THE BIONIC CITY
Editor’s Note – Melissa Sterry is the founder of New Frontiers, an organisation dedicated to sustainable design. We are pleased to announce that Melissa has now joined forces with the E2 team!
Over millennia floods, earthquakes and fire have brought hell and high water to cities, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Until now, no civilization has been spared from the worst-case scenarios unleashed by extreme meteorological and geological events. However, the legacy of fear that surrounds many of our planet’s essential operating mechanisms, such as tectonic plate movements, need not continue forever and today’s disasters could be turned into tomorrow’s pportunities.
The Bionic City promises new levels of sustainability within the urban built environment. So apart from integrating solutions to meet the challenges presented by the fact that mankind has reached eight of the nine biosphere limits (as defined by the Stockholm Resilience Centre), the Bionic City extends its remit to incorporate resilience to some of the
most extreme environmental impacts that climate change will create.
The cities of the past and present were built on the assumption that we live in a steady state world, which of course we don’t. We instead live on the surface of a series of ever-moving plates, upon a ball of molten rock spinning through space at approximately 1038 miles per hour. Several thousand years of relatively low seismic activity, against the backdrop of a generally stable and temperate climate in most parts of the world, have led us to forget the shifting nature of our planet.
While we may have become the most invasive species, we have certainly not become the most resilient. The only remaining bipedal primates of the Homo genus, our species has nearly become extinct several times. One example of a previous near human-extinction event was the volcanic winter caused by the Toba super-eruption of 74,000 years ago, which recent archaeological evidence suggests reduced our numbers to as few as 1,000 breeding pairs. Far from being assured, our species survival to date has been somewhat hit and miss.
While researching resilience within natural ecosystems to extreme meteorological and geological events, I came to realize that there are several distinct universal principles that enable these systems to sustain their core infrastructures over expansive periods of time. These principles are completely at odds with the built environment design paradigm that determines current city construction. In contrast to human architectural design, nature builds flexible interconnected smart infrastructures with the ability to anticipate and prepare for significant environmental changes. Where such changes occur with relative frequency (i.e. annually), nature builds the changes into lifecycles – for example ecosystems located within deltas and wetlands are designed to accommodate annual flooding events.
Mankind has become the master of off the peg built environment design solutions. However, our one-size-fits-all approach is our downfall because, as nature shows, one size really doesn’t fit all. Nature is a master tailor, creating made-to-measure bespoke solutions within each and every ecosystem, which is the primary reason our planet is graced
with such an abundance of biodiversity. While nature works with common principles and we see similarities between ecosystems, upon close inspection we find no two ecosystems are exactly alike; each has its own unique collection of species, each of which is subtly tweaked in size or colour or behaviour to suit its specific locale. For example, forests located in regions that experience strong winds in winter are primarily comprised of deciduous trees, which thanks to their reduced surface area are less likely to be blown over by seasonal gales. In a similar fashion, where appropriate, the Bionic City model embeds seasonality into its structures, whereby its various parts change form, colour, texture and functionality throughout the year, as befits the seasons.
The Bionic City thus embraces nature’s approach to building complex infrastructures. Whereas the conventional city is a mass of static, disconnected and inert structures operating independently and irrespective of one another and their environment, the Bionic City operates as an interconnected and intelligent ecosystem in which every entity is engaged in an ongoing symbiotic relationship with all others, from the molecular to the metropolitan in scale.
Take another example. Whereas the cities of the past and the present try to prevent floods, the Bionic City follows nature’s lead and builds an anticipation of floods into its operating model, not only creating resilience, but also seeking to harvest potential opportunities that can be reaped from the event. Peat bogs have a tremendous capacity to accommodate floods, thanks to plants like Sphagnum moss, which is able to absorb up to 20 times its dry weight in water. Water absorbing materials spanning both building and road surfaces is just one example of how the Bionic City will cope with the more extreme weather conditions that climate change is creating. Beyond preventing the problems traditionally associated with flooding, the Bionic City will also feature the means to utilise excessive quantities of water, including hydropower and water harvesting technologies.
The Bionic City can be viewed as a hybrid that fuses ecosystem services with man-made biomimetic technologies designed to work hand-in-glove. The Bionic City is inclusive, not exclusive, of its surroundings and not only at its perimeter, but far beyond, so that it accommodates environmental impacts stemming from remote causes. The sensitivity the city has with its surroundings is key to its ability to predict and prepare for environmental changes. Again, Nature has set an informative, albeit curious, precedent. An increasing body of evidence strongly indicates that animals have the ability to sense earthquakes long before humans. While researchers have not yet arrived at a unanimous decision as to how animals detect impending disasters, theories include animals sensing the Earth’s vibrations or being able to detect subtle changes in air pressure, or the presence of certain gases. One of the most famous recent examples of animals sensing an earthquake several hours before humans was the Indian Ocean tsunami event of 26th December 2004. Despite the fact that the Yala National Park in Sri Lanka was home to several hundred wild animals including elephants, leopards and monkeys, no mass animal deaths were incurred by the tsunami. Eyewitnesses reported flamingos abandoning their low-lying breeding areas, zoo animals rushing into their shelters and refusing to come out, and elephants screaming and running for higher ground. 150,000 people were killed by the Boxing Day disaster, including 60 visitors at the Yala National Park, yet virtually no wild animals deaths were reported.
Nature clearly engineers organisms and ecosystems with an acute sensitivity to their larger surroundings. Without fail, potential disaster scenarios are built into ecosystem plans, involving a pro-active, as opposed to a reactive approach, in which the scale of the responses to adverse impacts are tailor made. Thus, when disaster does strike, nature is prepared and unleashes highly efficient recovery protocols, such as those evinced in fire-prone savannahs where re-growth strategies are initiated the moment an inferno has passed. Nature is resourceful and opportunistic in the extreme – it simply doesn’t miss a trick. Where there is a potential resource at hand it finds a use for it and it is this canny, savvy approach to design that has enabled life on Earth to develop from humble origins into the awe-inspiringly diverse, ultra sophisticated, ultra efficient and breathtakingly beautiful array of biodiversity we see about us today. The Bionic City is a nod to nature’s R&D Lab, which at four billion years old, is a great deal more advanced than our own.
Credit: Melissa Sterry, PhD candidate, co-founder of New Frontiers and Societás, platforms that have launched groundbreaking new initiatives in design, media and the visual arts. She is also director of the annual international visual arts award the Creative Graduate Prize (launched in 2005) along with the Iconique Societás Awards (launched in 2007).