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How The Ups And Downs Of Today's Mega Cities Will Shape Tomorrow's Urban Boom

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has just opened a new research center in Singapore dedicated to the study the world's biggest cities in order to better prepare for the urban explosion that is expected to take place by 2030.

The rush is on in Tokyo (Joi Ito)
The rush is on in Tokyo (Joi Ito)
Nicolas Dufour

SINGAPORE - It doesn't always happen, but today at least, the journalist perfectly understands the scientist. The journalist is staying in one of the designer hotels mushrooming in Singapore. The bed is on a mezzanine, and the room is at least four meters high. It's excessively air-conditioned. The scientist is Gerhard Schmitt, the director of the SEC, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's new Singapore lab, where research is focused on the future of cities.

And right now, Schmitt is talking about the huge amount of power wasted by air-conditioning in cities with tropical climates such as Singapore: not only do cooling systems guzzle energy, but they also eject hot air, which increases the ambient temperature. It's a vicious circle.

One of the nine research units of the SEC focuses on low energy consumption can be integrated into building design. The team, which is lead by Hansjürg Leibundgut, has already signed partnerships with companies in the sector. Together, they are hoping to produce "decentralized" ventilation systems that can be remote-controlled – and produce less hot air. They are also developing sensor devices to optimize the use of resources in big buildings such as shopping malls and skyscrapers.

Gerhard Schmitt cites some startling statistics to underline why this research is so important. According to the United Nations, the world's population will top 8,1 billion by 2030. More than half of those people – roughly 5 billion – will live in cities. "I think the importance of these statistics are underestimated: we are talking about the biggest urban growth in history," says Stephen Cairns, the institute's scientific coordinator.

Around the world, numerous scientists are already studying the challenges posed by sprawling cities. But the creators of the SEC (which will employ more than 200 researchers) believe they have a unique take on the issue: its nine very different research units, ranging from engineering to social science, will be working closely together.

Flying robots and cutting-edge bamboo

In a vast room at the top floor of the SEC, scientists are dreaming of improving computer-assisted construction techniques by using, for example, long mechanical arms. Another area of research is bamboo, which was a hot topic in the 1950s and 1960s but proved too problematic as a building material. Today, however, new techniques can make bamboo water resistant, according to Dirk Hebel, one of the SEC researchers. Bamboo has the advantage of growing in abundance in precisely the same areas where urban populations are growing fastest.

SEC researchers are also focusing on gathering and analyzing data to improve the management of water, electricity, road traffic and public transportation flows. One research team is using a small flying robot - a kind of remote-controlled helicopter – to capture detailed maps of Singapore. One of the SEC researchers states that the recorded images are much better quality than the ones obtained by satellite: "You can shoot a tennis ball mid-flight," he says. The robot is German-made, but the software was designed by the Institute, which aims to provide 3D representations which can be used in urban planning. A similar project is in progress in Indonesia to study rainwater.

Another research team was granted access to very detailed data from the Singapore Land Transport Authority. The team is hoping to establish a precise description of each individual movement in the city. In an adjoining office, scientists are scrutinizing the different neighborhoods of the city (housing, business, etc.) and the evolution of such zones. They are also studying the airports of several Asian and European cities: "We are not looking at what's happening inside the airports, but rather at their impact on the surrounding areas, on the local communities," says Kees Christiaanse, who is in charge of this research unit.

Another unit is working at detailing the public policies and the social impact of globalization in nine big cities that are considered "mega-regions," such as Mexico, Shenzhen and Lagos. Other experts are studying favelas and other shantytowns in Brazil and Ethiopia.

There are so many different fields of study and approaches, because the Institute wants to be able to "offer a comprehensive analysis of emerging cities," explains Gerhard Schmitt. Key to all of this is Singapore itself, which serves as the vantage point for researching tomorrow's cities.

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - Joi Ito

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