In This Issue
Urbanization & Engineering
December 1, 1999 Volume 29 Issue 4

Wild Ideas in Future Cities

Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Author: Joseph F. Coates

There is endless potential for science, technology, and engineering to enhance the quality of life for city dwellers, but there can be no progress without an agenda.

The potential for science and engineering to enhance, alter, or radically change cities is real, but contingent upon social, political, and economic developments, and dependent upon the region of the world under consideration.

This paper presents a series of potential developments in the city, nominally in the next quarter century. All of these developments are scientifically plausible and potentially economically viable, and would bring great benefits to city dwellers, whether individual citizens, businesses, manufacturers, or government. While some of these concepts may seem wild, none should seem bizarre to the reader.

The first concept in the series is the notion of energy conservation as a design driver. Should greenhouse warming prove to be real and significant, the early stages of response will involve massive attempts to conserve energy, particularly in the use of petroleum and other fossil fuels. The consequences of this will show up strikingly in new housing. There already are numerous examples of housing, in all of the styles that Americans typically enjoy, capable of operating with today’s scale of amenities and comfort while using only 10 to 30 percent of current energy consumption.

The move to wide-scale energy conservation will depend upon big changes in the invisible aspects of home design -- better insulation and control of leakage of air in and out. New development will eventually move into aesthetically more radical designs from the ones that we are so familiar and comfortable with. Derivative of changes in new houses will be the need to retrofit the mass of housing that already exists. Businesses, particularly office buildings and commercial structures, will undergo a similar radical transformation.

The notion that these changes will involve great cost is misleading. One of the mainstays of a successful economy in the United States, as measured by traditional standards, is the housing sector. Innovations in that sector in the initial building and retrofit markets imply tremendous positive implications for gross national product, with, in many cases, extended payback from the long-term environmental and financial savings.

Rising Water

Another anticipated consequence of greenhouse warming will be more extreme weather, accompanied by a smearing of the seasons into each other. Because of warming, oceans may rise and, perhaps toward mid-century, cause the melting of the Antarctic ice cap and much greater ocean rise. Initially the rise will be in centimeters, and later in meters when Antarctica begins to melt down.

The consequences of ocean rise will lie in several dimensions. Will, for example, the city of New Orleans be the subject of the world’s largest and most expensive revetment to hold back the flood? Will it become the twenty-first century Venice of the New World? Considering that public policy is all too often incremental, the response to the rising Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi could lead to something like that. A better long-term strategic and economically more practical approach would be a plan to move New Orleans to high ground, perhaps moving it 200 or 300 miles from its present location. Similar changes will occur on the Gulf and along the East Coast. The need to have a long-term strategy for massive relocation, rather than incremental responses, will be extremely important. The undertaking of reconstructing cities and commercial centers on high ground is a truly exciting social and civil engineering prospect.

Domed cities -- a favorite of science fiction -- may appear on the landscape as construction techniques adapt to changing weather patterns. In principle, there is no reason why cities cannot be domed, but there are the practicalities of scale. It may be more practical to dome a city of 100,000 than one of 10 million, although the per-capita value of doing it with a city of 10 million might be greater. The domed city concept will get more attention as we have growing experience in the cold zones of the United States with the development, particularly in downtown areas, of enclosed passageways that link one building to another so that one can literally move as much as a mile from building to building without ever stepping outside. The logical extension of that would be to externally encapsulate those buildings and open the street level as well as the elevated enclosures to more weather-controlled living. Undoubtedly, domed cities will be more energy-conserving, make more effective use of infrastructure, and be capable of preserving the city from extreme weather.

Subsurface living also has a great deal of appeal from a technical point of view. Earth is outstanding insulation. It makes building construction easier, and it makes more effective use of land. We already have extensive experience with it in apartment houses and office buildings, and a great deal in industrial manufacturing and storage. The problem with subsurface dwellings is that the right amount of architectural and engineering design sense has not yet been applied to semi-subsurface structures in which some portions are below ground and others are not, or to questions of alternative ways of providing natural or artificial sunlight, or listening to the patter of rain, or witnessing a snowfall.

One important element of subsurface structures, particularly housing, will be central lighting. Today’s lighting systems are grossly inefficient. Central systems using light pipes to carry light to all portions of the house should be a tremendous energy-conserving feature. A 3,000-watt central system able to light a whole house efficiently would create new design opportunities. In many parts of the country, central lighting could be handled by a solar collector backed up for night and cloudy days by a high-wattage lamp.

