2/09/2012

Retranscription of The City 2.0 Evolved (not made) by Ecological Humans, a live conversation directed by Rachel Armstrong

I have already introduced Rachel Armstrong's research. This is consequently not necessary to go back over it. Today I followed a live conversation she led on TED.COM, titled The City 2.0 - Evolved (not made) by Ecological Humans. This conversation is based on her recent published book Living Architecture which attempts to rethink the city in the nearing future. For Rachel Armstrong, the combination of architecture, city planning and biology — synthetic biology — can reshape cities and our lives. The following excerpt of this live conversation provides a forestaste of her book Living Architecture.

Suggested book: Rachel Armstrong, Living Architecture, TEDBooks, 2012.
Note that the book is only available in the ebook format via iBook, Nook and Kindle.

Before retranscripting of her conversation — I will only retranscript her notes not those of the other participants. To read their questions and observation, go to the TED.COM page —, let me start with the presentation of this live conversation project.

The City 2.0 — Evolved (not made) by Ecological Humans
We are not machines but Ecological Humans. We depend on our networks for survival, like an oak tree in the forest, being made up of highly interacting and interdependent systems. For example, eating is not simply consuming 'fuel' to feed our body-machine but is a mutual relationship shared between our gut bacteria, our food and our bodies (which, in turn, are highly interconnected assemblages of specialised tissues). The way that we see ourselves influences the way that we operate through the world in all aspects of our lives — from health, to business and even space exploration!
Ecological Humans, imagine the City 2.0 as being grown from the bottom-up by its comunities. It is udnerpinned by highly interacting and interdependent networks, which use dynamic fabrics that behave in life-like ways. These buildings can be described as Living Architecture that are capable of responding to the changes in our dynamic cities as only real ecologies can?
Questions:
Will The City 2.0 be qualitatively different to modern cities? Or pragmatically, can the transition only be made as a series of incremental changes? What can we do to facilitate this transition?
What does being an Ecological Human mean to me? Can it help me find new or more effective ways of working?
Can we rely on biology to provide all the answers when it comes to sustainable building solutions? Is life a technology - and should we exploit it in the pursuit of more sustainable ways of building?

Now the retranscription that I extracted from her posts. Note that this retranscription appears to be disjointed. This reflects the flows of discussion and reaction to participants' questions and comments as well as the themes she proposed:

Is it possible — given that cities are complex, therefore unpredictable — to generate any kind of impact (whether initiated by a 'wish' or any other kind of action) — on what is a conundrum and constantly moving target? Moreover, cities possess durations longer than a life span and inevitably outlive the jurisdiction of politicians and company heads who may be in any kind of meaningful position to oversee sustainable change.

(…) I definitively believe humanity can coevolve into a beneficial structural and functional force in living systems and the Panarchy. With us evolving into an urban species, cities are the key!

This method of approaching uncertainty has become so successful that we have even embraced this concept into the soul of our existence. Machines are really great for being machines. They command control through the consumption of natural resources and are belligerent to a tickle natural world. They keep us sage and in command.

Since ancient times we have sought to gain control of the unknown, believing that the laws of the cosmos, nature and the human realm are knowable and ordered. The most powerful instrument we have used to unravel the complexity of existence and simplify it is the 'machine' - the idea of an object-based, hierarchical system that possess a mathematical order. The metaphor of the machine has been extremely successful, so much so that we imagine ourselves as machines. We think of our bodies of being made up of parts consisting of organs and tissues. At the very centre of these machine organs is a biological program, a complex chemical called DNA that literally runs the processes of our soft machine. When various parts of the body machine break down, we can replace them with other parts that do the same job and ultimately, since we are machines the logical conclusion is that we could indefinitely replace our body parts and achieve immortality. If we do not submit to complete mechanisation Ray Kurtzweil warns us that we will be replaced by superior life forms in an event horizon so profound that we cannot see the consequences for our species beyond it. He calls this The Singularity.



Can a city be solved? A distinguishing feature of the life of a city is that it is not made but evolved in collaboration with its inhabitants. In other words – cities are long-term projects that engage with both top down and bottom up ideas and processes.

When I was writing my TED book on Living Architecturewhich I am eternally grateful to Tom Reilly for suggesting and Jim Daly for seeing the idea through to fruition – I began to realise that ‘living architecture’ was not a product but a process that could be used for problem solving.


As the implications for ecological thinking became apparent, I was keen to find a context in which it might be possible to test how ecological principles could be applied to a variety of different challenges.

The TED Prize City 2.0 challenge started me thinking about the seemingly insurmountable issues that our cities will pose over the coming decades. It invites us to collectively craft ‘one wish’, which will collectively ignite the actions of the TED community and set them on the path towards sustainable change in our cities worldwide.

This conversation is entirely separate to the TED Prize but has been inspired by it. The idea of a future city offers a framework in which I’d like to start to explore the possibilities that a new kind of thinking. I’d like to explore what this approach may have to offer us in dealing with the unknown and also with the more mundane aspects of our daily lives.

