Cities are powerful engines of economic growth, however future cities have to face the challenges of mass urbanization, aging populations and the climate crisis and all three are accelerating. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and it is estimated 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. A stunning 35 percent of global urban growth will occur in just three countries: India, China and Nigeria.
Most cities will need to cope not just with growth, but with aging populations as well. By 2050, more than 25% of the population in East Asia will be over 65 (double what it is today), 27% of Europe will be elderly and so will 22% of the U.S. The outlier, Japan, will have a population that is 40% elderly by 2050. Many aging urbanites will live on limited pensions or none at all. This will require massive changes in infrastructure and services that need to be developed now, before it is too late.
Another challenge future cities will have to deal with is Water Crisis. Water is the most precious resource for sustaining life and survival of living world, but we are losing fresh water at an astonishing rate: Climate change is resulting in disappearing of glaciers and severe droughts, groundwater being pumped out faster than natural processes can replace it. Water scarcity is considered the current biggest threat to global prosperity, as over 1 billion people today have no access to water and nearly half of the World population is feared to be influenced by water stress by 2050. The African countries, India and China and most parts of Central Asia will be under severe water scarcity, while USA and South America will suffer from extreme water stress.
As the number of urban dwellers grows, feeding them is likely to become an ever greater challenge. By 2050, it is expected that 80% of all food will be consumed in cities. Where space is limited for traditional farming or the climate makes it difficult to grow sufficient food,
But the concentration of large numbers of people and the ecosystems built around their lives has also been a driver of climate change, with cities today accounting for over 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 60-80 per cent of global energy consumption. Urbanization’s advantages are therefore mirrored by significant sustainability challenges, therefore, sustainable urbanization has become a key policy point to administrations across the world.
And they are highly exposed to many of the impacts of the climate change they contribute to, in particular heat stress, flooding and health emergencies. Record-breaking temperatures, wildfires and storms have devastated communities and created waves of climate refugees from Syria (because of draught), Africa and most recently the Bahamas, where 70,000 people lost everything. Shrinking polar ice and rising sea levels threaten coastal populations and increase their vulnerability to tropical storms. The most recent, authoritative study predicts that sea levels will rise two meters by 2100 if emissions continue unchecked. More than 187 million people living on coastlines will likely become environmental refugees by 2050.
Further 2020 has cast in sharp relief three overlapping global crises. A pandemic devastates lives and health systems. A weakening global economy threatens to push 175 million people into poverty and 73 million more into extreme poverty. All the while, climate change stretches the limits of our ecosystems, economies, and communities. However there is also possibility as remote work becomes more accepted, the congestion on cities may lessen as many people may take the opportunity to move to lower-cost parts of the country.
Therefore cities as we know it is ill-equipped to cope with all these challenges of changing demographics, rapid population growth, water and food crisis. Nor is it prepared to protect residents from extreme heat, rising seas and erratic weather and pandemics. Making cities more resilient, sustainable, inclusive and safe is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 11), requiring sustained investment. By becoming more “climate-smart,” as the UN calls it, cities can combat the mounting pressure of climate change they both cause and suffer from. Ultimately, improving the urban infrastructure in this way, cities can enhance their resilience, reduce climate risk and increase liveability and competitiveness. Building climate-smart cities can involve a vast range of measures, depending on the location’s needs – from flood defenses and drainage canals, to electrified transport and the creation of green spaces for urban cooling.
Climate Smart Cities technologies
For growing food Hydroponic farming could be one solution. Hydroponics is a water-based farming process that feeds plants nutrient-rich water, rather than them being planted in soil. Because roots don’t have to burrow into the ground, hydroponically farmed plants take up a smaller footprint and can be stacked vertically.
By carefully controlling the plant’s environment and nutrient intake, hydroponic farming can not only increases yield by a factor of 10 per hectare, but it can also make better use of resources – reducing waste, water usage, pesticides and fertilizers – compared with traditional farming methods. Being indoors, they are less affected by pests and weather events, and crops can be grown close to where they will be consumed. This can save ‘food miles’ and associated emissions, according to the UN report.
Abu Dhabi is now providing $100 million in funding to build a vertical farm of over 8,200 square meters (88,000 square feet) for both research and development and the commercialization of crops. The objective for the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, which has granted the funding, is to turn “sand into farmland,” boost local food production and accelerate the growth of its agricultural technology ecosystem.
Transportation contributes more to carbon emissions than any other sector, generating almost two metric tons of greenhouse gasses in 2018. In response, green cities will make emissions-free transport a priority.