Anticipating again that greenhouse warming will prove to be real and significant, the energy policy for the city, beyond massive energy conservation, is likely to see a felicitous marriage between photovoltaics and nuclear energy. The cost of photovoltaics is steadily falling as the materials technology improves, as the system costs go down with the effects of scale, and as we learn to determine the best places to put photovoltaics for distributed or central generators. The acute passion against nuclear power by a fraction of the population is likely to fade, as an older generation still mired in the fears of the dreadful consequences of World War II passes, and a younger generation less committed to their prejudices and fears thinks more cogently about energy alternatives. Other energy sources -- geothermal, wind, and so on -- will come along, but as it stands today, the two most attractive candidates as alternatives to fossil fuels are photovoltaics and nuclear. Wind is a solid third contender in many parts of the country.

In conjunction with new energy sources, much of the world is in need of basic improvements in housing. If one looks at the housing of the lowest-income 20 percent of the world’s population outside the United States, it is radically alien to the design conditions familiar in the United States and other advanced nations. Typically, for a would-be homeowner with a family of four, one might have a total capital investment of $1,200, plus endless buckets of sweat equity, going into building a residence. Under those conditions, the West has little to offer, since effective housing for that bottom 20 or 25 percent is not Scarsdale with things left out. The housing has to be culturally appropriate, culturally responsive, and within the economic framework of the money and labor available. We see, however, that there is a potentially basic contribution for the West to make. Suppose one could count on a quarter of that housing budget -- $300 -- what high-tech package could be put together to significantly enhance the quality of that housing for poor people? Would it involve a solar cell? Some reinforcing fibers for wall construction? Some devices for sanitizing water? Some technologies for reuse of human waste? It is unclear, but it would be worth exploring to see how the West could deal with that bottom of the heap and enhance the lives of 1 to 2 billion people over the next quarter century. Improvements in housing and sanitation would be a good place to start.

Indeed, the single largest public health problem in the world is microorganisms infecting people from their water or in their food. The cycle may be waste from other people or from animals, but the problem is the same. Western strategies of expensive fresh water and sewage systems cannot apply around the world. We need alternative approaches to bring engineering savvy to break the deadly cycle. In China and other countries night soil (human excrement used in fertilizer) is a positive ingredient in rural agriculture. Is it practical for night soil to become a positive feature in an urban environment, converted into garden feed or into some other appropriate use? The problem is there, the opportunity is enormous, but the path ahead is unclear.

Earthquake Prevention

We also have great opportunity in mitigating earthquake disasters. San Francisco Two without question will occur. The planning issue is whether we prevent San Francisco Three. The evidence is that we should be able to. A quake of the 8 to 8.3 range is likely to be catastrophic. To prevent that from occurring, the obvious solution is to convert an earthquake Richter 8 to an endless number of Richter 3 or 4 earthquakes. Can we induce those kinds of quakes? We have.

When Hoover Dam was first filled to create Lake Mead, it initiated quakes in dormant strata because of the tremendous hydrostatic pressure that lubricated faults. More recently, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which was the center for the manufacturing of nerve gas, attempted to cheaply get rid of toxic waste by deep-well injection. Quakes occurred after each injection. When plotted, the amount of injected liquid, in comparison to the quake frequency and intensity, provided marvelously parallel charts.

The concept for San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other quake areas would be to set up injection systems which continually induce low-level quakes that are marginally detectable by people and thereby continually release the stresses that normally build up to "the big one."

Dynamic Structures

In parallel, building technology will continue to improve. Throughout all of history, structures have depended on two fundamental principals, tension and compression -- the one best exemplified by the Gothic cathedral, the other by the suspension bridge. Those are the ubiquitous principals in design, with a few minor exceptions, such as pneumatic buildings. We are, however, on the brink of a paradigmatic shift to dynamic buildings -- structures that will respond to their environment in real time. Dynamic structures could be made of relatively low-density, high-strength structural members based on new composites, with steel cables placed over buildings and down to the ground, attached to motors controlled by a central processor. Sensors located around and throughout structures would identify earth shakes, wind pressure, and so on, enabling buildings to respond in real time by slackening and tensing the steel tendons that hold their skeletons together.

