‘Ocean City’ concept by Arup Biomimetics in Australia // Source: inhabitat.com

Albert Einstein once said, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” Leonardo da Vinci exemplifies the pertinence of Einstein’s comment, for as an illegitimate child da Vinci was exempt from receiving a formal education and thus self-taught; learning much of what he knew from his personal observations of the natural world. The archetypal Renaissance man, while primarily renown as a painter, da Vinci was the forerunner of modern of science and the most prolific inventor the world has ever seen.

We will never know how much more advanced our society would be today had the greater majority of da Vinci’s prolific body of scientific observations and inventions been preserved and distributed for the benefit of humankind. However, four hundred and ninety years after his passing, some of da Vinci’s most ambitious ideas are having a new lease of life.

Documented in the Codex Atlanticus, which atlas-like in breadth collates da Vinci’s inventions from the period 1478 to 1519, one such idea is that of a city that embeds the principles of a natural ecosystem. While several pioneering architects of the 20th century conceived similar such ideas, including amongst others the relatively little known American architect Glenn Small, it is only in the past decade that the concept of creating a city that mimics nature has started to take hold. Perceptions of the living city paradigm vary greatly, but common principles expressed across the various schools of thought include adaptability, interconnectivity and resilience, each of which are key factors within any natural ecosystem.

However, while an increasing number of architects are looking to nature for answers to some of our toughest built environment problems, the sustainability movement as a whole has not acknowledged the fact that, to once again quote Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”. Rather than challenge the core principles that have underpinned town and city planning for several generations, we see built environment professionals tweak the modus operandi, often claiming that the task of overhauling the system as whole is beyond our collective ability.

Climate change is one of several sustainability challenges often positioned as being a relatively, if not entirely new, concern for humans. The truth could not be further removed. Since our earliest ancestors first walked the Earth extreme meteorological and geological events have persistently blighted us. While the predominant perception of our species evolution is essentially progressive and ordered, an increasing body of scientific evidence suggests that our origins are nothing if not chaotic.

The dots may not all be joined, but as more data is collated and compared it appears that not one, but several previous advanced civilizations collapsed as a direct result of rapid climate change, including amongst others the Egyptian Old Kingdom and the Maya whom several academics hypothesis befell to severe drought. Whatever fate engulfed the Egyptians and the Mayan, we can be in no doubt that climate change has forced our species to migrate and adapt over millennia; our ancestral territories expanding and retreating as the Earth heated and cooled.

Source: dswei.com

Having reached 7 billion in number and colonized pretty much every remotely inhabitable place on Earth, mass migration is not an option for modern man. Many of our towns and cities only survive because of the global infrastructure we are presently able to support, wherein local disasters are met with an international response. Without exception, as the impacts of anthropogenic climate change take hold, each of the world’s cities will become increasingly exposed to extreme meteorological and geological events.

While the sustainability spotlight may currently shine on the threat of flooding and severe storm systems, these aren’t the only events we ought consider. Shifting weight-loads on the Earth’s crust, caused by melting glaciers and rising seas, could in theory trigger wide-scale seismic and volcanic activity. Our cities are built for a steady state world, but as climate change takes hold myriad indicators suggest our future will be anything but. 20% of the world’s cities are located in eruption hazard zones and a far greater percentage still are situated atop fault lines. Two thirds of the world’s cities are situated in coastal regions, many of which are woefully vulnerable to tsunamis.

The Bionic City is a model I’m developing as an alternative to the current built environment paradigm. Theoretical in approach and conceived within the context of humankind’s needs, not our constraints, the model, like that of da Vinci, is born of observations of the natural world. Why? It all comes down to resilience. Whereas natural ecosystems adapt to comfortably accommodate the environmental changes brought about by the planet’s essential operating mechanisms, such as tectonic plate movements, our systems are, on the whole, created either on the assumption that such events will not occur or that when they do we can divert the impacts.

The irony of many sustainable city proposals is that they take a best-case scenario approach to the physical impacts of climate change. The time has come for architects to take off their rose tinted glasses and stop illustrating future cities basking in glorious sunshine, such as floating cities pictured on a calm ocean, under a clear blue sky. The world’s oceans are dynamic and volatile places, which is the primary reason why complex ocean ecosystems chose between a nomadic existence and one under the waves. The odds are, that if despite nearly 4 billion year’s of experimentation, nature has not worked out a way to build a successful complex permanent or semi-permanent infrastructure in a particular type of location (in this case on top of the ocean) we most likely wont either. Just how well will floating cities perform when confronted with a category 5 hurricane or a freak 100 ft wave? A well-known architect and champion of the floating city recently stated at a conference that within 100 years technology will have advanced sufficiently to overcome such physical challenges as tides. Clearly his understanding of the gravitational relationship between Earth and its satellite the Moon is somewhat lacking.

