Grain Silos at the Guinness Brewery against a blue sky. Credit and copyright Norton Associates.

+ We need to break down educational silos that separate biology, physics, chemistry, architecture and engineering.

Reflecting on the surprising, delightful breadth of the Sustainable to Evolvable series of blogs, I’m left pondering the opportunities, challenges and questions that it presents to me as an engineer.

In her introduction, Rachel Armstrong highlights the problem with the way we ‘imagine the world through machines’. When you’re trained in mathematics, everything’s about problem solving – and all problems have a single correct answer. But a creative process is usually the opposite, with infinite possibilities to choose from. We need to embrace both approaches.

Engineers will always need determinate, mathematical skills and knowledge (and the public want this certainty from us). Yet to make the most of the less certain opportunities thrown up by disruptive approaches such as synthetic biology, firms like Arup must make sure we can integrate our different areas of expertise and work creatively with people in these emerging fields.

I believe that our role is to take the sort of long-wavelength ideas we’ve seen in this series and work out how we can use them in projects or carry out applied research to make them feasible. We also have an opportunity to influence guidance and building regulation to ensure it embraces new nature-inspired approaches.

The fact is that the idea of using biomimicry in building design has been around for at least a decade and yet it’s made little impact on the ground. Without firms like ours leading the way, evolvable cities will remain unbuilt. And if this happens, we risk missing a tremendous opportunity.

The big attraction of evolvable cities designed along ecological principles would be their efficiency, because ecology is inherently generative. Natural processes leave behind stored energy and zero waste, whereas as humans we expend energy and generate waste.

An evolvable city would also provide the sort of long-life, loose-fit, adaptable buildings that we’re seeking to provide for the future. Nature’s ability to adapt and evolve means a city could change to meet the needs of its inhabitants, rather than remaining fixed for 50 years. It seems obvious that this would be more efficient in terms of resource consumption and waste production, and should therefore be cheaper.

So how can we make this a reality? There are clearly still issues to be thought through. For example, would a city designed along ecological lines have the same sort of negative feedback mechanisms we see in nature – mechanisms that would enable a city to regenerate itself if something went wrong? Or should we think more in terms of guiding nature, as Koert van Mensvoort suggested, allowing nature to do some of the hard work for us after we’ve carefully modelled the likely outcome?

This is where computer technology can help. I wouldn’t like readers to take away from the series the impression that natural processes are fundamentally opposite to computing or IT processes. The way IT is currently implemented may not take much inspiration from nature, but the potential of neural networks is widely recognised and computers could help us model new technologies in sophisticated virtual environments. After all, if you can model the whole of the world’s climate, then just imagine what else you could do.

We’ve also read in this series about what bacteria could do for our cities. I’d ask: what about nanotechnology? Where and how do biotech and nanotech meet? Could we manufacture micro-machines to carry out natural functions? As engineers we must maintain a broad view of the possibilities and how we could combine different technologies.

And then there is the challenge of working with the kind of small-scale, distributed collaborators Rachel envisages. How should a firm like Arup approach this? It seems to me that careful exploration best sums up the approach we need. With the consequences of failure being severe, risk management will remain a priority for engineers. But we can embrace approaches that enhance the design process.

For example, we’ve recently been looking at crowdsourcing design ideas for mass rebuilding in the event of a disaster like the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Maybe using Google SketchUp and a shared online environment with thousands of contributors could instantly reproduce the fine-grained interventions that usually only occur over time and make up the character of a city?

But successfully exploring the potential this series reveals, requires more fundamental change in education. We need to break down the educational silos that separate biology, physics, chemistry, architecture and engineering. We need institutions to fund education and research across these subjects so that more people can work and collaborate across these

And that research must remain in the public domain. I have a fundamentally anti-IP view; I believe people should be free to build on other people’s ideas for the general good. The only time that IP should be controlled or patented is at the time of significant capital investment in production. Up until then it should be open to everyone, otherwise how does the world progress?

Ultimately, then, the series has given me some fundamental food for thought about physics and biology – whether nature has fundamental ordering to it and how we might use that to shape a better world for ourselves.