It occurred to me when I was writing of my TED Book that all the Grand Challenges that we currently face are not ones control and command issues related to simple situations but complex ones - that require participation, engagement, collaboration and interdependency.

Two decades after the internet breached the domestic and commercial realms we have become familiar with the idea of complexity - on a daily basis. Whereas once the world may have appeared to be ordered in a hierarchical manner – now it appears to be impossibly entwined and forged from networks and interactions that are ephemeral, transient and fundamentally uncontrollable.
Is it possible to reconcile this subversive view of existence with a working view of our presumed cosmic order?
We might imagine this new complex framework in which we are inextricably immersed as being an ‘ecological’ one.
This method of approaching uncertainty has become so successful that we have even embraced this concept into the soul of our existence. Machines are really great for being machines. They command control through the consumption of natural resources and are belligerent to a fickle natural world. They keep us safe and in command.
Since ancient times we have sought to gain control of the unknown, believing that the laws of the cosmos, nature and the human realm are knowable and ordered. The most powerful instrument we have used to unravel the complexity of existence and simplify it is the 'machine' - the idea of an object-based, hierarchical system that possess a mathematical order. The metaphor of the machine has been extremely successful, so much so that we imagine ourselves as machines. We think of our bodies of being made up of parts consisting of organs and tissues. At the very centre of these machine organs is a biological program, a complex chemical called DNA that literally runs the processes of our soft machine. When various parts of the body machine break down, we can replace them with other parts that do the same job and ultimately, since we are machines the logical conclusion is that we could indefinitely replace our body parts and achieve immortality. If we do not submit to complete mechanisation Ray Kurtzweil warns us that we will be replaced by superior life forms in an event horizon so profound that we cannot see the consequences for our species beyond it. He calls this The Singularity.
Is it possible that by thinking differently - using a new kind of ordering system - whether this might give us a set of tools that can help understand ourselves in a more connected, ecological context and may have an impact on for example : the way we live our lives, the way we make things and the way that we dream and build our cities?
In my book [Living Architecture] I have attempted to use an ecological framework to address a complex issue - such as the future city - as invited by the TED Prize City 2.0. Living Architecture, is the consequence of using a new set of tools and technologies in our acts of making. These are not machines, they do not work like machines at all but behave biologically. The portfolio of new tools, which are mostly based in synthetic biology and complexity chemistry, sets the scene for a new group of materials and architectural interventions that lie somewhere between the performance of machines and biology. These strange, new technologies blur the distinction between building and landscape and suggest that the 21st century marks the advent of synthetic urban ecologies. The book itself takes a multi-systems view of the potential applications of systems that are not truly 'alive' but possess living qualities. As 'living technologies' these properties can be exploited as new ways of 'making' things at many scales of operation ranging from the micro scale, to the city. The text explores the context and need for these kinds of new solutions that are compatible with a systems view of the world embodied in the ecologically engaged practices of Panarchy, Permaculture and Biomimicry. Living Architecture results from the strategic applications of living technologies and - importantly - is based on real world experiments.
1) A system that is ecological and emergent is dependent firstly on its context - or its environment. This establishes just how much growth and self-organization any particular generative system can achieve. Think of a small office making great business, enough to take on new staff - the size of the office space will limit the emergent interactions in that group of people.

2) A system that is ecological and emergent is dependent on its 'metabolism' - the energy that it possess to keep it away 'from equilibrium' - that's a term used by Shroedinger 1944 to describe a signature of life. In an everyday setting we can think of the 'metabolism' as motivation, stimulation, cultural motivation and belief systems (I am sure that you'll be able to think of many more ways of keeping energy flowing in a community or a workplace). Without an internal energy to stop everyone reaching a point of inertia - or unproductively - spontaneity and emergent behaviour will not occur.

