Rachel Armstrong is Co-Director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture & Synthetic Biology at The School of Architecture & Construction, University of Greenwich, London. Senior TED Fellow, and Visiting Research Assistant at the Centre for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark. Rachel is a sustainability innovator who investigates a new approach to building materials called ‘living architecture,’ that suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. She collaboratively works across disciplines to build and develop prototypes that embody her approach.
Rachel was a member of the RESCUE "Collaboration between the natural, social and human sciences in global change research" Working Group, an interdisciplinary body of European experts making recommendations to the EU for strategic investment for interdisciplinary/scientific research of climate change. She was also part of the TARPOL report Targeting environmental pollution with engineered microbial systems á la carte, for the European Commission which will be published by Wiley this year. In 2011 Rachel was named as one of the top ten UK innovators by Director Magazine, featured in the top ten 'big ideas, 10 original thinkers' for BBC Focus Magazine and selected as one of BMW/Wired’s Change Accelerators. She has also just released a TED Book on Living Architecture, which is available on Kindle, Nook and iBook.
Combined Advanced Technologies and Flexible Urban Infrastructures
We do not have to accept that human development will inevitably cause negative environmental impact. At the heart of the solution is human interaction and individual responsibility but although these might be culturally desirable and build great communities, they do not automatically build new businesses. Governments and industry are looking for new technological solutions to precipitate positive ecological changes that are underpinned by new kinds of commercial practice. New technological developments and a new practice of science are bringing new kinds of creativity and a more holistic approach to real-world problem-solving. A 2001 NSF (National Science Foundation) sponsored report has been particularly influential in precipitating a new kind of scientific approach suggesting unification of the sciences as a common goal through converging NBIC (Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno) technologies [Roco & Bainbridge, 2003].
The knowledge transfer resulting from the cross-pollination of these and technologies will greatly benefit humanity and industry. With the appropriate infrastructures supporting them, the initiatives to apply combined technologies can form qualitatively new kinds of engagement between buildings and the megacity environment. An exploratory project between Astudio architects and AVATAR examines the potential for upgrading the environmental performance of entire buildings in situ. The structural bones of buildings are kept in place and pruned as fit for purpose frameworks, without having to displace existing inhabitants, which are then re-wrapped with living facades. These are the next generation of functional vertical gardens that are colonized by microorganisms and life-like chemistries that assist with the lifecycles of buildings being able to process waste and make biofuels using local resources. These are housed in Big Bio Bricks, examples of microfluidics that support populations of microorganisms designed to perform useful ‘work’ in the built environment such as, carbon capture, bioluminescence, the production of food or energy substrates. Architecture does not need to be limited by inert surfaces, which create a barrier between people and the environment but could directly engage the surroundings through active interfaces, which act as vast synthetic soils. These might be maintained under surveillance by smart microfluidics monitoring systems and robotic gardeners. The grand vision of achieving positive human development in the 21st century will require effective coordination between disciplines, institutions, cultures, and geographical regions. The pressing concerns that affect us all are many and varied—and would require humanity to perform at its very best to secure a long-term partnership with this unstable earth that is our home.
1. Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge (2003). Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance NANOTECHNOLOGY, BIOTECHNOLOGY, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCE, NSF/DOC-sponsored report, Kluwer Academic Publishers (currently Springer), Dordrecht, The Netherlands. See ISBN 1-4020-1254-3 for archival print version.