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Bio-mimicry & the ‘Smart’ Indian City

Posted by
on February 09, 2016 at 12:22 AM

© Courtesy of Images courtesy: Ar. Prashant Dhawan - sourced from various authors/internet resources, Wikimedia Commons

So, India is in ‘development’ mode. With India rooting for ‘Smart’ Cities, (100 Smart Cities Mission) it is critical to analyse the impact of rampant modernization on the future. Instead of looking at short-term benefits, one must understand it holistically and with long-term vision. Across the world, architects and designers and urban planners are using concepts of bio-mimicry – from micro to macro levels, in designing furniture, buildings or entire cities! Whether Vincent Callebaut’s vision for Paris 2050; or Levent Ozler's Langfang Eco-Smart City Master Plan which is said to be a response to the Chicago smart-grid city; or the Nigerian proposal for Abuja City totally based on bio-mimicry – the effort towards green, sustainable and eco-sensitive design is surely picking pace!  

This essay by Prashant Dhawan – an architect committed to bio-mimicry in architecture and urban design – highlights the fact that a Smart City risks being disconnected from local ecology and identity if the development is not rooted in the resources and realities of the bioregion. It proposes that a new urban rejuvenation program needs the ‘genius of the place’ to be the central anchor, holding it together and ensuring its balance, integrity and identity. 

Read on! We welcome you to post your Comments below the Article!

The ‘100 Smart Cities Mission’ has been launched in India. On one hand India has the benefit of hindsight (from others experience), and on the other hand the problems of environmental degradation, chaotic growth, inequity and poverty confront most Indian cities. It is imperative to ensure that a smart city, truly enhances liveability and is not just another city with a few technological ‘bells and whistles’ thrown in. Like an orchestra without a competent ‘conductor’ a smart city could end up as a cacophony of individually brilliant parts, that might not add up to a coherent whole, with each part trying to be the ‘best’ in reference to external global reference points. 

What is Smart? ‘Smart’ is an adjective traditionally used for living things; it’s an attribute found in forms of life and never in the non-living things!  It is when our cities or products mimic attributes of life, that we call them ‘smart’. A ‘smart city’ is our aspiration to endow a city with attributes of ‘life’. So to understand how to be ‘smart’, clearly we need to look towards and learn from life/nature.

Cities are complex adaptive systems comprising of diverse, interdependent and interconnected life forms and functions, very similar to a forest eco-system. However, while cities are a relatively recent phenomenon, forests have successfully survived and been around for millions of years having faced the same environmental challenges that a city in the same bioregion would face. The forest eco-system comprises of a huge diversity of life forms wonderfully integrated through interconnected and interdependent networks yet highly decentralised and autonomous with each life form having its own processes and adaptation. These networks are in a state of constant change (with continuous exchange of nutrients and/or information - in ‘flow’ rather than static) and the changes of one part affects and informs change in other part (co-evolves). Forest eco-systems are place-based and run on local resources (intrinsic to the region) that cannot be easily taken away and hence are truly self-sustaining. Networks, flows and co-evolutionary interdependence, are some of the key features of the resilient and sustainable forest eco-system. 

The word ‘smart’ translates to ‘Buddhiman’/’Buddhiyukt’ in Hindi. Hence an essential precondition of being smart (or buddhiyukt) is to possess ‘buddhi’. ‘Buddhi’ is the faculty that makes wisdom possible through a holistic understanding of the "creative principle which lies realized in the whole world*”. In context of a city, ‘buddhi’ would mean the integrated understanding of how the local ecosystem functions, the various systems put in place by nature, our ancestors and the successful adaptation strategies of life in this bioregion. Biomimicry defines this knowledge of life support systems and strategies put in place by nature, in the bioregion as ‘genius of place’.

Ancient Indian philosophy also states ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, meaning that ‘the world is one family’. It implies that all life is connected and the biosphere is a seamless, interdependent and interconnected system, which has no fixed boundaries or silos. Hence what is a city? A city merely occupies an area defined by administrative control, of an otherwise continuous and undivided biosphere. This implies that the city boundaries need to be viewed more from the purpose of ‘joining’ with the larger network, rather than just separation. Hence to possess ‘buddhi’ (i.e. to be ‘smart’, in context of a city) requires the centrality of the knowledge of the ‘genius of place’ and our thinking requires a ‘shift’ from mechanistic and reductionist to integrated thinking (ecologically inspired - system wide, system thinking). 

