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Of Imaginariums and innovation

Melissa Sterry
Imagination comes before innovation - as many sci-fi authors have shown time and again.

Historian and critic Lewis Mumford once wrote of the works of H. G. Wells, “He enters utopia by hypothesis; that is, without any other subterfuge than an act of the imagination.”  While a forefather of science fiction, Wells was by no means the first author to explore utopia, and its counterpart dystopia, through the medium of creative writing. On the contrary, Wells was building on an ancient tradition dating back at least as far as the earliest known literary works: to the very dawn of civilization and of the city.

Bionic City – an enquiry into “how would nature design a city?” – is born of this legacy. Birthed in 2010, it represents the convergence of a life-long interest in nature, design and the arts. It’s a spin-off of my PhD research into developing city-scale resilience to natural disasters by mimicking the behaviours, relationships and systems of flora and fauna species, and its brief has been kept deliberately open-ended.

In the tradition of the imaginary metropolis, and of works by figures as diverse as Plato, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Ernest Debord, Bionic City is a vessel for the philosophical exploration of new urban possibilities. Once described as a ‘biomimetic imaginarium’, it explores the potential of biomimetics, biotechnology and biology in the built environment in the now, near and far future.

Making sense of the world and our place in it

Biomimetics has been a source of design insight, innovation and inspiration for centuries, and no less so than in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, whose life-long study of the natural world inspired him to conceive of innumerable inventions. Interest in the field has grown such that the Fermanian Business and Economic Institute tracked a fivefold increase in biomimicry patents, academic articles and research grants between 2000 and 2013. Likewise, biotechnology is booming; it’s no longer the preserve of researchers working in hi-tech civic and corporate labs, but a research activity of persons of diverse demographics, both with and without PhDs, thanks to umpteen DIY facilities that have popped up in cities about the world.

In spite of the huge potential for bio-inspired inventions, the accompanying shift in humanity’s understanding of the natural world and of our place within it carries even greater gravitas. Collectively, humanity is coming to understand just how integral biodiversity is to our survival, and to the quality of our existence therein. Together with this, new insights on wide-ranging aspects of species behaviour, and in particular that of highly intelligent and social mammals, illustrate that many traits we once conceived as exclusively human are by no means unique to us.

Imagination before innovation

Bionic City aspires to the abstract – to the creation of that which though hypothetically possible, may always remain tangible in mind, but not in hand. Then again, as works by Wells and others prove, some of the most seemingly fantastical cities of art, both literary and visual, have been more accurate in their expectations than more formal attempts at foreseeing the future.

Reverting to the many musings of Mumford, might that be because such works were both “informed by science” and “ennobled by the arts”, and in consequence not “dull as mud”, the latter of which he used to describe his contemporaries’ plans for social reform. Might it also be because, as Renaissance biomimetician and Old Master da Vinci knew, we capture the imagination of others not through the delivery of finite details, but by the invitation to co-curate an image and/or an idea, therein our experience thereof. In other words, a little mystery goes long way – as the Mona Lisa knew only well!; Image credit: Bionic City by Melissa Sterry

as works by Wells and others prove, some of the most seemingly fantastical cities of art, both literary and visual, have been more accurate in their expectations than more formal attempts at foreseeing the future