During the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare systems around the world struggled to meet the exponential surge in demands. Architects and designers worked on numerous responses, from large field hospitals to 3D printed masks, for the shortage of ICU in hospitals. Carlo Ratti, an Italian architect and MIT professor, led a collaborative team to design a quickly deployable, temporary intensive care unit made from shipping containers. These intensive care pods are called CURA, cure in Latin, which stands for Connected Units for Respiratory Ailments.
In the interview, Carlo Ratti speaks about the genesis and execution process of CURA. He talks about how it impacted his role at his practice, Carlo Ratti Associati, and the MIT Senseable City Lab. Further, He reflects on the cross-disciplinary collaboration of architects, engineers, medical and military professionals. Carlo Ratti also speculates on how the COVID-19 outbreak might lead to long-term changes in the worlds of architectural practice and education.
At the beginning of the interview, Carlo Ratti explains that since people are in different parts of the world, it is easier to connect digitally. However, he says it is a bit difficult to work on a design virtually. Not being able to sketch together or work physically together has been a change due to which the design aspect has suffered. Working together in a physical space is not more fun in an informal way, but it also has its advantages. Spending a whole day on zoom, as Carlo Ratti likes to call it a new kind of virus ‘Zoomonea’, the productivity is lesser to the physical space.
While working from home through digital platforms is becoming very common, they also significantly impact the economy. These practices save about 10 to 20% of real estate use for office spaces that we can use for something else. However, people will soon be back in the offices, but it would be probably different with more exchange between the digital and the physical.
The educational institutions have embraced digital processes and made it a core part of their learning experiences like Mass open online courses or video conferencing. There is a need to find a balance between physical and digital exchange which can accelerate the transformation, which is a positive thing for architects. The importance of working in physical space will not let it be a total digital university, but the functioning might change.
As the COVID-19 pandemic is evolving, Carlo Ratti aimed to generate more healthcare capacity or ICUs. CURA uses a simple system of prefabricated ship containers that have all the medical equipment inside. CURA is a ready-to-use solution which consists of rapidly mounted, easily movable and safe units. Each compact pod contains all the medical equipment needed for two intensive-care patients, including ventilators and intravenous fluids stands. The innovation in these 20-foot intermodal containers is that they have biocontainment with negative pressure, and allows safety from infectious diseases.
CURA is a prototype of the emergency response unit that follows the standards issued by the Chinese authorities. Carlo Ratti worked with an international team of experts converting shipping containers into a plug-in Intensive-Care Pod. This cross-disciplinary collaboration brought together architects, designers, engineers, computer science and biology enthusiasts from different countries.
The modules can be interconnected, with an inflatable structure that helps in creating different configurations. CURA can be easily moved or deployed from one location to another and can help in creating self-standing hospitals of varied sizes or can be close to a hospital.
Carlo Ratti started CURA as a non-profit open-source initiative through digital platforms like Zoom, Reddit threads, video conferencing or other different forums for discussion. CURA, almost like DNA, is evolving and people around the world can develop, adjust, modify or keep on building the prototype further on their own. It is the ideal way when things have to be fast.
Carlo Ratti partnered with non-profit organisations like the World Economic Forum and 101. The World Economic Forum helped CURA by engaging in the foreign community. It also brought together the public and private sector. The 101 is a french non-profit, but it operates in all European countries and Canada.The first unit of CURA has been constructed in Milan, Italy.
Another aspect of CURA is that people have developed the design and modified it to make it cheap compared to the hospitals, like in Italy, built inside the big convention centres. Once the pandemic is over about a thousand of these containers can be put on a big ship. A quickly deployable hospital for the planet that we can easily move to different locations, CURA can also serve during small epidemics like Ebola, SARS, MERS, etc.
Just before the Christmas of 2019, Carlo Ratti was with the Shenzhen Biennale as a curator. He reflected a lot on the balances between artificial and natural, and also between physical and digital. The change now is that these topics were central and the coronavirus with the different focus, in this case, is not necessarily about how individuals take back control of the data but more about how we make society safer.
Not only limited to CURA, Carlo Ratti mentions that people are also monitoring things at the level of a neighbourhood or a city, like looking at the sewage water to see if we can find the coronavirus in there. In Italy, they observed the need to sanitise their clothes after coming back home. So, we used activated oxygen, also known as ozone, to sterilise and thoroughly sanitising clothes. While addressing the emergency to design for the people, many creative ideas emerge by thinking this way.
It has been over a year since we are dealing with the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic and it is ever-evolving with new strains coming up in numerous countries. The vaccine might still take a while to be available to everybody. I believe that architects and designers need to team up with people from varied disciplines to realise the problems around us and think of innovative solutions.
Living in a country like India, with a population of 1.38 billion people and limited healthcare facilities, we need to adopt the idea of converting shipping containers into safe isolation wards, and modifying, developing and transforming this approach to a well-suited design to end this global emergency as soon as possible.