Countries have strated adopting electric buses forpublic transport. The e-buses do not generate emissions through their operation, reducing air pollution and its associated impact on human heath and productivity. The e-buses also help the local government to reduce operational expenditure. They cost an impressive 70% less to operate and maintain than diesel-powered buses, offsetting their higher cost of purchase, which is nearly double that of a conventional bus. These huge reductions may also lead to lower fares – which could encourage more people to use public transport. Although more than nine out of 10 electric buses in 2019 were registered in China, South America is a major growth market for e-buses, according to the IEA. Santiago’s e-fleet is the largest, but cities in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador also operate electric buses.
But solely relying on new propulsion technologies will not be enough to clean up the sector in the short term. Polluting trucks are here to stay for many years, forcing attention on alternative ways to cut emissions, such as using smart logistics to lower the number of unnecessary trips, transport more goods on rails, or increasing fuel efficiency by redesigning trucks.
Copenhagen, Denmark, reorganized its road system to prioritize and encourage bicycle traffic. Now, 62 percent of their residents ride their bikes every day, and only 9 percent drive daily. This shift has helped them transition into favoring zero-emissions traffic before electric vehicles have become standard.
One important requirement of Climate-Smart cities is green ICT. A smart sustainable city is an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.
The accelerated development of new technologies including 5G, AI, cloud, and edge computing is helping to drive the evolution of Smart Cities. We are in the early stages of an edge computing revolution and it is critical to support the exponential increase in the number of connected devices, and vast growth in data collected. Approximately $20 billion of opportunities across hardware, software, and services could be deployed at the edge by 2023, with a significant upside to those numbers in the long term.
Investment in reliable technology and high-speed connectivity is central to Smart City buildout. The expedited shift to work from home in 2020 is driving the need for reliable and secure high-speed connectivity. As vital infrastructures become connected, cities must be aware of vulnerabilities to adversaries. Telecom and technology companies must increasingly collaborate with governments and invest in reliable networks, cybersecurity and backup systems.
However, ICT creates some environmental problems. Computers and other IT infrastructure consume significant amount of electricity, placing a heavy burden on our electric grids and contributing the greenhouse gas emissions. The current ICT equipment and telecommunication networks are not energy efficient. That includes Desktop and Laptop PCS, Printers, scanners, copiers, projectors, Smart phones, PDAs, desktop phones, Wireless and connected routers, hubs, and other networking equipment, mail servers, file servers, firewalls, databases etc., Data Centres and the equipment in them. Moreover; IT hardware poses severe environmental problems both during its production and its disposal.
Therefore Countries and Industry are focussing on Green ICT which refers to the design and application of information and communication technology to offer environmental benefits. Green ICT is concerned with ICT equipment that is sustainably produced, lasts longer, wastes less energy, is used in an efficient way and is disposed of responsibly.
Another important technology for smart cities is Synthetic biology that represents an intersection of biology and engineering that focuses on the modification or creation of novel biological systems. Key features of synthetic biology include the “de novo” synthesis of genetic material and an engineering-based approach to develop components, organisms and products. Synthetic biology also offers a means to implement sustainable manufacturing processes that can reduce costs while producing materials, fuels and chemicals that are superior to existing products on the market. ”The synthetic biology, the design and construction of biological devices and systems, promises to augment biological life, in order to have it producing outcomes which we dictate.
Synthetic biology builds on modern biotechnology methodologies and techniques such as high throughput DNA technologies and bioinformatics. There is general agreement that the processes of synthetic biology aim to exercise control in the design, characterization and construction of biological parts, devices and systems to create more predictable biological systems. The areas of research that are considered “synthetic biology” include DNA-based circuits, synthetic metabolic pathway engineering, synthetic genomics, protocell construction, and xenobiology.
Components, organisms and products of synthetic biology may have some positive impacts on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Many of the applications of synthetic biology aim at developing more efficient and effective ways to respond to challenges associated with bioenergy, environment, wildlife, agriculture, health and chemical production.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen how patient antibodies can provide templates for further discovery and optimization. Synthetic biology allows us to rapidly synthesize the genes associated with these antibodies and create thousands of variations to develop the most precise therapeutic molecules. A couple of years ago, researchers from the United States and the United Kingdom developed a plastic-eating enzyme, called PETase, which can dissolve most plastics… Synthetic biology offers ways to accelerate this process. As with antibodies, customizable clonal genes can help laboratories rapidly and inexpensively test thousands of enzyme variants to find the ones that most effectively break down plastics.