The advantages of dynamic structures will be flexibility in design and the ability to add or remove floors. Such structures may, for the first time, give us truly temporary buildings. Today, temporary buildings are ordinary buildings with amenities left out. Other advantages of dynamic structures may be lower cost and the reuse of structural elements.

Some of the most exciting things connected with the future of the city will be literally or figuratively invisible, and most significant among those will be simulation. Nothing from the new wine-bottle opener to the new housing development, skyscraper, or cruise ship will be built until it has been designed, planned, evaluated, and modified in cyberspace. Simulation technology will become routine, and will enable more and more would-be users to participate in testing and evaluating the design of structures.

Of course, simulation is only one small example of the anticipated advances in technology. The plummeting cost of telecommunications, coupled with the rapid expansion in the capabilities of computers and their shrinkage in size, will make it increasingly attractive to have every device, system, artifact, and component of our world made "smart." Smartness includes a system’s capability to evaluate its own internal performance and the external function it provides, and if there is something wrong, to either initiate repair or call for help.

Smartness could radically alter physical infrastructure. Consider, for example, sewers. Here in Washington, the overflow of a sewer during a recent storm effectively polluted the whole Washington waterfront on the Potomac, making it unsafe for traditional uses. Throughout the Midwest we have had millions of tons of pure, fresh water dropped on the countryside and made almost instantly undrinkable because sewers overflow. I am not quite sure what a smart sewer would be like, but I am dissatisfied with the dumb ones. There seems to be, in principle, no reason why a smart sewer system could not respond to its own flow, moving and diverting the sewage into different places at different times. More importantly, it could respond to external changes and, if necessary, absolutely shut down, become watertight, and save the community from the health disaster of swimming in sewage.

Smartness will also enable our homes to become smarter, safer, more secure, more effective in identifying risks and other inputs, and more adept at responding to them, as exemplified by the automated kitchen. If you think about it, there are a number of low-intelligence "smart" devices in the kitchen -- a dishwasher, a stove, a microwave oven, maybe even elements of the refrigerator -- but they are all isolated from each other. When we link them together, we should be able to move from the present use of the kitchen to a situation in which a person will make a 15-second transit through the kitchen, talk to the appliances, express what is wanted for dinner and who will be there, and 20 minutes later have a four-course meal tailored to each person’s preferences. The reason we do not have this now is that the two main sectors developing technology for the kitchen -- the food sector and the appliance sector -- have for decades ignored each other and are only now beginning to engage in any discussion about automation and integration. One can anticipate that food packages will come with their own chip that will talk to the equipment and tell it what it is and how it is to be prepared, and the equipment will know how to tailor the food to the residents of the house. Incidentally, the cleanup after the meal will run about six or seven minutes.

Robots running around the house along the model of R2D2 are unlikely, but automation will be a dominant feature throughout the house. For example, one might come home and announce to the chair, "Chair, this is Jane," and the chair will automatically whip itself to the configuration that it knows is most comfortable for Jane.

In industry, the robot was designed as an indoor labor-saving device in factories. Military and space research has led to mobile weatherproof robots, often with onboard intelligence, or the capability of being remotely manipulated. As those concepts move into the civil sector, we can anticipate much of the heavy work of building construction and maintenance being taken over and done more reliably by robots. Site preparation, construction, demolition, waste removal, and the repair, replacement, and maintenance of old roads, streets, and highways are likely to become routine robotic activities.

Robots will begin to play an increasing role in safety and security, in the removal of people from dangerous situations, and in the recovery of people in accidents. Robots might even find a place in the quick, danger-free removal of vehicles from congested streets when they are in violation of the law, as during rush hour. Robots will later move on to perform more prosaic functions for individual homeowners and businesses, such as reworking a lawn, repainting a building, or tackling other heavy-duty physical tasks.

Automation will also affect how we drive. The typical American automobile driver will spend one day a year waiting to make left-hand turns. Why? The traffic lights are either dumb, or they are arbitrarily set for one or two rush hours during the day. They are completely ignorant of the actual pattern of the traffic that they are managing.

It is fully within the scope of present capabilities to make each intersection smart, to identify the traffic at the intersection, run this all through a central processor covering areas of square miles or more, and change the stop light patterns to optimize traffic flow. One might consider this as an enormous improvement in traffic management, but that would be bringing an obsolescent concept to a revolutionary potential. One would not use the capability to just reset more sophisticated, arbitrary, and rigid patterns for traffic lights. One could convert the handling of traffic into a continuous open-ended experiment. That would be a radical enhancement in the handling of infrastructure. However, that concept should be broadened so that virtually any network or complex system in the urban scene could be converted into an open-ended, continuous, real-time experiment. Work done in the Star Wars program is already being considered for this kind of application.

