The following piece is the second half of a seven page investment thesis entitled Social Capital: The Next 100 Years. Submitted as part of an open call by Social Capital, it looks to address issues surrounding:

  • climate change & decarbonisation
  • increasing environmental volatility
  • additive manufacturing,
  • building urban and psycho-spatial resilience.

The first half of the full piece can be found on Medium.

V: Infrastructural Resilience: Adaptable Urban Systems

Abject societal negligence, missteps and apathy over the course of centuries have led to a crippled global ecosystem. The 2010 heat wave in the northern hemisphere is estimated to have led to the deaths of over 5,000 in Moscow. The 2003 European heatwave led to eight times the number of deaths, estimated at 50,000 at the lowest end. The residual harms are even more pressing — heat waves result in repeated electricity grid failures, a worsening of air and water quality, social unrest and instability, a prolonged shock to the food supply network as crops fail and food scarcity drives prices up. These are residual societal shocks that are comparable to the worst of man-made violence in the last few centuries.

We can see global resilience is not just about climate change, but is a necessary response to combat sudden and crippling issues such as global terrorism, cyber-warfare, emerging pandemics and public health crises. Global temperatures grew slowly and surely over the course of centuries to a point where now we are forced into a linguistic corner, equating the harms of the climate catastrophe to insurgent violence in urban centres, DDoS attacks and the exponential spreading of viruses.

Resilience is an urban quality that is contingent upon effective monitoring, data collection and prediction. The City Resilience Index has Comprehensive Hazard and Exposure Mapping as one of its key factors to implement where the ability to understand and store current data on a much more advanced level allows for effective mitigation strategies to be implemented.

Advancement and effective deployment of sensory technologies plays a huge role in the capability of an urban system to respond to disasters, both natural and man made. We need to start understanding our cities and towns as complex adaptable systems. The era of disconnected static city planning renders our built environment effectively obsolete, restricted from adaptation due to their repressive, built-for-purpose nature. We can restitch the city using computational methodologies that can minimise ambiguity and maximise our capacity to react.

These will be existentially important in rapidly expanding coastal cities such as Buenos Aires and Mumbai, that are the most at risk to exogenous shocks and some of the least equipped to subsequently deal with them. The World Bank forecasts that flooding and droughts will lead to global losses of around $1 trillion per year if not properly assessed and managed. In their 2015 study Disaster Risk, Climate Change, and Poverty: Assessing the Global Exposure of Poor People to Floods and Droughts they detail that the shockwaves of the climate crisis manifest in wider areas, such as disincentivizing long term investment thinking due to assets such as homes, livestock and essential agriculture being destroyed by flooding. However, the risk of excessive flooding usually is not enough of a reason to de-incentivise moving to highly urbanised and flood-prone zones — the proximity to risks are outweighed by the ability to access key economic incentives such as better employment, healthcare and schools. So this means that populations are aware of the risks, but they are not enough to prevent their movement into these urban centres. These risk prone areas use their coastal proximities to facilitate most of their economic growth — therefore risk management through sensory technologies should be seen as a way to mitigate the exogenous shocks of climate change, who’s deleterious effects accelerate the increase in poverty and economic stability.

To Predict is to Protect

Effective sensory technologies can improve a city’s inherent resilience capacity. Buenos Aires sits at the mouth of Río de la Plata (River Plate) and has suffered regularly from flooding, primarily due to its ageing and crumbling infrastructure systems, regularly resulting in blocked drainage systems during heavy rainfall and storms. SAP Technology was contracted to upgrade the city’s infrastructure. The solution was a systemic overhaul of the water management system, by adding IoT-enabled (Internet of Things) sensors in over 30,000 drains in conjunction with a centralised tracking platform that allowed for water flow rates, pressure, speed and levels to be tracked and mapped across the city. Drain blockages that would lead to crippling floods during high levels of rainfall could be prevented because they could be anticipated effectively. Emergency services could be mobilised more efficiently and not pushed to the brink. An effective holding company that wishes to pursue a strategy of urban resilience should consider the effectiveness of overhauling ageing systems through IoT enabled sensors.

Integration of a new sensory repertoire into the urban framework will also increase the efficiency of cities in all sectors, from more efficient spatial planning protocols to minimise urban density and the heat island effect to the optimisation of street lighting technologies to minimise energy use, all the way to advanced monitoring of air and water pollution levels. Commonly known technological strategies to mitigate climate change listed further on in the proposal can only be maximised if used effectively alongside detection services.

For example, carbon capture and carbon sequestration methodology can only be analysed if they are paired with a network of IoT devices distributed around the city to track air quality levels. Instead of the results of carbon capture being monitored by one or two established tracking stations, by integrating smaller, more adaptable and compact sensors around the city will allow for air quality and pollution to be analysed in conjunction with urban and spatial planning. From collective city data that is measured by air quality sensors such as AQMesh in London, a deeper understanding of the complex mechanics of how the city works can be analysed in other areas such as transport and key distribution routes or areas which could benefit from tree planting and mass pedestrianisation. Effective IoT sensors are the central cortex of an effective and contemporary urban system and can be applied to adapt to any urban condition across the globe.

