russia and Moscow have an incredible tradition in engineering, this is the place with talented people with high technology development so what I want to do is to try to merge the social science background that HSE has and technology background that is on the other side of the street. So if we are able to merge these two things we are able to do something unique in the world.

— How realistic is this goal? How much time could it take to achieve it?

— We need to start right now and it's a long way to go. In terms of education I hope that next September we will start with one year pilot program and in another year hopefully we launch a master program. But the laboratory starts working right now and we need to collect people who are good in design, in analytics, electronics and put them together. Once we set up the place and technology we progress very fast. We are open to everyone interested in these things in the Higher School of Economics and ready to collaborate with other institutions.

— What kind of applied projects could be developed in this lab? Could you name a few?

— During my work in Barcelona we did many projects which could be also developed here. For example one of them was to develop a city model. But in order to develop a city model we need to have the right data. In general we make decisions by intuition and not having proper data. So the way we collect information, the way we make the visualization of this information and the way we analyze facts will allow us to develop the policy for the city. So one important aspect will be evaluating the city and information.

Another important aspect is about city and infrastructure - how we can transform industrial model, it's about developing internet technology, promoting urban self-efficiency so that the energy could be produced locally and people could charge their electrical cars from their own energy — all this could be contradictory to the current economy of Russia. Today many countries base their economy on fossil fuels but in coming years the leaders will be those who are able to reverse this economic model.

We can also work on prototypes — new prototypes for transportation in the city — drones or flying bugs or driverless cars. And our designers and urbanists will not only think of this, they will work with engineers on actually making these things.

— Do you believe it's doable not only to create prototypes but also to implement them in everyday life in a complex city like Moscow?

— It's already happening. Barcelona was named the most innovative city in Europe because, for example, we are developing platforms which allow to connect elder people who are alone at home with local communities to empower them to trust the neighborhood. Another example — we are transforming traditional lighting system to a more elegant and attractive system. Or we are developing public transportation, new bus transportation. Or we are developing free wifi in public spaces. We've already started to do it in Barcelona.

I think it's doable to develop the network of laboratories, FabLabs, in every neighborhood in Moscow in order to encourage people go and learn about innovation. Russia was the leader in technology when you made the sputnik, you developed so many technologies for space, you have a lot of smart people, that's why I'm here.

— Are you going to concentrate your efforts only on Moscow? HSE has three other campuses, do you plan to include them in the laboratory's projects?

— First of all, I’m doing the projects all over the world. I'm doing projects in China, India, Spain. But something that always interested me was Russia as a huge country. I want to take the Transsib to go from Moscow to Vladivostok. I already visited Ufa and Kazan so I'm really interested to know how urban innovations can be developed in different regions and cities in Russia.

Moscow is a strange case because sometimes it looks like London, sometimes like New York and sometimes like Beijing. But the places with many historical layers are the most interesting ones

Moscow as a city is one of the best representations of what a centralized system means — because of its history, politics, productive system, etc. A city is the physical construction of society, the physical representation of economy, how it works. But evolution of cities can happen very fast. What I see now, in recent years, is that in Moscow there are developing many projects to promote and upgrade the evolution of this. For example, the project to activate the Moscow river in order to lose this artificial and powerful representation of centrality versus inclusion of the nature, of the systems of the green in the realm of the city.

From some point of view Moscow has similarities with Beijing. But Moscow is a strange case because sometimes it looks like London, sometimes like New York and sometimes like Beijing. But the places with many historical layers are the most interesting ones because the evolution always happens at the crossroads, at the points where different cultures meet and interact.

— How big is your lab going to be in terms of staff? What background should one have to apply for a position in the lab? And do you have the facilities and up-to-date equipment to carry out the projects?

— We are in the process of acquiring the equipment that would be up to international standards. And about the team, we start to grow right now, we are hiring people in the near future.

Personally I feel a great passion for young people. In some disciplines to be young is even better than being old, for example for sportsmen or people dealing with stock exchange. And we had experience with young people dealing with technology or filming etc who are eager to learn. So the platform, the space we want to create is going to be really open. One important thing is being ready to learn by doing — education and making things simultaneously. We'll have different formats of educational courses and programs — for professionals and beginners, for people of different age. And we'd like to have students from all over the world to come here and study with us.

— How are you going to supervise the lab's activity?

— I'll be visiting Moscow often because my commitment with this project is very important.

— The local communities in Moscow quite often oppose the changes and are being forced to accept them rather than embracing them. How to tackle this problem?

— The major way to do it is through education. You also have to be transparent. The way I see it, innovation and technology, just like a library, should be open to everyone, not only to the rich. That's why, for example, we have been working with the idea of bringing innovations to neighborhoods to make the living there better. To democratize the innovations we should try to bring them as soon as possible to everyone.

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