Smart Cars

The current interest in intelligent transportation systems, formerly called intelligent vehicle highway systems, is moving to the stage of practicality. Geopositioning information is now routine in high-end vehicles, and it is reported to be useful and effective by many people. Off-the-road, to-the-road, to-the-vehicle, or to-the-driver communication will surely grow. There is the increasing likelihood of direct communication from vehicle to vehicle, as short-range radar informs the trailing car that the one ahead is slowing down, enabling the vehicle itself to safely reduce its own speed, responding faster than its human driver can. The car can operate by itself. Presumably, that will first occur on a practical scale on long stretches of road, and later move into increasingly congested areas of rural, suburban, and urban density.

The ultimate extension of this concept is to picture the automobile as a robot that in no way requires a human to be present. For example, imagine a homeowner talking to the car. "Mary, it is getting close to the end of the school day. Please go pick up Harriet and George at 3:05. Do not let anyone else into the car. On the way home stop at Safeway and tell Harriet to pick up two loaves of bread and a dozen eggs. Again, let no one else into the car. I look forward to you all being back here by 3:50. Should anything go wrong, I will be here. Mr. Smith is at his office this afternoon." The car will go to do all its functions without a human operator. The auto industry seems not to have thought that far ahead, or has a bit of understandable timidity about suggesting that cars eventually become autonomous vehicles.

The City -- the Center of Civilization

Throughout all of history, the city has been, and remains, the center of civilization. "Rural civilization" is a contradiction, and "suburban civilization" is an oxymoron. The keynotes of civilization in the city are museums, zoos, libraries, theaters, and other public centers of culture. Technology will radically alter all of them.

Museums will go high tech. As one sees an exhibit one will be able to press a button and get a level of detail appropriate for one’s age and one’s knowledge, in contrast to the museum today that pitches everything to the level of a bright 10-year-old. If you are interested in Picasso’s Blue Period, the museum will be able to call up on a beautiful screen a dozen other works from his Blue Period and give you whatever you want in detail about the history, the technical base, the aesthetic responses, critics’ comments over the years, and so on. Museums and art galleries will be turned inside out. Going into them will be a basic experience with the option of the infusion of knowledge in limitless amounts from the rest of the world.

Libraries, similarly, will continue with their repository function, but become the mechanism for electronic dissemination of information to clients anywhere. An emerging central problem for libraries in the age of information technology, more so than for museums, is funding. It is hard to believe that we will all want to work only from a national center, like the Library of Congress. There will be a place for libraries in the future, not only for traditional books, but audio books, video books, and books done in unprecedented media formats yet to be developed.

Zoos will continue to draw people, but developments in genetics will make the zoos of the future truly unusual. Within the next quarter century the woolly mammoth or mastodon will walk the earth again, the passenger pigeon will fly, and the dodo will waddle. Every museum is a repository of animals waiting to be resurrected through genetic technology. It is a conceptual hop, skip, and a jump from Dolly to the mastodon. That is not to demean or diminish the technical scientific steps along the way, but one can see the clear path. Mammoth flesh is found in large quantities in the Arctic. Pull viable DNA out of that flesh and insert it into a volunteered elephant’s egg. Re-implant the egg and after 18 to 22 months have a mammoth walking the earth. Any extinct animal, where flesh, feather, or perhaps even bone is available, will be a candidate for resurrection. We will also see the creation of interesting transgenic animals, and these will incidentally create issues in law and environmental management about whether they are indigenous species or not, and how we handle them.


Endless numbers of other things lie in the domain of science, technology, and engineering to enhance the quality of life for people living everywhere in cities, but where is the agenda? Without an agenda there can be no advocates, without advocacy, no funding, and without funding, there can be no progress.

If you of the Academy do not structure the agenda, who can, or will? I recommend that the NAE undertake a self-funded project to define a 25-, 50-, and 100-year agenda of specific engineering projects and developments for the United States and the world at large.

About the Author:Joseph F. Coates is president of Coates & Jarratt, Inc., a futurist firm. This article is adapted from his talk given 5 October at the NAE Annual Meeting Technical Symposium.