More than half of the world’s population lives in cities – tendency rising. So, it’s high time to prep for future urbanization. Introducing five ideas from this year’s re:publica that aim to improve life in the city: from tiny homes to making the most of useful data.

1. Tiny, tiny houses

Around the world, urban living space keeps getting scarcer and more expensive. If you want to build your own home, you need to head for the outer suburbs or maybe even the countryside. On the other hand, you could simply tone down your expectations – how much space do you really need? Van Bo Le-Mentzel, architect and guest professor at Hamburg’s University of Arts, has come up with an answer, developing pared down micro homes – or so-called “tiny houses” – with his students.

His prototype, the “unreal estate house,” is scheduled to cost 5,000 euros for 4 square meters of living space. Inside, a kitchen with folding table awaits – folded away it reveals a new space with a shower and toilet – while the bedroom occupies the upper level. Heat comes from an outdoor wood-burning stove which heats the home via a pipe.

This miniature structure is autonomous, i. e. it needs no connection to the mains, water supply, or sewage system. Completely mobile, the “unreal estate house” comes mounted on a trailer since it was originally designed for a rent-free lifestyle.

Unfortunately, many countries prohibit parking and living outside of designated camping zones. So, in order to stop mini home owners from becoming permanent campers, we need legislators to wise up to the pressure on the housing market.

More information here.

When it is finished, the “unreal estate house” is scheduled to cost 5,000 euros for a total of 4 square meters
Photo: Benjamin Heck

2. User-Generated City

Introducing the user-generated city, or: It takes knowledge of your city to shape it according to your needs. With this in mind, the Der Leerstandsmelder website collects information on unused homes or rentals in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

The concept is simple: Although metropolises are bursting at the seams, many apartments and commercial rentals remain empty. Sometimes, their owners simply don’t want to tackle costly renovations; sometimes, it all boils down to financial speculation. To solve this challenge, the website offers a collective, open-to-all overview of empty, unused spaces – beyond the official information provided by the city. What’s more, registered users can also share thoughts on how to best access these “fallow” apartments., on the other hand, provides a platform for residents who want to realize projects that improve public urban space. Here, they can collect supporters for their concept – e. g. a flat roof laboratory in Hamburg for testing ideas that could (re-) activate unused spots in the city – and then get expert advice on how to realize their ideas.

More information here.

3. Plants and Machines

Plants and Machines smart magazine
Artificial miniature ecosystems by Plants and Machines
Photo: Plants and Machines

It’s the year 2030: 40 mega cities dot the globe, i. e. cities with more than 10 million residents. By 2050, twenty years later, the earth’s population will have risen to 10 billion. And most of them will live in urban environments.

So, how do we sustain all these urbanites? It might take tiny artificial ecosystems to feed them all. For a promising design, look no further than Plants and Machines, a Weimar collective comprising both architects and media artists.

They believe in so-called hydroponic systems – robot-controlled boxes filled with substrate, water, and light – to breed and grow plants and aquatic life. Right now, the team raises chili plants in their stackable plastic containers, yet the system is truly scalable: In future, we could all be living in ultra-dense urban environments, while still harvesting our own veggies.

More information here.


4. Senseable Cities

Our digitally networked lives produce incessant streams of data. Their smart evaluation and constructive use could help to make our everyday lives more efficient, sustainable, and pleasant.

“Our data never stop making sense. Future cities should be able to provide equally sensible answers,” demands Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Labs at Boston’s renowned MIT campus. We simply need to decode this data via special sensors – and then translate the results. Technology has caught up to the challenge, as several of the team’s projects reveal:

To counter energy loss at home, for example, they came up with so-called ‘local warming.’ Here, rooms are no longer heated in their entirety, but just the areas occupied by people at any given point in time.

Such experiments highlight the potential of existing data. For researchers working on future solutions for urban living, this means: The larger the data base, the better the resulting technical solution. And the wisdom of crowds 3.0, when focused on our concrete needs, may become their most valuable tool.

More information here.

Carlo Ratti republica smart magazine
“Our data never stop making sense. Future cities should be able to provide equally sensible answers,” according to Carlo Ratti.
Photo: smart magazine
Carlo Ratti republica smart magazine
Photo: a project by the MIT SENSEable City Labs
Carlo Ratti republica smart magazine
Photo: a project by the MIT SENSEable City Labs

5. Citizen Science

More and more often, citizens are systematically involved in scientific data collection beyond the usual surveys and questionnaires. In science, this so-called “citizen science” is becoming increasingly important and it benefits from accelerating technological advances.

Take Philadelphia’s Cyclephilly app, which uses the movement profiles of cyclists to improve the planning of cycle paths, especially in areas of high bike traffic.

Across the Atlantic, in Germany, other projects pave the way. Sensebox – a project by Munster University – is a simple interlocking system of an Arduino Uno minicomputer and several sensors for temperature, air pressure, pressure, light, and sound that allows students and enthusiasts to set up their own measuring station. The resulting air or noise pollution data is directly uploaded to OpenSenseMap, providing universal access and use to all of the collected measurements. So: Citizens, unite (your signals)!

More information here.

Header image: Carlo Ratti Associati