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The bionic city’s relationship with nature would be hand-in-glove, with ecosystem services and man- made bionic technologies engaged in symbiotic relationships; a statue of da Vinci (below, left)

Whereas man takes an architectural or plan- ning concept and rolls it out universally with few adaptations from site to site, nature care- fully tailors its concepts to suit the specifics of individual locations. There is nothing acciden- tal about our planet’s great biodiversity, which stems from this made-to-measure approach. Another key property of natural ecosys- tems is the ability to anticipate and prepare for significant environmental changes and poten- tial threats. Where these events occur with relative frequency, nature builds them into its lifecycles – for example several species of tree located in fire-prone regions, such as the cork oak, embed features including fire-retardant bark, enabling them to mitigate what could otherwise be a disastrous event.

essential operating mechanisms, such as tec- tonic plate movements, our systems are cre- ated either on the assumption that such events will not occur or that when they do we can divert a disaster. The irony of many sustainable city pro-

posals is that they take a best-case scenario approach to the physical impacts of climate change. The time has come for architects and planners to take off their rose-tinted glasses and stop illustrating future cities basking in glorious sunshine, such as floating cities pic- tured on a calm ocean, under a clear blue sky. The world’s oceans are dynamic and volatile places, which is the primary reason why complex ocean ecosystems chose between a nomadic existence and one under the waves. The odds are that if despite four billion years of experimentation nature has not worked out a way to build a successful complex per- manent or semi-permanent infrastructure in a particular type of location we most likely won’t either. Just how well will floating cities perform when confronted with a category five hurricane or a freak 100ft wave?

Humans have much to learn from the world’s ecosystems, which embed many of the answers to the problems our cities face. The first of these lessons is acceptance; we have to learn to stop being control freaks and work with nature, not against her. Having set our megalomaniac tendencies to one side and adopted a co-operative and collaborative approach, we then need to learn humility. Nature is not a snob. Myriad species, such as fungi and bacteria, exist on the waste of other species and to the extent that the con-

cept of rubbish is alien to nature. However, moving beyond these basic permaculture prin- ciples, we need to open our minds to the possibility that many events we perceive as disasters could be opportunities.

Does this sound too good to be true? Not from nature’s perspective. Whereas many cit- ies attempt to hold back flooding, many of the world’s ecosystems, including those located in deltas and peat bogs, would collapse without it. It has been commonly said of the 2010 Haiti disaster, “it wasn’t the earthquake that killed people, it was the buildings collapsing”. Likewise it was not coastal flooding that devastated New Orleans, but the


incapacity to accommodate its levees being breached. “Once in a hundred years” mete- orological and geological events are now roll- ing out every year and in every continent. Historically, when such events struck cities, we built a replica that had no more resilience to any future such disaster.

The Bionic City is an attempt to answer the question: “How would nature design a city?” While a few individuals have perceived ‘bion- ic’ to imply ‘robotic’, it refers to Biomimetics, which to quote Wikipedia is, “the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems”. The first step in establishing how nature would design a city is to work out the fundamental operating principles that underpin natural ecosystems. A striking difference between man-made and natural environments is the fact that humans veer towards off-the-peg solutions, whereas nature only ever opts for bespoke.

When we see things from nature’s perspec- tive many of the proposed solutions to current and emerging built environment problems start to look risky. Take the suggestion that we ought to paint roofs white to counteract the heat island effect and help mitigate climate change. Why would nature reject such an idea? Simple. It’s not flexible enough. Nature would instead offer an adaptive system, such as heat and humidity reactive surfaces that change colour to enable a range of heat absor- bency options – a concept that if dove-tailed into solar harvesting technologies could help improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells. How might The Bionic City look? In con- trast to the sprawling mass of disconnected, static and inert structures that compromise today’s cities, it would instead operate as a seasonally-adaptive collective of intercon- nected and interdependent shape-shifting, colour changing, dynamic architectures, that sensitive to their surroundings, fused to form a complex adaptive system in sync with the Earth’s natural processes. The city’s relation- ship with nature would be hand-in-glove, wherein ecosystem services and man-made bionic technologies engaged in symbiotic rela- tionships spanning from the molecular to the metropolis in scale.

It will take several years for me to research and evaluate The Bionic City hypothesis, but though just a year into my PhD, I’ve got a strong feeling that Leonardo da Vinci might just have been onto something.

Melissa Sterry is hosting a Bionic Cities event at the International Bionic Engineering Con- ference in Boston, USA on 18-20 September 2011. If you’d like to participate, all the details are at >

Sustainable Business | Sustainable Cities | February 2011 | 11

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