Designing a Sustainable Interstellar Worldship

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An illustration of living materials inside a worldship. A living infrastructure would help keep the worldship occupants healthy and may have significant benefits when applied to Earth-bound megacities.
Image courtesy Dan Tassell

Project Persephone, a new Icarus Interstellar initiative for the DARPA sponsored 100 Year Starship (100YSS) led by TED fellow Dr. Rachel Armstrong, considers the application of living technologies such as protocells and programmable smart chemistries in the context of habitable starship architecture that can respond and evolve according to the needs of its inhabitants.

This project has direct relevance to the challenges of the 21st century where our megacities and urban environments continue to grow at astonishing rates. Yet the building industry, utilities and energy companies lag behind the physical demands of a growing city. When inflexible infrastructures become inadequate or inappropriate then urban decay sets in — crime, homelessness, waste and resource management issues and traffic congestion can have crippling effects. The consideration of living infrastructure technologies on interstellar worldships can therefore have a positive feedback to our current way of life.

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Project Persephone is designing the living interior of a "worldship" to behave as an ecology, rather than applying the mechanical approach that underpins the way our modern cities are built.

Moreover, the collaboration between international designers, engineers and architects serves an innovation platform to develop prototypes that may address some of our greatest current challenges in our proliferating megacities — vast urban expanses that house more than ten million people such as Beijing, New York and Sao Paolo — by re-thinking the way we inhabit space, make buildings and use our terrestrial resources.

Architecture represents the human presence in natural systems and its ecological ambitions to integrate communities with Nature are long standing. Throughout the ages architects have looked for inspiration from Nature, to ally with the incredible creativity of the natural world. Yet, the flow of matter through the urban environment actually represents only a tiny fraction of the global exchange of matter that occurs on a daily basis through living systems such as seas, soils and rain forests.

Natural networks enable this flow through environmental cycles that are dependent on a much larger standing reserve of creativity that is present our terrestrial fabric.

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Project Persephone aims to develop a design approach for a worldship to underpin truly ecological architectural practices, in which matter can be attributed with agency. This requires us to think much more broadly about the performance and innate creativity of the materials we use.

Perhaps it is possible to use the innate "force" of different kinds of materials to create an artificial nature, which can shape streams of material flow to create a living interior that is capable of regeneration and is not simply waiting to be consumed by its human colony. A material ecology may be feasible if the worldship itself was able to provide an external source of energy, so that the living interior would not be a closed system, but open — as if it had its own (nuclear) sun.

In practice, modern architecture's ecological ambitions are constrained by the inert materials and industrial modes of construction that predominate in urban environments — which are literally organised to produce "machines for living in" and creates impermeable barriers between things — rather than connecting them.

In the 1960s, Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer explored a different kind of architectural materiality in their cybernetic experiments using biological and chemical systems. However, the science underpinning "wet" technology was not sufficiently advanced to enable their experiments to progress into architectural innovation. Poignantly, philosopher Martin Heidegger considered technology as a process of revealing rather than an instrument and historically, chemistry has been the crux of a particular kind of "revealing" — the transmutation of inert to living matter.

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In the last twenty years, synthetic biology (the design and engineering with living systems) has made a set of technologies available that enables us to work with the principles of transmutation where one thing can literally become another. Yet if wet technology is to thrive in urban spaces then a different kind of infrastructure is needed; one that is very different to those that currently support the functioning of computers and machines.

The kinds of infrastructures that support chemical technologies are elemental systems, which include airflow, earth and water. They are environmentally contextualised and can give rise to niche specific performances that, for example, may respond to local microclimates. The importance of infrastructure in optimising chemical outcomes has been evidenced in the fossil record where a diffuse, water-carrying infrastructure helped simple plants fix large amounts of carbon. Non-flowering plants could evolve into flowering ones and gave rise to the biodiversity that we see in our rainforests today.

Moreover, particularly in a closed system, it is important to consider exactly who (or what) the living interior is being designed for.

Classically, the human body is regarded as a discrete structure but in recent years genetic analysis and microbiology have revealed that bacteria and viruses are interwoven into our genome and that the ninety percent of the cells in our body are bacterial. We carry about 3 kilos of bacterial cells, which are much smaller than our own yet they help us digest our food, act as part of our immune system and reinforce the barrier function of our skin. When our bacterial systems do not work properly, we become unhappy and ill.

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Indeed, our urban environments are not the inert clean spaces depicted by modernism, but lively ecologies of interacting agents. To engage these systems technologically requires us to work with them in very different way to how we use machines.

Architectural research projects such as Future Venice (shown below), which proposes to grow an artificial reef under the city using smart droplets to ecologically reclaim it, explore the possibilities of creating the conditions for a new kind of architectural construction, which performs more like Nature than a machine.

We intend to push forward with this kind of research in Persephone, which we regard as a black-sky challenge to establish the project's fundamental design principles.

These will range from how to design a project over the course of 100 years (for 100YSS), to what kind of culture would be best supported in a closed system.

Technical projects are likely to include models that explore how it may be possible to seed the ecology of a worldship using artificial soils, synthetic biology and terrestrial micro biota. For example, the use of water to absorb radiation and regolith to absorb heat from re-entry could have dual functions in also supporting living systems that are maintained by novel infrastructures within the interstellar worldship.

Prototypes produced during this process may also be turned into commercial products that could integrate our megacities with natural ecologies and strive for a new kind of "sustainability" where, through the design of buildings, our civilization can return useful substances back to the environment, as well as consume them.

The future for ecological architectures is extremely encouraging as we're at a time of amazing developments in the field of synthetic biology. In order to make the most of these will need to first develop the appropriate infrastructures and change our problem solving approach from being based in an industrial paradigm to a truly complex, ecological one.

Ecological architecture must be based on design principles that engage with a new reading of materiality, in which non-human matter has more status than granted by using an industrial framework. Through appreciating the innate "force" of the material world, ecological architecture may ultimately produce interventions that share the same operational principles as Nature and work alongside it.

Ultimately then, it may be possible to change the paradigm that underpins human development so that the solution to repairing a damaged, or struggling ecology may be to produce an architecture. For a space-faring colony to thrive in the long term, this is not a speculative proposition, it is a fundamental requirement.