I believe we have much to learn from the world’s ecosystems, which, if my hypothesis is correct, embed the solutions to many of the challenges humanity is facing. I think it’s potentially possible to turn many of today’s disasters into tomorrow’s opportunities. Sound too good to be true? Not from nature’s perspective. Whereas many cities attempt to hold back flooding, many of the world’s ecosystems, including those located in deltas and peat bogs, would collapse without it. It’s been commonly said of the 2010 Haiti disaster “it wasn’t the earthquake that killed people, it was the buildings collapsing”. Likewise it was not coastal flooding that devastated New Orleans, but the city’s incapacity to accommodate its levees being breached. “Once in a hundred years” meteorological and geological events are now rolling out every year and in every continent. Historically, when such events struck cities, we cleared up the mess and rebuilt a replica, even if that replica had no more resilience to any future such disaster than a house of cards has to a gust of wind.

The Bionic City is an attempt to answer the question “how would nature design a city resilient to such events?” While a few individuals have perceived ‘bionic’ to imply ‘robotic’ it in fact refers to Biomimetics, otherwise known as Biomimicry, which to quote Wikipedia ‘is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems.’ The first step in establishing how nature would design a city is to work out the fundamental operating principles that underpin natural ecosystems.

Biomimicry Workshop at Biosphere 2 // Source: hoklife.com

One of the most striking differences between man-made environments and natural ones is the fact humans veer towards off-the-peg solutions, whereas nature only ever opts for bespoke. Whereas man takes an architectural or planning concept and rolls it out universally with few, if any adaptations from site to site, nature carefully tailors its concepts to suit the specifics of individual locations, which explains for example, why the Asian elephant is similar, but noticeably different to the African elephant. There is nothing accidental about our planet’s great biodiversity, which stems from this made-to-measure approach.

Another key property of natural ecosystems is the ability to anticipate and prepare for significant environmental changes and potential threats. Where these events occur with relative frequency (i.e. annually), nature builds them into its lifecycles – for example several species of tree located in fire-prone regions, such as the cork oak, embed features including fire-retardant bark, enabling them to mitigate what could otherwise be a disastrous event.

When we see things from nature’s perspective many of the proposed solutions to current and emerging built environment problems start to look rather risky. Take for example the suggestion that we ought to paint roofs white to counteract the heat island effect and help mitigate climate change. Why would nature reject such an idea? Simple, it’s not flexible enough. Nature would instead offer an adaptive system, such as heat and humidity reactive surfaces that changed colour to enable a range of heat absorbency options.

How might The Bionic City look? In contrast to the sprawling mass of disconnected, static and inert structures that compromise today’s cities, it would instead operate as a seasonally adaptive collective of interconnected and interdependent shape-shifting, colour changing, dynamic architectures, that sensitive to their surroundings, fused to form a complex adaptive system in sync with the Earth’s natural processes. The city’s relationship with nature would be hand-in-glove, wherein ecosystem services and man-made bionic technologies engaged in symbiotic relationships spanning from the molecular to the metropolis in scale.

While The Bionic City hypothesis may strike some as too fantastical an idea to ever become a reality, I believe that many of the technologies needed to support the concept already exist and that those yet to be created will have been developed within two decades. I think the key to enabling the rapid prototyping of such a city is collaborative working, wherein rather than work in silos architects, engineers and planners come together with pioneering interdisciplinary scientists from disciplines including amongst others chemistry, ecology, meteorology and seismology.

One of the greatest challenges when developing The Bionic City is the fact that while studies of individual species are manifold, research on ecosystems and their embedded resilience is relatively thin on the ground. Worse still humankind is destroying many ecosystems before we have even fully ascertained how they work, which is not unlike throwing your birthday present in the waste bin before you’ve taken the wrapping paper off. The adverse impacts of such actions are not only pertinent to resilience researchers such as myself. For example, umpteen projects around the world encourage communities to plant tree saplings en masse. Nature rejects such a strategy and for obvious reasons. When strong winds strike a forest, though its inter-connected root system will provide some degree of resistance, in worst-case scenarios, such as hurricanes, a key resilience strategy is keeping its surface area to a minimum. By simultaneously planting hundreds or perhaps even thousands of trees at one site, humankind is building disaster into such forests, which will form a wall of solid foliage likely to come crashing down when hurricane-force gales hit. A forest with little resilience to the elements is far from being sustainable. Similarly a city that boasts a low carbon footprint and umpteen resource-harvesting and recycling activities, but no ability to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones is, ultimately, unsustainable too.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and it will take several years for me to research and evaluate The Bionic City hypothesis, but though just 18 months into my PhD, I’ve got a strong feeling that Leonardo da Vinci might just have been onto something.

Melissa Sterry (@MelissaSterry) is a design scientist at the Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research (AVATAR) laboratory at University of Greenwich and a futurologist and transformational change strategist to the construction, utilities, manufacturing, design, media and communications industries. A Visiting Fellow at University of Salford and member of the International Bionic Engineering Society scientific committee she has recently joined the writing and presenting team of 360 sustainability group Earth 2 Hub™, which presents state-of-the-art solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing problems. The creator of catalyst for rapid innovation in sustainable design NEW FRONTIERS™, she was the recipient of the Mensa Education and Research Foundation International Award for Benefit to Society 2010. Melissa is hosting a Bionic Cities event at the International Bionic Engineering Conference in Boston, USA, 18th – 20th September 2011. If you’d like to participate find details here. Find out more about Melissa here.