3) A system (or group of people) that work according to ecological and emergent principles also need an 'architecture' - in other words a strategy through which the participants can use to connect with and interact with each other. Without social codes, ethics and etiquette then the bonding or 'architecture' of the system breaks down. These forms of architecture do not have to be permanently fixed but they need to be present as they are vital for the participants to help them understand their role and limits within a group.
This raises a very important challenge when dealing with ecological ways of working - that is the need for both top down and bottom up forms of coordination. The whole issue of emergence is one that is inherent to systems thinking and ecological thinking yet it provides a design and engineering challenge that has not been 'formalised'. How do we design with emergent systems? The short answer is that emergence alone is not enough to generate sustainable change other factors are extremely important.
Let's think about what this might mean in the work place. If we think of ourselves as machines, we have a single job to do, wall ourselves away and invest all our energy in getting that job done. We work to the same pattern, the same programme and the same habits. In a machine, variety is not a good thing as if dilutes our efficiency. In an ecology, networks are all important. The first thing we would do in an office would be to make sure that our networks are healthy. If we have a particular task to perform we find out who can help us and use the network to find out a way around any issues that may result from the unseen challenges that beset us daily. An ecological approach to the work place would also see continual changes in practice that respond and evolve according to ongoing daily challenges and may evolve new systems of ways of working that do not need a centralised command chain to operate them. Ecological ways of working evolve rather than follow a rigid program which is then very disruptive when this is altered at central HQ.
The political theorist Jane Bennett takes a very interesting view of the material world which gives it political agency. In other words, as we depend on more than ourselves for our well being then she believes that the world around us has meaning and therefore value. She describes the act of eating, for example as being a collaboration between the bacteria in our gut and our own bodies - neither one of these exclusively benefits or always 'wins' in this transactions - she imagines then that our bacteria, during the process of eating are part of us. So if we need to embrace and respect our body bacteria as a way of looking after ourselves this changes their meaning - for example, we may not take an antibiotic when we feel unwell as we would see it as being more harmful than good and would take a bionutrient instead to strike a better biological balance. This is a subtle but important change in the way we think about our environment. Machines seek to be sterile - and bacterial free. Ecologies are the consequences of healthy networks and balances.
I'll address some of the questions that resulted from writing the TED Book on Living Architecture. The first being what the idea of an Ecological Human actually mean? Could it help us find new or more effective ways of working?
Those contexts are just some very simple rules that it was possible to examine using the living technology that I have been working with since 2009. It has been an amazing experience being able to work with a technology that really does look as if it is alive but since it has no DNA, it is not called 'alive'. However, that this technology breaks a lot of rules that machines obey helped me look again afresh at the way that world appeared to be organised around me and how it might be possible to use the powerful visualisation that the technology offered as a way of re-imagining what may be possible. Take a look for yourself - this is a series of films that were taken of the technology - they are not animation but real footage of simple droplets behaving in a remarkably lifelike way. Video: Here [credit Michael Simon Toon].
It occurred to me when I was writing of my TED Book that all the Grand Challenges that we currently face are not ones control and command issues related to simple situations but complex ones - that require participation, engagement, collaboration and interdependency.
Two decades after the internet breached the domestic and commercial realms we have become familiar with the idea of complexity - on a daily basis. Whereas once the world may have appeared to be ordered in a hierarchical manner – now it appears to be impossibly entwined and forged from networks and interactions that are ephemeral, transient and fundamentally uncontrollable.
Is it possible to reconcile this subversive view of existence with a working view of our presumed cosmic order?
We might imagine this new complex framework in which we are inextricably immersed as being an ‘ecological’ one.

Future cities will need to have some qualitatively differences to modern cities but change does not mean tearing down what already exists. This is simply silly. In my book I refer to 'extreme recycling' of cities where structural elements such as concrete and steel that mature with age are kept in situ and new kinds of 'skins' that have more biological-like and dynamic materials in them can start to perform some of the kinds of functions that we'd normally attribute to plants. Most of us will not be able to live in Masdar and sustainable enclaves so one of the biggest challenges that I hope that living technologies can address is in our existing building stock. I think that we will firstly experience a series of incremental changes as some of these new technologies can increase the quality of the local environment in physical but also in terms of its psychological impact. We need to make room for nature in our cities. We can be inventive about what this actually means now that we are able to design and engineer with biological systems to the degree that we are currently able. But we also need to respect our environment and also the wishes of communities. Facilitating a transition towards a City 2.0 (as the TED Prize states) has really got to start with a change in mindset as to what is possible, education, addressing infrastructures, meeting the needs of populations and lastly changing the way that our architectures are made. In that order. Also this is just my opinion and I am very keen to hear your views as to how change may be possible - it is so vital for a humane future in cities - and so pressing upon us!

What is the role of biology in our twenty first century cities? Will we have space for native biology if we're not only going to see one third again more people in urban environments, living more densely and with more people moving from rural to city lifestyles. Can biology be viewed as a technology that can help us generate more sustainable solutions for city living spaces? These kind of questions may be addressed best by the practice of a new kind of science called synthetic biology. Most of us will equate synthetic biology with genetic modification - which is something that I do not do myself. But is it more broad than this - certainly the way that I personally view synthetic biology. I consider this science as being the way that we design and engineer with nature and living systems. In other words using a set of tools and materials that are Ecological in their very nature. Machine based tools need to be checked and adapted for their ecological compatibility because they constitute a barrier between human design and the natural world - but biological systems share a common language with nature through the laws of physics and chemistry. In my TED Book Living Architecture I describe the range of these kinds of interventions that range from agrarian techniques to biotechnology. They constitute a powerful portfolio of possible ways of shaping our living quarters. Because they are powerful they need to be considered carefully but they do offer us something new and different to machines. Modern architecture finds the biological system too slow for its liking. But if we really do find some of the properties such as, robustness flexibility, the ability to deal with the unexpected and the capacity for surprise valuable then there are a new range of opportunities (and challenges - which include ethical ones) available to us.



More: Here.



















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