This building might also use computer networks to monitor its community of local buildings to figure out when to gather solar energy and send it to the grid to share, as well as when to lower louvers to keep residents cool.
“I sometimes imagine urban landscapes that are integrated into their ecosystems with a combination of vegetation and constructed materials,” Benjamin said. “They look almost like ruins in the jungle, but they’re actually fully functional, occupied cities.”
Benjamin’s visions of the future end where his fellow synthetic biology designer Rachel Armstrong’s begin. Armstrong, a designer based in London, is an outspoken advocate for what she calls “the living city,” or urban structures that she told me we’d create in the same way we cook or garden.
We met in a cafe in the heart of London, overlooking a busy street near Tottenham Court Road, and almost immediately Armstrong was imagining how she’d rebuild the city around us.
“You’d have surfaces creeping down buildings like icing. Strange, colored panels would glow through windows at night, and you’d have bioluminescent streetlights. Bridges will light up when we step on them.” She paused, but continued staring outside, deep in thought. “We’d keep the bones of buildings steel and concrete, but rewrap those spaces with increasingly more biological facades. Some will be porous and attract water; others will process human waste. Mold won’t be something you clean off a surface but will be something you garden.”
Armstrong’s vision sounds like science fiction, but she’s just describing what tomorrow’s air and water filtration systems might look like. Instead of filling our walls with rusting pipes and ducts, we’d swathe our buildings in engineered bacteria and mold to process our waste, generate energy and even purify our water.
Armstrong is fascinated by bacteria and mold, which she and other synthetic biology designers view as the building blocks of future cities. “We are full of microbes,” she asserted firmly. “Maybe instead of using environmental poisons to create healthier environments inside, we should be using probiotics.”
Glowing bacteria could live in our ceilings, lighting up as the sun goes down. Other bacteria might purify the air, scrubbing out carbon. Every future urban home would be equipped with algae bioreactors for both fuel and food.
Such a future may be closer than you think. Recently, Armstrong worked with a group of biologists and designers who hope to use experimental protocells — basically, a few chemicals wrapped in a membrane — in a project that could prevent Venice from sinking into the water. The city was built on a marsh, and water periodically bubbles up, rotting the infrastructure over time.
Protocells are semibiological and can be designed to carry out very simple chemical processes. In Venice, engineers would release protocells into the water. Designed to prefer darkness, the protocells would head for the rotting pilings beneath the city’s dwellings. Once attached to the wood, the protocells would slowly undergo a chemical transformation, turning their flexible membranes into calcium shells.
Over time, these shells would form the core of a new artificial reef. As wildlife discovered the calcium deposits, a natural reef would form, and the city’s shaky foundations would become a stable ecosystem. Already, Armstrong and her group have had some success creating small-scale versions of the protocell reef in the lab, and they’re moving on to experiments in controlled natural areas.
If our cities do evolve to be more like biological organisms and ecosystems, it could change the way communities form within their walls. “We might start to experience the city as something we have to take care of the way we take care of our bodies,” Armstrong suggested.
In a biological city, using a toxic chemical in your kitchen might cause your algae lights to die. “We’ll take more care of the city because we feel its injuries more deeply.” It’s possible this could generate a sense of collective responsibility for our buildings and avenues. Neighbors would tend their buildings together, trading recipes for making fuel the way people today trade recipes for holiday cakes.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict what the consequences would be for people in cities whose buildings were half-alive. Armstrong is willing to admit her ideas are utopian, and that’s the point. “You need something to aim at,” she said with a smile.