Posted: Thu, May 23, 2013 | By: Miscellaneous
by Rachel Armstrong
Wafer thin artificial leaves separate with the rising sun, as buildings wake up. They continue to follow its path over the course of the day, sucking dew and carbon dioxide out of the air. These substances are then filtered into the fleshy fabric, within the walls of our homes, which are not dead spaces but active processors, like stomachs that are packed with thriving microbial colonies. They generate heat, recycle grey water and filter effluents to produce rich, native soil that has a commercial value and is used to grow plants in green plots, or window boxes. We are now producers, not consumers. There are no more infertile stretches of asphalt sprawled over our urban rooftops but an expanse of vegetation that processes the city’s rich chemical landscapes – and it is no longer possible to tell which of these vibrant structures are artificial, or natural.
Visionary ideas about our near-future cities help develop new approaches to underpin human development without necessarily being constrained within the limits of what is already possible.
Modern cities are run and populated by machines to such an extent that we no longer really notice them. And while machines are useful, they consume fossil fuels and transform them into energy, carbon dioxide and industrial pollutants – which, on an industrial scale, produces a world that Rachel Carson noted is ‘not quite fatal’. In recent years we’ve looked to renewables to avoid the need for using fossil fuels – but the percentage of our energy provided by these alternatives remains small compared with our overall consumption.
Yet, there is an alternative technology available to us, which we have barely begun to apply in its full potential. Nature provides a rich portfolio of, sometimes unlikely, living technologies that may shape our near-future lifestyles in new ways. The practice of biomimicry already taps into Nature’s ingenuity, where – for example, the Venus flower basket sponge, which has a lattice exoskeleton, inspired the famous hexagonal skin of Norman Foster’s Gherkin Tower.
While these solutions are currently realised through industrial processes we have reached a point at the start of the 21st century, where we do not have to copy Nature but can directly design and engineer with her processes with such precision and on a range of scales - that we can think of them new kind of technology. Living technologies have unique properties that may enable us to imagine and realise our urban spaces in new ways since they are adaptable, robust and have an incredible ability to transform one thing into another. Think of how trees share common technologies (leaves, trunk, roots) that are adapted to different kinds of environments and use of a range of resources. For example, needle-leaved Canadian evergreens make the most of scant sunlight and their leaf litter feeds the acidic soils that nurture networks of microorganisms, such as, nitrogen fixing bacteria, which in turn, enriches the food for the trees. In the near future, we will begin to tap into the technological potential of this ‘metabolic’ diversity and strategically use it within the fabric of our cities.
While trees are complex organic structures that require substantial infrastructures and resources to nurture them, biotechnology has revealed that multicellular organisms can perform the same kinds of processes but even more powerfully. Although these creatures cannot be seen with the naked eye, they are much easier to keep and much more vigorous than trees.
Indeed, architects are already suggesting that microorganisms may power our cities. For example, Alberto Estevez’s ‘Genetic Barcelona’ proposes that using the techniques of ‘synthetic biology’ - which enables us to grow organisms that do not exist in Nature by manipulating their DNA – trees would be engineered to produce a natural light-producing protein usually found in jellyfish. So, not only would we be able to enjoy the mood-elevating wavelengths the light emitted by these plants but we would also benefit from not having to rely on fossil fuels and central power grids to provide street lighting.
In the near future our buildings may also be ‘grown’ by industrial-strength microorganisms. Some of these may form the basis of self-healing materials such as, Henk Jonker’s ‘biocrete’, where hardy bacteria are mixed into traditional cement and form plugs of solid when they are activated by water, from micro fine cracks in the material. Other projects such as, Magnus Larsson’s ‘Dune’ is more ambitious and harnesses the metabolic powers of a sand-particle-fixing species of bacteria to produce sandstone or marble in deserts, thought to be too hostile to live in.
Within modern cities, the value of harnessing the transformational powers of communities of microorganisms, called bioprocessing, is being realised in wastewater gardens. These may be thought of as bacterial cities within our own, which are fed with our waste organic matter and transform it into useful substances. Rather than being noxious sumps of filth and disease, these sewage plants are popular visitor attractions - odorless greenhouses with the look and feel of a botanical garden. Bioprocessing units may be designed to house different kinds of ecologies to suit particular habitats. For example, in estuary environments ‘oystertecture’, where shellfish are farmed on sculptural metal structures, could be used in bioprocessing systems to filter impurities, improve water quality and increase biodiversity.
These developments in living technology suggest that we will evolve solutions using the transformational properties of natural systems. Living technologies build upon traditional skills working in combination with new scientific knowledge. Importantly, since biology is everywhere, these approaches are not confined to Western societies. Increasingly DIY bio communities are learning how to ‘hack’ natural systems and diversify living technology applications This may streamline global human development with biospherical processes so that our lifestyles are more sustainable, less environmentally disruptive and ultimately means that our cities are better places to live.
Perhaps the future of our urban environments will not be about designing buildings, as we know them, but to produce synthetic ecosystems, which improve the quality of our lives.