Making cities sensory and smart by design does not rely upon a radical overhaul. Effectively administered, IoT sensors can both make a city more resilient to shocks and pave the way towards reversing the causes of the climate crisis. Capital allocators should look at rethreading and re-stitching the urban fabric in a way that resilience is core part of its infrastructural DNA. This should be applied as a post-hoc addition to our existing urban zones as well as a core tenet of how we build our new future cities — a trickle-down and trickle-up strategy to urban and infrastructural planning.

Retrofit First

The dynamism offered by an adaptable network of IoT sensors provides a previously unattainable level of certainty for climate predictions, fostering a much more valuable investment environment. Paired with essential qualitative indexes like the City Resilience Index, data from IoT sensors give a quantitative metric showing how we are moving on the scale of resilience and climate change mitigation. Resilience and Mitigation work hand in hand, one facilitates improved practices for the other. The data collected can therefore be used for usable prediction models thus requiring us to compensate the urban fabric around them. Commonly understood technologies are an imperative part of how we rewrite our existing cities. EV transportation needs to be adopted across the board. More trees need to be planted. However what is more difficult is the strategy of retrofitting.

Cities account for over two thirds of the world’s energy consumption and over 70% of CO2 emissions. Over 90% of these cities also exist on the coastlines, therefore they are both the biggest contributors to and the biggest victims of climate change and its effects. Therefore whether in developed or developing nations, the fight against climate change is won or lost in the heart of the city that exists today. The response is top down, post-hoc amendment strategy.

“The greenest building is the one that already exists”

Carl Elefante, former President of the American Institute of Architects

The work of retrofitting existing buildings will be the key to improving the sustainable nature of our cities. Over 75% of New York and London emissions comes from buildings of all types and uses. A study by The Institute of Engineering Technology and Nottingham Trent University finds that for the United Kingdom alone, almost 26 million homes will have to undergo a deep retrofitting process in order to reach 2050 emission goals. So effective adaptation of our existing building fabric is essential — the key lies in the development of more and more efficient methodologies and materials that can assist the retrofitting process.

Retrofitting can be seen as mainly being involved in the development of better thermal insulation, re-developing the facade and windows to allow the building to breathe in different weather conditions and where possible, the maximisation of green roof surfaces, solar panels and reflective facades and sustainable drainage systems. As well as these material concerns, retrofitting is a problem of energy. We need to develop and implement, on a much wider scale, low carbon sources of heating such as ground source heat pumps. Another key element is the wide scale implementation of green roof technology. Green roofs enable much better stormwater management and mitigate the urban heat island effect, regulating temperature variability. The notion of retrofitting all buildings is a key part of urban resilience — we need to make homes and workplaces more adaptable to the volatility of future weather conditions, aiming to reduce overheating risks, flood protection and structural durability.

VI: Looking Outwards: The Sublime 98%

The urbanist languages we have proposed, a confluence of advanced IoT sensors, futuristic material technologies mixed with an interwoven complexity of a cloud data processing platform, works well for the dense and densifying urban patchworks that drive humanity. But what about the rest? What about the emptiness?

It was during a visit to the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center that eminent architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas of OMA had an epiphany about the future of our world. In a paradoxical sensibility of both spatial coherence yet emotional detachment, large warehouses and fulfilment centres were placed in a sterile patchwork against the rolling beauty of the Nevada hillscape. These housed mines of a new kind, not for coal or gold, but mines dedicated to the blockchain, building batteries for EV technology and investigating the future of Mars habitation.

TRIC was situated in the largest industrial park in the world (one that would become the infrastructural home of Big Tech as well as Tesla’s Gigafactory), Koolhaas noted the sublime banality and hypnotic boredom of the emptiness and process driven architecture that he saw before him. As a critic of modernity, he saw the untapped value and great potential in what he called “the countryside”.

The 98% of the Earth’s surface that is not occupied by cities is, in Koolhaas’ eyes, where the truly radical changes are taking place. Instead of the urgent necessity of retrofitting and amending our cities, the 98% offers a blank slate at how we can sample ideas with a level of authenticity, intent and purpose. Koolhaas saw the ‘countryside’ as the canvas upon which anything that was too complex or large or unsafe to blend with urban life would take place. The 98% is where the future of the world resides — whilst we all concentrated on cities, the next revolution was being created in the hinterlands.

A Problem of the Physical World

Climate change is a problem of the physical world. It depends upon the core material and atomic constituents that make up our society, that create the materials we recreate with, that are the atoms with which we can texture the world. Whilst it is evident how sensory technologies, emerging software advancements and streamlined cloud platforms can facilitate our society to work easier, the end goal always comes down to the physicality of matter.

On a macro-infrastructural scale when we talk about adaptability and inherent resilience, we are usually concerned with wide, metropolitan level systems not about atomic or material adaptability.