Potentially, positive impacts may be realized in a number of ways, including, for example: The development of micro-organisms designed for bioremediation and biosensors resulting in pollution control and remediation of environmental media; Synthesizing products such as chemicals or drug precursors that are currently extracted from plant or animal sources, thereby reducing the pressure on wild species that are currently threatened due to over harvesting or hunting.
Some industrial cities, mainly in Asia, are already taking carbon dioxide and methane waste from factories and using it as a feedstock to manufacture a milieu of commercial products. Bioplastics, including pesky PET, are being degraded by engineered organisms. Microbes that produce nitrogen are even being used as a synthetic fertilizer to reduce our dependence on ammonia, the production of which is energy intensive and wasteful.
Developing organisms designed to generate biofuels which may lead to decreased dependence on non-renewable energy sources; In building on the achievements of modern biotechnology in producing agricultural crops that are tolerant to abiotic stress and pests, synthetic biology techniques that are more bioinformatics and computer assisted may potentially have the capability to further refine expression and environmental persistence of the products in the organism; Restoring genetic diversity through reintroducing extinct alleles, or even “de-extinction” of species.
Smart water and waste management
Electricity is the second-largest contributor to carbon emissions, and 40 percent of U.S. energy goes towards buildings. From lighting to HVAC systems, buildings use a considerable amount of energy, and cities feature a huge number of buildings. Sustainable cities will have to find a way to accommodate more residents while maintaining low emissions.
With all buildings required to be net-zero carbon by 2050 to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, the demand for smart buildings is only increasing. Government policies, teamed with financial incentives for companies to invest in smart buildings, are crucial to help transition toward accessing major energy savings whilst improving energy services.
Other systems driving the adoption of low-carbon energy will include smart meters, which allow utility companies to introduce price differentiation, microgrids for local sources of energy, gamification apps to encourage lower consumer usage, and cooperation between companies and governments to maximize the benefits from smart systems.
Our current homes and cities are severely outdated. Dr. Rachel Armstrong, a synthetic biologist and experimental architect, says, “All our current buildings have something in common: they’re built using Victorian technologies.” Traditional design, manufacturing, and construction processes demand huge amounts of energy and resources, but the resulting buildings give nothing back.To make our future sustainable, we need dynamic structures that give as much as they take. We need to build with nature, not against it.
Architects like Mitchell Joachim and Javier Arbona, along with environmental engineer Lara Greden, are actively working to bring these concepts, to, well, life. Their design for a truly 21st century home is grown from a tree. These homes—the Fab Tree Hab— could be grafted into shape using reusable, 3D printed scaffolds, computing, and automation. The structures would benefit the local environment while interior and exterior gardens could grow food for the human occupants. The team estimates growing a full house could take five years— less than a quarter of the time regular trees need to reach full maturity. And like the redwoods, these structures could be networked together to support and strengthen the entire community.
DARPA’s Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program — with whom Ecovative has a contract— is working to develop living biomaterials which can rapidly grow shelters in any number of challenging environments. Meanwhile, the European Union’s Living Architecture (LIAR) program aims to develop a modular bioreactor that could become “an integral component of human dwellings.”
Synthetic biology can also grow new homes for us on other planets. Currently, NASA is investigating the potential of mycotecture habitats on Mars, while teams at Center of the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES) are developing closed-loop bio-manufacturing systems for space travel.
Companies like Ecovative Design and MycoWorks have already developed commercial myco-materials including insulation, leather-like textiles, and sustainable packaging. Ecovative, in particular,— a longtime leader in the myco-materials space—aims to re-shape the future on a massive, skyscraper-sized scale. Building with mushrooms, known as mycotecture, is a critical step towards living houses.
Feeding organisms for a profit – on Earth and beyond
Microbes have been exploited by humans for thousands of years. By supplying bacteria and yeast with simple sugars, they have long produced tasty foods like bread, wine, beer and cheese.
But synthetic biologists are now rerouting the metabolic pathways of these very same organisms so that they consume carbon waste, like carbon dioxide and methane, rather than sugar. By changing their food supply, the cells can still produce a repertoire of products, albeit with less waste and expense.
The Manchester research group, led by Professor Nigel Scrutton, Director of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) and supported by the prestigious US-based international maritime research agency Office of Naval Research Global (ONR), is using synthetic biology to help identify a more efficient and sustainable method to make biofuel than the one currently used.
