If we cast our minds back to when humans first started constructing structures we see that they were very much of the local ecology, using local materials that were fully biodegradable and compostable. Buildings didn’t last long, people followed the seasons and didn’t leave a lasting trace anywhere.
Around 10,000 years ago that started to change as populations settled down to focus on agriculture. We began to get really excited about building things and this was the start of large scale permanent buildings. Constructions like Macchu Picchu are where our first examples of needing to manage stormwater and pollution can be found.
In the last 100 or so years we really lost the plot and started covering everything with lots of grey stuff. We forgot about local ecology and place and, as a result, we no longer reflect the ecosystems within which our urban environments are in, on and around.
We’ve ended up with a built environment that’s not built for anything organic – including us. Until now we’ve sort of coped – albeit with some devasting consequences for ecology.
But this approach to smothering ecology with masses of grey doesn’t deal well with an increasingly dynamic climate and mass human migration on a scale that’s never been seen before.
According to a World Bank report, climate change will see more than 143 million people become “climate migrants” as they escape from crop failure, water scarcity and sea-level rise. This is going to drive immense urbanisation to 2050 which will put incredible pressure on our cities.
We know from the UN Sustainable Development Goals that we need to nest ourselves within the biosphere, within the global ecology. That is the limit, we’re on a planet and it has edges – and there’s a limit to how much pollution it can absorb.
Our society must rest within the global ecology and we need to recognise that the economy is the engine of wellbeing for our society.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed. But we can take a different approach and look at how our built form might draw more closely from local ecology and be of place.
Firstly, energy. We’re going to need a lot of energy for the built environment and, currently, energy is the main cause of burning all the dead and alive trees out there (fossil fuels). But advancements in fission means we are very close to producing ridiculous amounts of energy for free. For everyone. Granted, that sounds like a fairy tale, but we’re seeing early signs of success with this.
We have the sun, which is a freely available energy source, and we’re getting really good at capturing that thermally and photovoltaically. In theory everything in our built form could be covered in panels that harness this to generate electricity.
Secondly, we’re becoming masters of very small matter. We’re building from the atom and molecule up which is creating materials we just don’t recognise. Where before we needed a large concrete pillar, now we just need a thread of carbon nanotube. Because these things are very small there is no waste, so if we can get this to scale then suddenly, our built form is barely using any materials at all and operating extremely efficiently.
What’s more these things have agency and intelligence – these are very small things that move and do things.
Very small things that move and do things start to resemble an ecology. We can draw inspiration from bacteria and ants, and we’re starting to see that play out as we enter the digital world with mixed reality. We can create a reality and tell all these little nanobots to go and construct it. And, because they have awareness, they can manage it, repairing and changing when needed. In theory these things could adapt the height of the bridge in response to a satellite sending down a forecast of heavy rainfall.
This is a very different way of thinking about a built environment that’s not static or fixed, it’s not large and grey. It’s adaptive, dynamic, circular and distributed. We can harness AI and the Internet of Things to be intuitive to communicate and meet our changing needs in the way an ecosystem does.
A helpful way of thinking about it is that you walk into your house, you must turn things on and tell them what to do: cook, wash, heat, chill. But when you walk into a forest it just does its foresty things – you don’t have to turn on the tui, or plug in the kauri tree, you just stand there as an organic thing, being of the forest. This is where we’ll have to see our built environments go.
We’re already seeing these thoughts being experimented with. Singapore has its solar trees which meld biology and the built form, and more sophisticated ideas are coming. I welcome this as we need to be much more ambitious if we’re going to tackle the challenges ahead of us.
While crazy, it’s also exciting and not entirely unreasonable. It’s a way of thinking about how intelligence and awareness can go beyond human. We need to change our cities as they currently are to create truly adaptable ecosystem-based, place-based spaces that respond to ecology for humans and non-humans alike.
As Principal of Sustainability and Resilience, Dr Rowan Dixon leads WSP’s sustainability insight and expertise. His experience spans international trade, environment and climate negotiations policy development and implementation, including carbon, biodiversity and community development and conservation projects, and the valuation of natural and social capital offsets.
The views expressed are the opinions of subject matter experts and do not necessarily reflect those of WSP.