Image by Egor Orlov

Towards a Biomechanical City

An interview with ecoLogicStudio co-​founder Marco Poletto on the probability of biomechanized cities

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An interview with Marco Poletto

An interview by Egor Orlov

15 lungs, 10 kidneys and 13 hearts. This is not the imagination of a mad surgeon. It is the most probable design of a future city. There are new systems and organisms of phantasmagoric creation by whose unfamiliar principles the future city will function. The city will have acquired intrinsic geography, laws of physics, qualities and even unknown residents. The megalopolis is guided by machines, which become full-fledged participants as social and cultural megalopolis processes. Designing the city environment proceeds from requirements of comfort not only for the person, but also for the robot. The machines will become new city dwellers and will allow us to give them comfortable city for living there. The biomechanized city is a new habitat for new dwellers. The megalopolis is a new field for dialogue of machines and nature.

Marco Poletto is the co-founder (with Claudia Pasquero) of the London-based ecoLogicStudio. EcoLogicStudio aims to find the 'synergistic combination' of machine and nature. It is an architectural and urban design practice specializing in environmental design, urban self-sufficiency and prototypes for integrated nature. The research cluster on Bio-Urban Design (part of the MArch Urban Design program at Bartlett School of architecture) pursues a non anthropocentric understanding of the urban landscape as a territory of self-organization and of co-evolution of multiple dynamical systems, including ecological systems, infrastructures and technological systems, social and political systems.
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What is a biomechanical organism?

There are different models of biomechanical organisms that we have been exploring in the past years which will be very relevant in the future. One of the models we are investigating in our Bio Urban Design Lab well as in ecoLogicStudio is the model of emergent collective intelligence, whose principles of organization we could find in many natural systems. It is a very specific type of system which we can identify in collective organisms. The most common forms of collective intelligence found in nature are the results of multiple dynamic interactions. They use a form of meta-​language based on material/​chemical interaction of multiple individual beings, their pattern-​recognition as well as on real-​time meta-​conversations.

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Illustration by Egor Orlov

I think it is productive to imagine the future city as a system of living organisms, a system which works according to the principles of existing — or, maybe, even not existing and purely phantasmagoric — organisms. What kind of connecting intelligence would be able to govern such city? How would dynamic interactions between various city parts look?

There are, for instance, two different kinds of insects living in colonies: ants and bees. They are engaged in collective dynamic interactions according to the organizational principles of collective intelligence. Similar algorithms of natural collective design are also found in coral colonies. Similar principles we, also, see in a classic model of self-​organization, the Slime Mold: a protist, a single celled organism which contains hundreds of thousands of nuclei. In the plasmodium phase, the nuclei are afloat and are able to interact with each other through chemical reactions. I would like to emphasize one of the characteristics of these micro-​organisms: they all use their own liquid environment for interaction and exchange. They also accumulate traces in the environment that form a distributed spatial memory of these interactions which is critical for the process of collective intelligence. You can learn a lot from these models; and you can try to design and optimize the built environment (or urban environment) according to these laws as a kind of distributed emergent process. In a way, cities may be able to co-​evolve with the natural biosphere: as a result, a completely new future biomechanical environment might appear. Basically, the city and the natural habitat will be connected through various dynamic synthetic interactions. The urban sphere and the biosphere will come to be one collective organism, which we cannot imagine right now.

We will create conditions for a new kind of self-​organizing biomechanical habitat with yet unknown components

What about integration of new unfamiliar elements in the future biomechanical city? Are they capable of becoming part of its structure or of generating a new one?

We still see the city as a collection of buildings which do not change or change very slowly over long periods of time. On the other hand, we live partly in a cyberspace where communication happens at a very high speed. These two worlds are not yet well connected; there isn’t direct interaction between them. The real shift will occur when we will be able to develop a series of cyber-​natural prototypes, biodigital buildings or other urban components which would allow for such communication; then cyberspace would become an integral part of the city. Consequently, we will create conditions for a new kind of self-​organizing biomechanical habitat with yet unknown components.

If you are to name one key characteristic of the future biomechanical city, what would it be?

People talk a lot about how to coordinate information. No doubt, the infrastructure of connecting interactions will become more and more efficient, but there is no clarity about how coordination of the information about dynamic interactions could change the urban fabric itself. One of the key elements, for me, is the ability of such urban fabric to produce resources. The Urban environment should not just be a container of programmes but a dynamic process of production. It should allow the exchange of information with the biosphere and to extract renewable resources from these interactions in the form of energy and food. It’s an ability to harvest energy in a way completely different from how we produce or collect energy now. This will open a new age — the age of the biomechanical city.

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Illustration by Egor Orlov

Is there any chance that some of the intelligent components of the future city will evolve into independent players, becoming new type of citizens, as it were?