Scientists have discovered that the bacteria species called Halomonas, which grows in seawater, provides a viable “microbial chassis” that can be engineered to make high value compounds. This in turn means products like bio-based jet fuel could be made economically using production methods similar to those in the brewery industry and using renewable resources such as seawater and sugar.
Engineered microorganisms are grown in bioreactors, much like these, and can be used to produce chemical products from glucose, cellulose, carbon dioxide, and methane. Some industrial cities, mainly in Asia, are already taking carbon dioxide and methane waste from factories and using it as a feedstock to manufacture a milieu of commercial products. Bioplastics, including pesky PET, are being degraded by engineered organisms. Microbes that produce nitrogen are even being used as a synthetic fertilizer to reduce our dependence on ammonia, the production of which is energy intensive and wasteful.
As our ability to reliably and rapidly engineer organisms improves, living cells will increasingly be used to produce goods at industrial scales. Synthetic biology solutions can be implemented in many sectors of cities and municipalities to address current challenges in sustainable fuel production, waste and carbon emissions recycling, improvement of crop yields, and for the production of high-nutrient foods.
These applications will have broad benefits regardless of where human communities arise, and the same technologies that sustain us on earth will also support our journey to inhabit the stars. Aboard the International Space Station, orbiting earth at nearly five miles per second, engineered seeds are growing into plants that could soon manufacture specific proteins, including antiviral antibodies, on-demand. NASA is also exploring synthetic biology to convert carbon dioxide to valuable organic materials on Mars and in deep space, since crude oil and other carbon sources will not be readily available. Other scientists are actively exploring ways to leverage synthetic organisms to produce food in space or to help terraform Mars’ atmosphere.
Industrial synthetic biology is already making a dent in the circular economy
While synthetic biology has come a long way in the last two decades, its greatest test –- industrial scale manufacturing towards a circular, sustainable economy –- is only just beginning. The realization of these seemingly far-flung dreams is made closer by the businesses engaged in synthetic biology R&D. More companies join the biological revolution every day, eager to improve their products while reducing cost and waste.
One of the measures for Green ICT is circular economy like supporting the adoption of reverse logistics and the decrease or urban mining, to decrease e-waste. Synthetic biology can play huge role. If cells can be engineered to convert carbon to fuels and medicine, so too can they be modified to convert waste products – such as those billions of tons produced annually – to do the same.
For example the city of Chicago as an example. In 2015, residents and activities in Chicago generated 32 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Reducing these exorbitant emissions is no small feat, and it is unlikely that a single remedy will provide a full solution. Synthetic biology can – and already is – making cities like Chicago more sustainable by converting carbon emissions to valuable materials.
LanzaTech is an industrial-level synthetic biology company that harnesses carbon waste and converts it to transportation fuel using engineered organisms. They opened their first industrial facility outside of Beijing last year, which collects emissions from a steel factory and generates more than 16 million gallons of ethanol per year. Soon, the company will expand to four additional facilities, reducing emissions comparable to removing hundreds of thousands of cars from the road each year.
The chemical giant DuPont is also actively shifting their R&D towards synthetic biology solutions that can mitigate pesky chemical manufacturing issues through their Industrial Biosciences division. They are already operating large, active research programs to reduce food waste, produce fuels renewably and manufacture biomaterials with market-driven solutions using genetically-engineered organisms. Earlier this year, DuPont began construction on a new European headquarters for their Industrial Biosciences division in the Netherlands, with the aim of expanding their global impact.
Other companies are exploring synthetic biology as a means to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, a sector that makes up nearly 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions. The results are incredibly promising.
Pivot Bio, based out of Berkeley, California, announced their successful development of a nitrogen-producing microorganism that can replace synthetic fertilizers. The production of ammonia is energy-intensive and wasteful, contributing many millions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. Pivot Bio’s engineered strain will reduce the agricultural industry’s reliance on synthetic fertilizers, without impacting crop yield — in the latest growth trial, the microbe outperformed synthetic fertilizer by 7.7 bushels per acre.
The “meatless meat” industry has also been expanding in recent years, leveraging the capabilities of engineered organisms to recreate the taste of real meat without the cow. Impossible Foods, creators of the famous Impossible Burger, use engineered yeast to produce heme, the major protein found in blood, to give plant-based burgers the taste of red meat.
Other companies, like Spiber and Checkerspot, have their sights locked on producing high-performance materials from rudimentary carbon sources.
