New Frontiers

At the recent and very good (and yet to be blogged…) “Green Monday” event, MCFly finally met Melissa Sterry, of the New Frontiers project (there’d been exchanges of emails only to that time.)

She kindly agreed to answer some questions (see below). After we have done gone and quaffed some of the free wine at the next NF event, we’ll ask her some curlier ones…

a) Could you explain what the “New Frontiers” programme is – who is it for, what does it hope to achieve?

Designers, architects, engineers and scientists worldwide have the very difficult task of re:writing the design rule-book to accommodate the myriad of environmental challenges humanity is facing – a task that is widely underestimated, woefully under- resourced and often misunderstood. On the whole practitioners in design and the built environment are struggling with sustainability and one of the primary reasons is the fact much of the most credible and useful information is scattered and at times very difficult to access; the dots aren’t joined up. Additionally many sustainability events, journals and books skim the surface of the issue, often regurgitating old information and that which we know already. NEW FRONTIERS was created to bring together the best minds and the best organizations to hub the best data, ideas and facilities we’ve got and do so in real time – first we’re doing that nationally, thereon globally. Its aim is to help fast-track the pace of innovation in sustainable design, primarily within the built environment as that’s where our greatest challenges lie. We’re working with several of Britain’s leading universities, professional institutes, NGOs, government agencies and PLCs to create a world-class series of seminars, scholarships, pilots, exhibits, a digital platform and a prestigious biennial prize. We aim to make each of these elements as accessible as possible to the widest possible audience possible, which is why we’re bringing together a number of partners to develop an online platform that will hub together content from across all our partners, panel members and events (i.e. our seminars), which we hope will go live in early 2011.

b) Can you say a little about ‘living architecture’ and ‘bio- mimicry’ and why MCFly’s readers should know more about it.

Society has a tendency to get stuck in ruts and we’re in one right now. One of our NEW FRONTIERS panelists and TED fellow Dr Rachel Armstrong sums the situation up when she says that the building methods we’re using today are ‘Victorian’. Many assumptions are inbuilt into our building and planning methods, such as the fact that we should use certain materials, such as concrete, in certain forms, such as boxes. Likewise many vehicle manufacturers assume the best shape for a car is a box on four wheels. Its assumptions like these that are holding us back. Over the past couple of decades a small, but growing school of thought has been challenging such design assumptions, exploring concepts that look to natural systems and technologies for more efficient solutions. Living Architecture and Biomimicry (also known as biomimetics and bionics amongst other terms) are two of the design systems to emerge from the new school of thought (though its worth pointing out their origins are as ancient as civilization). Living Architecture does what it says on the tin; it involves using living organisms to create structures, for example creating a bridge from the roots of trees. Biomimicry describes the science of transferring knowledge from nature to design, be that the design of a material, a structure or a system.
Mother Nature’s R&D lab is more than 3.8 billion years old and a treasure trove of design solutions, the potential of which the majority of designers, architects, engineers and scientists are only just starting to gage.

c) Say these things, and other innovations were taken on board rapidly. How soon would Manchester see real changes? What would these look like? What sort of carbon mitigation impact might they have?

Living Architecture and Biomimicry should start to make an impact on Manchester within five years, the most obvious examples being the emergence of vertical gardens and living walls (both forms of Living Architecture). Within five to ten years it’s likely that new buildings will, as a rule, exhibit some degree of influence from Biomimicry, such as ventilation systems that keep a building cool without the need for air conditioning (i.e. systems inspired by termite mounds). However, it will most likely take a number of decades before a city such as Manchester, that has a great deal of historic buildings and infrastructure, will really start to see the impacts of these and other nature-inspired design systems. Where we will see rapid city-scale impacts is in China, where several new cities are planned, each integrated some of the latest thinking in sustainable innovation. What sort of carbon mitigation impact may these technologies have? It’s absolutely possible that we could create city infrastructure that is genuinely carbon neutral (i.e. involves no off-setting because the structures are made from locally produced materials that didn’t need to be transported vast distances and that have the ability to capture and store carbon). However we need to think beyond carbon; we need to think methane and the several other greenhouse gases; we need to think biodiversity; we need to think natural resource depletion; we need to think water, or more to the point water shortages as we wont have enough to go round by the year 2020 at this rate. We need to think big and we need to think deeper, because we have hit eight of the nine biosphere thresholds critical to our survival, not just one.

d) In your opinion, what are the ‘low hanging fruit’ for rapid action on technological innovation for Greater Manchester?

Often procurement practices are cumbersome, slow and lock out new companies and therein new innovations from tenders. This needs to change. Manchester’s businesses and agencies can boost the pace of innovation by making sure they search out the very best suppliers for the job, which doesn’t always mean the firm they used for the past umpteen years, nor the firm that’s run by their CEO’s best mate, nor the biggest firm, nor the one that employs the most people, nor the one with the biggest turnover. If your organization supports innovation put your money where your mouth is and ensure your procurement process supports innovation, whether you are buying stationery or commissioning a new building. Furthermore listen to innovative suppliers – all too often an innovative firm, for example an architectural practice, will come up a with a brilliant new sustainable solution, only to find the client has other ideas and isn’t interested in their advice and ideas. If you want to house your business in an office or factory that is waste inefficient, that has an unnecessarily high heating, lighting and water bill and that will look out-dated in 5 years time – ignore your architectural firm. If you want a smart building that won’t just help save the planet, but will help you save a lot of money in the long run, listen to you architects, having of course prioritized sustainability in the tender process and checked the firm’s eco credentials before you hired them.

e) Anything else you’d care to say?

The odds are firmly stacked up against us, to quote the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government Professor John Beddington the “Perfect Storm” is fast approaching. Now is not the time to be arguing about whether or not the storm is coming and if so whether or not it will blow itself out. A freak wave is heading our way and the Good Ship Humanity is starboard facing. There isn’t time to debate who’s going to take the wheel of the ship, all that matters is that the bow is facing the wave when it hits. We need all hands on deck, even if there’s an argument over who the captain is. We’ve got a lot working against us, including amongst other things a lack of political leadership and the biggest economic downturn in modern history. The only way we’re going to stand any chance of coping with the challenges ahead is through collaboration; if we pull together, be it with fellow members of our immediate community or with our peers around the world, we may be able to make it through the storm.

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Below the surface...
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