The IFTF Blog
Cities That Live?
We had a fascinating presentation from Drew Endy of MIT's Biological Engineering Division, which was "founded in 1998 as a new MIT departmental academic unit, with the mission of defining and establishing a new discipline fusing molecular life sciences with engineering."
Drew talked about current trends in biotechnology research that more or less led us to believe that there is a fair amount of standardization beginning to happen in the biotech world - the biological equivalent of simple building-block components like screws is starting to happen.
My head has been spinning since then. My research has focused on the impacts of information and communications technology on cities. Yet for about 2-3 years, I keep having these moments where some news bit on advances in life sciences make me think that it's time to start thinking about how biological engineering is going to reshape what increasingly looks like its going to be a world of cities by the end of the 21st century.
I see three main threads worth thinking about:
- New materials - it will start as "dead" substitutes for things we use now like steel, concrete, etc. We'll figure out how to mass produce spider silk and it will become a ubiquitous construction material. But eventually we'll start bioenginnering "materials" that are actually living organisms. Why build a building skeleton out of steel when you can engineer a living tree to grow itself into a self-repairing, self-cooling sustainable structure (that also conveniently removes a lot of carbon from the atmosphere).
- Bio-inspired structures and components - the most famous example of biomimicry in architecture is the Eastgate Building in Zimbabwe which cools itself in a process similar to that of a termite mound, but bio-inspired designs for structures and components that heat, cool, house, produce, or purify will become widespread as we gain much better understanding of small-scale biological processes.
- Bio-inspired systems and dynamics - as our understand of emergence improves, we'll increasingly seek to employ these phenomena in larger systems, and to guide the life cycle of the built environment. We'll more explicitly incorporate biological concepts as we think about how individual buildings, rooms, and infrastructure components function within a great whole of a street, neighborhood, or city.
I think this is an interesting strand of thought, if only because it potentially presents some very different possible alternatives to the "grey goo" scenarios where nanobots eat everything in a frenzy of self-replication. Maybe a world of cities built on a more bio-centric set of technologies offers a more resilient, sustainable path around these dead ends.