Spiber is a Japanese company that produces synthetic spider silks, foams and films by designing proteins that assemble into pre-defined patterns and structures at the molecular level. Farming silk from spiders is excruciatingly time consuming. Now, the company can modify natural silk fibers and design new material functions in a matter of days with synthetic biology. While normal silk contracts in water, for example, Spiber has created altered versions that are hydrophobic, expanding their utility for outdoor apparel. Since 2015, Spiber has partnered with The North Face Japan to develop the MOON PARKA®️ prototype, which utilizes bioengineered materials.
Pushing beyond textiles, Checkerspot, based out of Berkeley, California, engineers microalgae, a type of photosynthetic organism found in water, to produce oils that are difficult to manufacture using chemistry alone. These include oil and water-repellent coatings and even a palm oil replacement. Large areas of rainforest are cleared to produce palm oil currently, destroying ecosystems and exacerbating carbon emissions.
Engineered E. coli have been used to produce human insulin since 1978 and synthetic biology promises producing future medicines, clothing lines and fuels. . A nearly infinite array of chemicals and materials can be produced from living organisms, with CO2 and other carbon sources, like methane, as the fodder. While a circular economy has long been imagined, it has only recently become fully implementable. For this next stage of the fight, synthetic biology – along with economic incentives and political sway – will usher cities and economies, on earth and in space, towards their inexorable destinies.
Systems and synthetic biology (SSB)
The potential of SSB to modulate the fast carbon cycle, and thereby mitigate climate change is in itself enormous. SSB, which enables the design and modulation of cellular phenotypes in ways that could scarcely have been imagined even a decade ago, can amplify the power of the entire range of land management practices, from agriculture to forestry, that help regulate the flow of carbon between its reservoirs. In principle, the development of land management technologies using the modern methods of molecular science can not only remove atmospheric carbon, but will, as with the Human Genome Project , likely lead to multiple insights and opportunities having wide- ranging scientific and economic ramifications well beyond climate control.
SSB offers the possibility of modulating the fast carbon cycle, the continuous exchange of carbon between atmosphere, land and sea on a decadal time scale. As summarized in Fig. 1, every year some 120 gigatons of carbon (GtC) are removed from the atmosphere by terrestrial photosynthesis, and every year essentially the same amount is returned by plant and microbial respiration. Even a small reduction in the return step can substantially reduce atmospheric carbon.
LanzaTech and TeselaGen Biotechnology Sign New Multi-Year Deal to Advance Carbon Remediation via Biological Processes in Jan 2021
“Designing and optimizing biology is not easy, and we are in a race to recycle more carbon before it is too late. This collaboration with TeselaGen will extend our capabilities and help us achieve our goals”, said Dr. Sean Simpson Chief Scientific Officer and Co-founder at LanzaTech. “TeselaGen has developed one of the most advanced cloud-based solutions for designing, building, and optimizing complex biological workflows and products. We are enthusiastic about extending our collaboration with the TeselaGen team”, added Dr. Michael Köpke, Vice President Synthetic Biology at LanzaTech.
“LanzaTech has developed unique wet-lab capabilities, as well as some advanced bioinformatic solutions tailored for optimizing their anaerobic microbes. With input from LanzaTech, we have developed an operating system for biotechnology that can interoperate with existing infrastructure and services, facilitating the flow of information across various services, biotech vendors, external databases, algorithms, and automated equipment. This helps LanzaTech keep tight control of their biological design automation process, from start to finish. We want to enable the biotech industry to iterate faster, helping it reduce costs and time-to-market”, said Dr. Eduardo Abeliuk, Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of TeselaGen.
“The ability to economically recycle poisonous greenhouse gas like carbon oxides into valuable products via a biological process is an amazing achievement. We are excited to continue helping this very talented team at LanzaTech push the limits of what’s possible through Synthetic Biology,” added Michael Fero, Chief Operating Officer and Co-founder of TeselaGen. “In particular, we look forward to bringing our recently published iterative machine learning approach to the task of making LanzaTech’s microbes even more efficient,” he added.
Climate-Smart Infrastructure as an Investment Opportunity
Climate-smart urban infrastructure, whether technology-driven or natural, represents a $30 trillion investment opportunity – ranging from renewable energy to public transport and from electric vehicles to green buildings, the report says. And that’s just in developing economies.
New funding models, policies and risk assessment will be needed to overcome barriers to investment and bring out the long-term value of climate-smart infrastructure for growing urban populations.
References and Resources also include: