A Letter from Paris: Biology and the Evolution of the Smart City

Kelvin Muriuki

Kelvin Muriuki

Dear Foundation Friends:

My stay in Paris has been amazing. For aside from the multitudinous cultural pleasures of visiting Paris (my first time) I’ve been introduced to a radically different way of thinking — encouraged to stretch the applications of biological knowledge to fields that previously seemed incompatible with biology — in this case, to the evolution of urban design.

In our Biology and the Evolution of the Smart City summer study program, we attend class daily, and every one of our lectures has two components: a biology section, and another in urban planning and design.

The biology component explores biological principles and their urban parallels. In particular, we’ve discussed is transport in living things, paying particular focus on transport of oxygen in human beings, birds, and fish. We explored the complex systems that helps these organisms effect this transport, the differences between these systems, the impact these differences have on their oxygen transport efficiency, and the inspiration we could draw from the design of these systems while addressing transport challenges in major cities especially congestion, efficiency, and crime.

The urban planning and design component discusses the different approaches urban planners have taken in designing and redesigning cities, explores the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, and exposes us to the new ideas that are attempting to revolutionize urban planning especially ones inspired by biology.

From all this, I’ve learned one very interesting lesson: the solutions to the most intricate problems facing cities already exist — not in urban planning and design manuals, but in nature, as complex living things have faced and solved the same problems experienced by cities.

One particularly fun part of our program is that we get to design our own projects and pitch them to the mayor of Paris before we depart. My teammates and I have decided to focus on waste — especially the recycling component of waste management which remains a big problem in Paris. From our research we realized that of all the potentially recyclable waste in Paris, only 35% is actually recycled. This falls below the recommended recycling percentage of 50% proposed by the UN for all EU countries. Also, the 65% that’s not recycled is dumped in different disposal sites outside the city where it’s either incinerated creating pollution problems or left to form ugly landfills. We also realized that the recycling goal remained elusive largely because a recycling culture hadn’t been cultivated in many Parisians who considered recycling an extra chore/burden on their already overwhelming plate. Waste is largely seen as ugly, annoying, and cumbersome to handle thus many prefer to leave the waste management burden to the government and forget that waste ever existed.

Our project aims to reverse this perception by presenting waste as a tool for fostering artistic creativity, fostering intercultural collaboration, and having fun. To ensure maximum impact, we are targeting the young specifically those in middle school and high school since they will more readily take up new ideas and are more willing to experiment, hoping these then will be our ambassadors and spread these ideas to the elderly. We are working on a new school curriculum meant to reinvent sustainability education. In this curriculum, students will be encouraged to engage more with waste by researching on and writing about existing waste management infrastructure in their region. The goal is to make waste a subject that’s more present and readily discussed rather than one easily ignored.

The curriculum will emphasize fieldwork where students visit the different waste disposal sites and learn of existing waste management practices, constantly engage with their local government department dealing with waste to understand existing policies, and engage with local community members to understand how they deal with trash at the local level. Students will also be encouraged to create art from disposed/disposable material and share their art with students in other school. To enable us realize this goal, we are working on an online platform which will: help consolidate existing material on sustainability-art synergy, enable artists exploring this field to constantly upload/share their work with the students, and enable students share their artistic
recycling ideas and upload their waste-art projects for other students to see and derive
inspiration from.

The biological principle that inspired this project was the nitrogen cycle, where nitrogen undergoes different transformative processes at different stages, converting to a useful products at each stage that benefits the ecosystem. Similarly we wish to transform different waste products into useful byproducts and then share the knowledge with others so that they can also create useful products from stuff that seems useless. It’s all about thinking forward, and I’m tremendously thankful for this opportunity to explore new regions where the sciences and humanities interact.

Editor’s Note These experiences are made possible entirely through your generosity. Please give generously!