Friday, February 11, 2011

Renewable Living In Megacities & Rachel Armstrong

Will future megacities grow themselves, heal themselves and be at peace with their surrounding environment instead of in conflict with it? Yes. But only if only we decide to do it.

Like an irresponsible spender who keeps taking money from an account, somehow expecting that there will always be more, we as a society have still not learned to live at peace with nature. Right now it is only at death that we become one with our surroundings. It is time this fact changes.

Up until very recently human civilization, in particular Western Civilization, has seen its cities and building as pitted against nature. We have viewed ourselves as conquerors of nature. This is obviously not a good way to live with nature. Nature will always ultimately win this struggle. This way of living also ignores on vital fact - that humans are part of the ecosystem they live in. They have a responsibility to give back to the ecosystem. Nature was not placed before us to use as a commodity.This realization has been slow in coming to mankind. Interestingly enough, it was the more ancient cultures that understood this relationship best. Since most the world's population will be living in what are called megacities, one would think it would be vital for these megacities to live in harmony and peace with their surrounding environment.
"We can rationally engineer living systems." Dr. Rachel Armstrong

Megacities 2011 via: wikipedia
click to enlarge

A megacity by definition has to have at least 10 million population. Another 10 are expected in the the next ten years and and 2030 almost two thirds of the world's population will be living in them. Most of the growth in these megacities will come from the developing world. UN estimates are that the world's populations in the urban centers will double every 38 years. This means that these cities will have to meet certain environmental requirements to be able to function. They cannot be run in the way that these cities work now. But how will this be able to be done? Right now most commercialized environmental solutions are expensive. If the growth of these megacities is going to occur in the poorer countries, how will they be able to afford it?

Megacity visualization
Dr. Rachel Armstrong who was a graduate of Oxford University and has a background in Medicine, is also director of AVATAR, Architecture & Synthetic Biology at the Bartlett School of Architecture in the UK. She is also a Senior TED Fellow, as well as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Fundamental Living Technologies at the University of Denmark.

via wikipedia click to enlarge
In several presentations, Dr. Armstrong has explained that the large megacities we have now were never planned. They grew haphazardly as the need arose for more space. Thus the current infrastructures for water waste disposal, etc., will be very difficult to manage, creating strains on the budgets of these megacities. The key is sustainable development. The Brundtland Commission produced a paper defining sustainable development in 1983. The key to this sustainable development is how one uses energy. Right now, these megacities consume more fossil fuels than all the transport systems on Earth. The idea is to use less energy than you manufacture so the cycle of renewal can be indefinite.

Dr. Armstrong speaks about the particulars of the architecture of these future cities as critical to the sustainability of them. The actual materials used in the buildings are important. The materials used must demonstrate an understanding of nature by the architect. There are three schools of thought by architects as to how to construct these buildings.
1. Mathematical approach using fractals
2. Biomimicry approach where we look to biological systems to show us all the solutions
3. Embodied Energy approach using natural resources like wind power, solar power, etc.

The best systems integrate all three approaches. The best kinds of materials we could use according to Dr. Armstrong are living biological models. There are inherent limitation to biological materials as they are normally found. These can be structurally altered to achieve the needs of these megacities. A small group of architects have conceived the buildings growing themselves into approximate shapes. This would abandon the precise blueprint models used today in traditional buildings.

George Church
A new field of biology has emerged called synthetic biology. This is the science concerned with being able to construct synthetic biological systems to suit our purposes and needs. This field is intimately connected with Dr. Armstrong's approach in the construction of living, renewable megacities, since these modified biological forms would be used in the actual construction of these new generation buildings. This field has been spearheaded by George Church Professor of Genetics at Harvard University as well Professor Craig Venter, Nobel Prize winner, biologist, a professor at SUNY, Buffalo.

