Future Cities to be Biomimetic

Cambridge University bioengineer Michelle Oyen is studying how to make future cities biomimetic. Her work is focused on the mechanical properties of biological materials. One of her current projects is looking at how emulating the structure and mechanics of eggshells and bones might yield insights for how to design buildings and entire cities to be more resilient and sustainable.

Oyen’s work is aimed at understanding how nature makes building materials at room temperature, without the need for large amounts of energy. Man-made materials are much more energy-intensive; concrete, for instance, accounts for up to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Oyen’s approach is part of the budding science of biomimicry, and it can have important implications for the built environment:

“The natural world and ecological system are maybe the best picture for what a sustainable world looks and performs like,” says Erin Rovalo, a senior principal of design at the consulting firm Biomimicry 3.8. “And if our built environment can function like these ecosystems, maybe thats the pinnacle of what sustainable design can be.”

Another example of how we might design sustainable cities inspired by nature, is with respect to transportation. German neuroscientist Arndt Pechstein explains how proteins carry their cargo within human cells:

 “One motor protein is not only able to carry one specific cargo, so it can be decoupled from that cargo and can take on another,” Pechstein says. “You also have different motor proteins that can switch between different infrastructures without any waiting time or delay.”

And motor proteins communicate with one another, signaling what they’re carrying and where they need to drop it off, preventing traffic jams in our cells. That’s far more efficient than what happens in our cities, where cars sit idle most of the time and where rush hour can lead to grueling gridlock.

In studying the pattern that facilitates this sort of efficiency, Pechstein and his team redesigned the car as a concept, and dubbed it Flywheel. In this new, more modular design, the car is round and the passenger cabin seats two people. To seat more people or carry other cargo, it can merge with other vehicles to form a “train.” And instead of taking up space in the city, the team proposed an infrastructure design in which the cars—like motor proteins—can switch between being on the road and underground.

“If we can reduce the amount of transit on the surface by guiding it somewhere else, then we would dramatically reduce the noise, pollution, and space required for transport in the city,” he says.

While this type of inquiry is very exciting and promising, it is costly and will take time; behavior change is also critical, concede Oyen and Pechstein.

Nevertheless, the inspiration is strong in the scientific community to learn from nature and in essence, return to nature in the way we design living systems. This is a movement that Alchemus Prime supports, and participates in with enthusiasm.

In the words of Pechstein:

“We forget that we are nature, too. And that we are, just as any other species, basically biology, and have something that we can emulate and learn from…”

Biomimetic study of the mechanical and structural properties of eggshells and bones may inform how we build cities of the future to be more resilient.

Biomimetic study of the mechanical and structural properties of eggshells and bones may inform how we construct buildings and cities of the future to be more resilient.

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