The Biomimetric City

In 2017, the URBAN FUTURES STUDIO launched the Post-Fossil City Contest, calling on artists, designers, architects, urbanists, authors, photographers, filmmakers and all-around creative thinkers to imagine a city that is no longer reliant on fossil fuels. In total, 250 submissions from people in over 40 countries were received. In collaboration with Lorna Gibson (architect and planner) and Robin Vos (earth scientist), the Biomimetric City was born.

The story

By Nadine Galle | March 2017

A wave of panic comes over me as I stand in the produce aisle of the local grocery store. I am comparing heads of lettuce. One is organic but from Mexico, and the other industrially cultivated in a monoculture but from a few townships over. When did this get so difficult? 

Damn. I left the light on in the garage didn’t I. Did I leave the dryer on too? Should I buy that new dress? Even though it’s made in Bangladesh? What about my flight tickets for that meeting halfway across the world? Should I sacrifice my vacation to make up for it? Maybe I won’t eat red meat for a while. That should offset my carbon enough, right? Maybe I could still eat grass-fed beef. That’s better, right? And what about…

I wake up. Panting. Breathing hard. It was as vivid as if it was yesterday, and in a way it was. It has been ten years since we kicked our addiction. Ten years since the drug no longer dictates our decisions, our finances and our future. Ten years since fossil fuels.

I hear birds chirping in the small forest that exists between my apartment block and the neighbours. I get up to grab a glass of water from my filtered rainwater catchment and step out onto my balcony. The skyline is brimmed with treetops and green buildings. I take a deep breath of the purified air, close my eyes and sigh, it was only a bad dream.

Addiction hit its peak as our city was on the brink of death. I remember how our waste systems were strained, constipated and unable to digest the garbage we threw at it. I remember how our infrastructure crumbled, like collapsed arteries no longer to able to sustain their vital function. I remember our skies black with smog, like a smoker’s lungs on his last cigarette. I remember our data networks, like a one-way channel, coveting information and stockpiling it without consent. I remember our broken economy, rewarding short-term gains, like an addict obsessed with his next high, losing sight of the bigger picture.

Although there were decades of clear warnings, it was 2020 when we finally hit rock bottom. It was now or never, I remember them saying. Our dependence on fossil fuels was killing us and there was only one way out: reinvent or die.

So we reinvented. 

In its rehabilitated form, the city is a self-regulating organism, one that is molded and governed by nature, instead of rebelling against it. Unlike its troubled former self, the city is buoyant, supple, integrated with nature and resilient to its forces. Most importantly, the city is regenerative and self-sustaining by design and stays well within the safe operating space of our planetary boundaries.

As sensor data streams into the city’s neural network, evidence-based decisions are made on how to design, plan, and improve the city. A notable remote sensing method used is Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), which employs light waves and provides 3D information on areas of interest. It acts as the eyes of the city, looking at it’s surroundings and interpreting the ecosystem in which it finds itself. Applying the spatial data in geographic information systems (GIS) captures, manipulates, and analyzes the urbanscape against the internal and surrounding environment to let nature dictate what, why, how, where, when, and with what we build.

Although the city may be guided by nature, it is driven by data. Billions of “smart” things, from physical devices, vehicles, and buildings, are compiling, sensing, aggregating, responding to, communicating with, and sharing data. The former centralized systems for public transport, healthcare, power generation, and other industry, have long been disrupted and dismantled, overthrown by blockchain.

Formerly, data may have been altered somewhere along the way ensuring data on pollution or traffic, for example, is unusable at best and tampered with at worst. The decentralized, open, and cryptographic features of distributed ledger technology allow people to trust one another, rendering intermediaries obsolete. The tool allows for built-in audit trails of sensor data and unprecedented security as hacking is virtually impossible. 

It has changed the way we work too. Instead of one-task jobs under a single employer, citizens hold several paying and diversified jobs. Cryptocurrency is used for compensation. In some cases, you are compensated for data you generate on an everyday basis, such as your eating, cleaning and driving habits. Greater autonomy over one’s own work means more quality time for family, leisure, and citizen participation in the city. 

Nature-based design decisions are supplemented with citizen input. Augmented reality showcases future construction plans and allows urban planners to collect feedback from fellow urbanites. The city’s former addiction had its citizen’s wrists in shackles, with economics defining every decision in the urbanscape. Now, crowdsourced urban planning puts the future of the city back into the hands of its people.

In our previous city, industrialisation came with predetermined tools for workers, the machine and the instructions on how to work it. Although the post-fossil city utilises new technology, humans and other species always come first. Instead of people serving machines, machines serve people. It is a pursuit which allow individuals to live more fulfilled lives enabled, not controlled, by technology. The citizens do not just live in the city, the city lives for its citizens. 

Sometimes the odd nightmare still haunts me. The images of destruction, fear, panic and uncertainty come rushing back as if I have once again lost complete control. I know now, fossil fuels do not define us. And unlike many addictions, this one has no chance of relapse.