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I’m sure you will agree it’s been a pretty interesting start to the year with some extreme weather conditions and even more extreme politics.

Change is most certainly the order of the day and this got me thinking about where 2017 could take us from a living infrastructure perspective and I came up with three exciting concepts I think we could, and should, push for in 2017.

1. Circadian rhythms, health and living infrastructure

There have been a few medical studies exploring what kind of impact a disruption to our circadian rhythm has on our health and by all accounts, it isn’t good.

Here are a few key facts:

Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioural changes found in most living things from humans and animals, to plants and microbes. Responding to signals (primarily light and darkness) in the organism’s external environment, the changes follow a roughly 24-hour cycle influencing sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and important bodily functions.

In 2006, researchers monitored the Per1 gene (also known as the circadian gene) as it was put through a series of tests.

"The Per1 gene is a core clock factor that plays an essential role in generating circadian rhythms. Recent data reveal that major biological pathways, including those critical to cell division, are under circadian control," state the authors of the research paper The Circadian Gene Per1 Plays an Important Role in Cell Growth and DNA Damage Control in Human Cancer Cells.

What the researchers found was that the Per1 gene provided an important link between the circadian system and the cell cycle system, and that overexpression of Per1 led to sensitised human cancer cells and DNA damage-induced cell death. Scary stuff right? The research results "highlight the importance of circadian regulation to fundamental cellular functions and support the hypothesis that disruption of core clock genes may lead to cancer development."

Abnormal circadian rhythms have also been linked to sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes bipolar disorder, depression and seasonal affective disorder.

So what does it have to do with living infrastructure? Well, living infrastructure is part of the solution and so are our buildings, technology, where and when we work, and even how we play.

Circadian rhythm is tied to life and it’s time we start designing with health and well-being at the forefront of our design rather than as a retroactive project add-on or box to be ticked.

That’s why 2017 is the year I’m going to give health and well-being a promotion in my project objectives. I’m going to look at the way my projects use artificial lighting and work toward a more natural lighting schedule. Sure I’m not going to transform the night sky with the flick of a switch, but little tweaks build into bigger things. Maybe it starts with one of my projects adopting a circadian lighting schedule, then someone else does it at another site, then an office building, a suburb, then a city and so on.

Add circadian lighting schedules to environmentally sustainable community design and we have an environment that encourages human (and other) health rather than taxing it. Imagine the money and resources saved. It’s getting back to the ‘natural order’ of things.

Circadian lighting - it’s small scale and big picture but it is achievable and it seems to me, this might be just what we need in a year as chaotic as 2017 is shaping up to be.

2. Demand for real-time data from our living infrastructure projects

Real-time data is intelligence you can use immediately. It’s happening everywhere, from online search engines and social media to fitness tracking apps and building management systems. The demand for real-time data has never been higher because good and current data allows businesses to target effort and output to where it is most needed, where it will get the biggest bang for buck.

This year is poised to see a growing demand for this kind of data from our living infrastructure projects. Everyone wants to see the return on their investment, and with technology progressing the way it is, this could well be the “next frontier” for green infrastructure in Australia and abroad.

Soon, we will be able to quantify the HVAC energy savings triggered green walls. We will be able to measure the rate at which a green façade insulates and cleans the air in a laneway in Sydney. Stormwater run-off can be measured daily during the wet season in Cairns and so on. Most importantly though, real-time data collection at living infrastructure sites will allow us to pinpoint underperforming elements and rectify them immediately. It will likely reduce maintenance costs and boost overall performance and longevity. It will even minimise risk by providing us with increased opportunity to intercept a dodgy performer before it becomes a money pit, and who doesn’t love that?

3. Urban farming is growing potential

Urban farming can take off, but it will take time and probably a few missteps before we hit our stride in terms of peak efficiency and crop yield.

It will be an important component in food production around the world in a matter of decades. As the global population nears the 7.5 billion mark, we need to consider new alternatives to maximise our use of space in both housing and food supply. Globally, we no longer have the luxury of wide-open spaces when it comes to grazing animals and growing crops. If we are smart, we may be able to continue grazing animals in a similar manner, but the old model can no longer accommodate our “meat and two veg” land use.

It’s time to look at our rooftops and building facades and start planting the seeds (pun intended) for urban farming. Doing so now will allow for a smooth transition from the industrial agriculture model to an agile, more localised version where cities can (at least partially) support themselves with vegetables grown in futuristic urban farms like Sky Greens in Singapore, office-farm hybrids like Pasona O2 in Tokyo, and Europe’s biggest vertical urban farming project, Urban Farmers De Schilde just outside The Hague. And I’m not the only one to see the future lies with urban farming.

Jan-Eelco Jansma, a researcher in urban-rural relations at Wageningen University in the Netherlands predicts urban farming will be normalised in a just a few generations.

“I always refer to the debates about parks in the city in the past. I think in 100 years, urban agriculture will be as normal as the city parks we have today,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian.

 
  • All good points Jock and a conversation we should all be having.

    Modern construction has been forced into focussing primarily on cost and ease of construction. Amazingly building human health into the design as the first component is not necessarily a cost increasing factor so much as a thinking factor. Considering that humans build for human reasons it seems so strange to me that we put human health last very often in both the design and in the construction methods and materials chosen. This applies both inside as well as outside a building as you have correctly pointed out.

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