Material scarcity is an accelerating problem when it comes to climate change. An analysis by the National Intelligence Council shows that the growing global population’s demand for food will have increased by approximately 35% by 2030, having a residual yet substantial impact on supply chains, distribution networks, energy and water usage, storage and longevity analysis. These problems will disproportionately affect underdeveloped and developing areas of the world where the exogenous shocks of the climate crisis will affect agricultural production — estimates are that agricultural productivity could decrease by up to one third across parts of Africa by 2080. Therefore the problem of resource scarcity can be seen as a relationship between two issues: biological resilience and an evolved manufacturing autonomy.

The Third Digital Revolution can be seen as our movement into a global condition where the ability for almost all people, given the chance, to make anything and almost everything. Transitioning into a post-scarcity economy means rewriting the manufacturing rules of our society. The work of Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms focuses on the links between the rise in computing power in relation to our understanding about a changing manufacturing landscape. He asserts that just like Moore’s Law, which saw an exponential increase in computing capability every year, the number of fabrication laboratories will similarly double every year. Tentatively named Lass’ Law after Gershenfeld’s colleague Dr. Sherry Lassiter, he posits that this exponential growth will empower a combination of urban and rural self-sufficiency, the ability to use locally sourced materials in an efficient manner instead of relying solely upon global distribution and transport networks and will accelerate the ability for entrepreneurial innovation in the remaining 98% of the world that, at the moment, does not have the infrastructural capability to achieve said autonomy.

This notion of self-sufficiency could be seen as the precursor to creating the fully functioning, complex and adaptive systems of the 2%. An effective holding company should consider the role of 3D printing technology and fabrication labs in developing nations as a necessary way for a more sustainable manufacturing relationship with the natural world to be facilitated.

The aim in 100 years is to build the core framework of an advanced manufacturing economy that will not depend upon excessive retrofitting as an urgent measure. In his book Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution, Gershenfeld makes the case for this new manufacturing economy as an essential psycho-social solution to the inevitable volatility of the climate crisis. In terms of social and urban resilience, this new manufacturing economy will allow for greater levels of decentralised and community led responses to exogenous shocks such as flooding or droughts. Urgent low cost modular and deployable housing for millions of displaced economic and climate refugees, the ability to rebuild damaged housing using 3D printed and recyclable materials, the creation of self-sustaining communities anchored by a new digital revolution may be the result of a new manufacturing framework for towns and cities yet to be created.

The main benefit of the advancement in areas such as Additive Manufacturing (AM), is that it will allow us to massively reduce our global carbon footprint of manufactured goods. The role of EV tech and solar panels as a common language is necessary in all situations, however reducing the core carbon cost of the electric car itself or solar panel itself will be where the gains are made. The role of AM will be the lynchpin for how all of our core manufacturing frameworks are redesigned — a study by Delft University of Technology predicts the AM has the potential to reduce global energy usage by almost 25%. One of the main reasons for this is that AM can create energy-efficient geometries that use a lot less material that conventional manufacturing, reducing total material waste as well as using alternative materials that have a much lower embodied energy than what would usually be used. As well as this, the AM process uses much less energy that traditional manufacturing. However, the greatest impact of the proliferation of additive manufacturing is that it will globally reduce the reliance on expansive and interconnected networks of global transportation, storage, city-level distribution and handling. Transportation requirements will be massively reduced, thus resulting in the reduced impact of our transportation and logistics infrastructure.

Additive manufacturing is not just restricted to the static — we can use the notion of resilience to be applied to the biologic and chemical infrastructure that is necessary for environmentally volatile areas of the world. Climate refugees are created through a confluence of volatile weather conditions and failed agriculture that leaves them both uncertain and unable to contest. The failure of maize growth due to excessive heat, droughts and forest fires lead to thousands of farmers to flee the mountains of Guatemala for the US. The same will happen across the developing world, accelerating the key urban infrastructural problems that have been mentioned previously. Therefore the role of biotechnology and 3D printing should be focused upon maximising inbuilt resilience to mitigate excessive biological and agricultural failures that will accelerate the problem of resource scarcity. These are essential tasks that are at the crossroads of material sciences, manufacturing and biotechnology.

This crossroad can also be seen as necessary to remediate the losses of climate change. Just like forests and crops, we can rebuild the essential infrastructures that make up the 2%. Whether its biological resilience and 3D printing to manufacture and distribute stronger crops, or its hollow glass microspheres to engage in solar geo-engineering and arctic restoration in the North Pole, the core ideology that an effective holding company should look towards is Resilience. Whether urban, sub-urban, in the hinterlands or the cities, inbuilt social and infrastructural resilience is the only way we can cyclically and iteratively imagine, build and rebuild our lost ecosystems over the next 100 years.

This piece was the second half of a seven page investment thesis entitled Social Capital: The Next 100 Years, submitted as part of an open call by Social Capital. The first part of the thesis can be found on my Medium profile.

Masters in Architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL.