New Concepts in Living Technology

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Monday, 3rd March 2014

What is the link between saving the Italian city of Venice from sinking into the waters of the Adriatic and designing a natural computing system for a starship? These seemingly unrelated and improbable projects are both featured in the portfolio of Dr. Rachel Armstrong, a sustainability innovator scheduled to present her work at Scifest Africa 2014 in Grahamstown from 12-18 March 2014.

Armstrong uses her diverse skills as a qualified medical doctor who also happens to have a PhD in architecture to bring together new concepts in living technology. At Scifest Africa she will talk about, and demonstrate how we may use the qualities of living things as a new kind of technology to find creative ways of solving sustainability challenges while at the same time benefitting our environment.

What this means to South Africans, particularly those living in less-privileged communities, is that by working with Nature as a technology, it can be harnessed anywhere and not just in rich countries.

Most under-resourced local communities feel they have little hope of saving their environment because “the current model of sustainability is wrong”, says Armstrong.

She argues that the current model is “an industrial concept that preserves existing power structures, inequalities and access to global resources”. Industrial processes are inherently damaging to our environment and simply being more thoughtful about these harmful practices is not going to stop the destruction. Armstrong says we need to completely change the way we do things.

One of the challenges presented by Western society’s value system is that environmental goals are measured in terms of industrial efficiency and not biological productivity. Yet she believes it is the creativity of biological systems that enriches environments and enables industries to thrive.

Armstrong has therefore set herself the task of changing our current understanding of what it means to be sustainable.

Her research proposes it is possible to work differently with our environment by changing our view of the capabilities of matter - which in the 21st century is “lively and paradoxical, not inert and obedient” - using a different kind of technological platform in the place of machines.

Armstrong is a Senior TED Fellow and Co-Director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) at the University of Greenwich, London. She describes herself as a Black Sky Thinker whose ambition and work push the boundaries of thought far beyond the blue sky.

One example of her Black Sky work is as Project Leader for Persephone, a crewed interstellar craft to be assembled in Earth’s orbit within a hundred years. She is responsible for designing and implementing a giant natural computer that will form the interior of a space ship. The craft or ‘Worldship’ will feature a new approach to building materials called ‘living architecture’

The theme for Scifest Africa 2014 is “Into the space...” and will of course explore astronomy and space sciences, but also other spaces such as architectural spaces. Armstrong’s research deals head on with a wide range of these and other spaces.

Article by Steven Lang.

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