It’s very close to the vision we’ve been trying to push forward with the projects such as Cybergarden, a project which investigates the future of urban agriculture as the speculative convergence of advanced biotechnology and cyber things. These are new prototypes which integrate microorganisms into the built environment. They create new habitats in the way they are able to capture solar energy, produce photosynthesis, respond to the environment, and send signals of information. It’s exactly what you were saying. These microorganisms, machineries, and devices are essentially new kind of citizens that contribute to the sophisticated system of distributed spatial memory which I was describing earlier. We will be able to expand our understanding of citizenship to include machines and microorganisms, along with human beings, into the group of city users.

Microorganisms will grow faster in the artificial biomechanical environment than in the wild and create new energy streams for feeding urban dwellers

How do you imagine the infrastructure of a biomechanical system? How will various types of resources be distributed and delivered to these new users in such a complex environment?

We’ve been focusing on different levels of engagement. One of the projects we are developing, called ‘algaeBRA’ and the recent Urban Algae Folly, is based on the idea of creating habitat for microalgae organisms as part of building envelopes. Simultaneously they work like resource archives and harvesters that are not only able to create photosynthesis, but also able to absorb emissions of the city buildings. There are different dynamic interactions (streams) in buildings that can be activated by the intelligence of connected microalgae colonies. These streams can be part of food or energy supply chains. In this project we endeavor to create a kind of active layer that becomes part of both city and natural metabolic cycles. This artificial layer enhances quality of interactions between nature and the city. The microorganisms will grow faster in this biomechanical environment than in the wild; they will be very closely connected with the life of the building and will prompt its biomass to grow; biomass in turns can be used by inhabitants of this building. Microalgae organism creates new energy streams for feeding urban dwellers. Hence, it’s on the one hand a new form of urban biomechanical agriculture for humans, machines, microorganisms and other stuff, on the other hand, a new type of complex infrastructure.

And what about living structures or living buildings?

Look at the processes of biocementation. Cracks on the cement behave in a way similar to human bodily wounds. To ‘heal the wound’ Dutch scientists from TU Delft use calcite-​precipitating bacteria and even invent self-​healing, ‘living’ concrete. I think, we can eventually design create landscapes which evolve over time. We can begin to harvest the potential of this new biotechnological nature in architecture (including that of small bacteria). It means we start seeing the building as something not necessarily finished; we understand that it can keep evolving. I would call the built matter an exoskeleton of the future city.

Could microorganisms potentially become a threat for the city? Could they get out of control?

I think it’s an important change for us to begin to understand and even play with microorganisms. They are not enemies we need to kill. It’s fascinating to imagine that 90% of our body is them, not us. We are made of billions of potentially harmful and effectively beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that are invisible to the naked eye, but we cannot survive without them. They are part of our metabolism.

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Illustration by Egor Orlov

Could you imagine a self-​sufficient biomechanical building? For instance, in Dubai – a city without nature, there are buildings with artificial, synthetic interior nature…

Any building output, any waste should be considered as potentially valuable nutrient for the city. Waste should be reinterpreted as energy for microorganisms, machines, and robots; it should become part of the new biomechanical city metabolism. Places like Dubai are still marketing an ideal of shiny, sanitized building surfaces and deep blue swimming pools while keeping all their waste byproducts hidden. I am sure that it’s their basic problem. A city that systematically conceals its emissions and celebrates a sanitized version of urban nature represents a faulty urban model for the future. We need to redesign pollution streams in a new way, as they may potentially provide blocks of nutrients for future city users such as bacteria, microorganisms, robots and et cetera.

Buckminster Fuller said: ‘Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting’.

Yeah. If you start to incorporate these ‘anti-organisms’ – emission, waste and pollution – into your future urban ecosystem, they will automatically become nutrients for the biomechanical organism of the city.

Maybe we will be even creating new types of pollution on purpose to provide new types of nutrients for the future city?

Waste should be reinterpreted as energy for microorganisms, machines, and robots, it should become part of the future biomechanical city metabolism

Well, there are substances which support city metabolism and, also, there are substances which are venomous for humans. Yet, there is always a chance that they may be not poisonous for other organisms as robots or machines; we just need to find the right way to recycle them. It is a complex task. We’ll need new social groups of citizen-​machines which can harvest and recycle new unfamiliar types of contamination; and, at the same time, are able to co-​exist with living organisms creating a holistic biomechanical city. Probably, it will be a combination of machines and microorganisms. Our job is to imagine new complex urban typologies, new hybrids that are not dangerous for humans and other city dwellers.

You seem to know quite a lot about future cities. What do you think will come after the biomechanical city? When will it reach its limits?

This is too far ahead for me. It is the task of the next generation to speculate about these distant futures. Your task…