Clearly, new frameworks which make visible the centrality of ‘genius of place’ and the system of networks, flows and co-evolutionary interdependence among the various functions and parts of the city are required. I propose an alternate ‘visualisation framework’, inspired by the ancient Indian ‘mandala’ form as a step towards shifting of our visualisation of city functions from a mechanistic to a living systems view:

In this smart framework the centrality is of the ‘genius of place’. The framework helps remind us that all elements are anchored to the ‘genius of place’ and connected through networks, flows and co-evolutionary interdependence. This integrated thinking framework, I believe, should help in assisting visualisation that will better ensure the balance and integrity of the system. The 3 key shifts from ‘mechanistic thinking’ to nature inspired ‘ecological thinking’ can be summarised at the three proposed ‘smart mantras'

Network ‘ism’ -   all functions and constituents are interconnected and form part of network/s

Flows ‘ism’ - there is constant flow and exchange across all functions and constituents in the system. Nothing is static.

Co-evolution ‘ism’ - all functions and constituents are interdependent, and change at one part/place affects and informs adaptation and evolution in other parts/place.

In this smart framework the centrality is of the genius of the place’. To arrive at smart solutions we need to get out of the mechanistic and reductionist imagination trap, metaphor trap, and process trap of the industrial city. We need to shift from seeing cities as ‘economic arrangements’ to cities as 'part of a continuous, interconnected, complex adaptive ecosystem’. It’s important to begin by understanding the ‘genius of place’ i.e. true and complete working of the place and decrease to the minimum, the degree of incompleteness of our knowledge. That is smart.

Since most decision makers including most planners, architects and engineers are cut off from ecological history, they often get caught up in what is available today and within the site. Hence it is absolutely critical and non-negotiable to have the ‘genius loci’ report available at the pre design stage to serve as the foundation for all decisions.  This report should be prepared by the Government (with the help of or through appropriate experts) and should be an essential part of the RfP document or given to the design consultants at the time of award of work. 

It is absolutely critical to understand the ‘genius of place’ – the deep knowledge of the eco-system, the terrain on which smart cities will be developed and ensure that our systems are designed in alignment with the intrinsic systems already in place. Any system which is not aligned and is imposed will not be sustainable or will break down or regularly require external investment or constantly require the modification/reshaping of place or user behaviour. The recent floods in Chennai and Mumbai, the pollution of most of our lakes and rivers (including the holy Ganga) are amongst the numerous problems which are consequences and symptoms of development that is misaligned with the ‘genius of place’ of the bioregion. That is not smart! 

 In this context, we may pay heed to Mahatma Gandhi’s words of caution: “Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.” When we look at the popular media, most of the current ideas/views on smart cities appear to be about 'smart technology’ or ‘smart economy'. Technology and economy are mere tools used to achieve the purpose of creating a smart city. Thus, a 'Smart City planning should ensure that city development is in alignment with the ecology of the bioregion, such that all life thrives! Hence it is very important to ensure and establish that technology and economy are tools or servants to the purpose and not the other way round! 

A nature-inspired purpose statement for Smart City development may thus read like this: “A Smart city is one that provides a healthy, nourishing, harmonious, self-maintaining (adaptive and evolving) environment where all life thrives and citizens enjoy sustainable happiness, while enabling each to pursue a way of life and work  of choice.”


Photo Captions:

Smart City Planning with Bio-mimicry: 1. Vision of Paris 2050; 2. Langfang Eco-Smart City; 3. Abuja City, Nigeria + Examples of Bio-mimicry in Architecture featured on TFOD: 4.  Jurgen Mayer H's award-winning design of Metropol Parasol in Spain; 5. Javier Senosiain's Nautilus Home; 6. The Blue Panet - Aquarium by 3xn in Copenhagen 


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