Here is a playlist of videos presenting the science of synthetic biology. If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:

In a paper published in the journal Nature, by Dr. Armstrong and Neil Spiller, entitled Living Quarters, Nature 467, 916-918 (20 October 2010), Dr. Armstrong states, "The tools of synthetic biology are galvanizing the development of new forms of architecture that respond to environmental change by incorporating the dynamic properties of living systems, such as growth repair, sensitivity and replication." She goes further on to say, "Distributed, self-assembling systems may one day enable buildings to grow, self-repair and respond creatively to the unpredictable effects of climate change." She gives examples of early attempts to achieve this wondrous goal.
Bacteria commonly found in the environment — such as Micrococcus, Staphylococcus, Bacillus and Pseudomonas species that also linger in air — may be adapted for use as biosensors.
The use of bacteria as sensors has been further explored in the UK.
Species of another airborne bacterium, Brevundimonas, show promise as an indicator of indoor pollutants: some can metabolize toxins such as arsenic, and could be genetically modified to change colour in the presence of a range of heavy metals. Other types of bacteria might be grown decoratively on walls or roofs to signal levels of harmful pollutants in cities. For example, undergraduates from the University of Cambridge, UK, engineered the bacterium Escherichia coli to change hue in the presence of an inducer, a system that could be adapted to detect heavy metals.
Lighting has also been created by biology.
Innovative forms of lighting that use bioluminescent bacteria are being investigated by microbiologist Simon Park at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK. In 2009, with artist Anne Brodie, he demonstrated a photographic booth that takes portraits using the ethereal light generated by Photobacterium phosphoreum. A glowing Christmas tree produced in 2007 by biologist Edward Quinto of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, using bioluminescent Vibrio fischeri bacteria from the guts of squid, raises the possibility of using luminous trees for street lighting.
The actual material of buildings is also being considered.
Biological structures can inspire entirely new construction methods and materials. Terreform One, an interdisciplinary architectural design practice in New York, has envisaged growing a leathery skin for covering buildings, dubbed 'Meat House'. By transforming pig cells and using large-scale three-dimensional printing techniques to establish the structural framework, the skin would be grown to the required shape and size and then fixed with preservatives. Its biodegradable nature would avoid the need for later demolition. The technique is prohibitively expensive — around US$1,000 for three square centimetres of skin — but it demonstrates the alternative approaches offered by synthetic-biology techniques.
There are still obstacles that are far from being resolved however. One of them deals with using biological materials to build scaffoldings.
The greatest challenge in applying synthetic biology to architecture is to fabricate accurate scaffoldings for the production of engineered tissue and materials. Natural forms are difficult to model with computers because they do not follow simple mathematical functions, and so translating them from the cellular to the architectural scale is difficult. The Norwegian company Uformia, based near Tromsø, is developing software that will allow irregular organic shapes — such as materials mimicking the porous matrix of bone, which combines high tensile strength with low density — to be modelled digitally for printing in three dimensions.
There are also worries about how these bacterial populations might survive in differing temperatures and attacks from other biological systems.
Bringing biological cultures out of the lab into the city raises other practical difficulties. Valuable bacterial populations, such as those that fix carbon dioxide in wetlands, would be difficult to sustain in dry urban locations lacking food sources. Exposed to predatory organisms such as moulds, biological materials must be protected with antifungal substrates. And safety concerns preclude the release of new genetically engineered organisms into the environment without strict controls. For architectural purposes, simple and safe biotechnologies are preferred. An alternative approach to genetic modification is to produce self-assembling materials that are not living but that mimic the dynamic traits of organisms and are optimized to function within their specific environment.
These are among some of the issues that will have to be resolved if, these new type of buildings are to become a reality.

One example of these new brand of city is Masdar in Abu Dhabi. It is being planned as a city with no carbon footprint able to sustain itself indefinitely. Here is a playlist of videos about this amazing project in Abu Dhabi. If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:

Here is a playlist of video with Rachel Armstrong explaining the future of architecture as well as a proposed project for the city of Venice. If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:

Michael Pawlyn is another architect who has been studying nature to in order to imitate in buildings, heating systems, plumbing systems, and energy production. He builds closed systems which emulate nature in efficiency and effectiveness. He is currently on a project to forest parts of the Sahara Desert. He introduces this project in a TED conference in November of 2010. IF you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:

We have covered only some of the wonderful ideas that Dr. Armstrong and others have suggested for the future of our cities. To us, it seems only natural, that we, as living things, should live inside other living organisms in harmony. When this technology unites with nanotechnology, then a day may come when we from this era, may not even recognize the cities that were so often predicted in past world fairs.


commonthread said...

Comprehensive summary of some urban technologies under consideration. A challenge to identify what will get a green light for widespread adoption.

commonthread said...

Comprehensive summary of some urban technologies under consideration. A challenge to identify what will get a green light for widespread adoption.

bluechennells8 said...

It would be encouraging and helpful, to see these fascinating technologies and concepts enthusiastically debated with a plentiful supply of media coverage!