The Source Civil Engineering Magazine 20 minutes into the future?
Editor's Note

20 minutes into the future?

By Laurie A. Shuster

Does anyone else remember the quirky, 1987-88 science fiction television series Max Headroom, which purported to show reality “20 Minutes into the Future”? It portrayed a society in which a digital avatar of a news reporter floated randomly through people’s fully interconnected computer systems — years before the World Wide Web would be a reality — helping his real-life doppelganger expose political corruption and then wreaking general havoc just for fun. In this world, all business transactions used a cashless currency called credits; a brainy teenager was the only one who truly understood the world’s technology; an agile computer operator could easily hack into any city surveillance camera at will; and a small but committed underclass tried to stay “off the grid” — untraceable by either corporate or political authorities. 

In 2020, that fictional world really does feel like it might be 20 minutes away. 

Similarly, the Mega City world portrayed in the latest iteration of ASCE’s Future World Vision initiative may seem fantastical, but it’s not really. It takes current and incubating trends, research, and discoveries to their logical conclusions over the next 10, 25, and 50 years. And engineers can explore the environment it creates at a special Industry Leaders Forum at ASCE’s 2020 Convention this month. (Visit convention.asce.org.)

According to Patrick Meegan, the lead designer of Experimental, the company designing the fully immersive, interactive experience of Future World Vision, the Mega City is based on large cities that already exist, including Los Angeles, Chicago, São Paulo, London, and Tokyo. It imagines a time when such cities and their surrounding suburbs and small towns merge into massive complexes that serve all the necessary functions for the many millions of additional residents that are expected to move to cities over the coming decades. 

In this vision, a Mega City would include its own energy and agricultural production center. The energy portion would be based on renewable options, and the agricultural portion would grow not just food but also plants for energy and even structural building materials. 

Sound like fantasy? Wil V. Srubar III, Ph.D., LEED AP, A.M.ASCE, notes in our special section on the Mega City — which can be unfolded between pages 32 and 33 of this issue — that “living” building materials are already being created. His interdisciplinary team at the University of Colorado Boulder has produced bricks that can grow and reproduce themselves. (Read “Researchers Develop Process to Grow Bricks,” Civil Engineering, July/August 2020, pages 26-27.) Researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands developed a concrete that can heal itself using dormant bacteria that are activated by water seeping into a crack — and that invention is already five years old. (Read “Self-Healing Concrete Uses Bacteria to Repair Cracks,” Civil Engineering, July/August 2015, pages 44-45.) 

Similarly, biomass is now providing a small percentage of the utility-scale energy used in the United States, and like all renewable energy sources, it is expected to grow. (Read “Infrastructure Solutions: Renewable Energy Surges Forward” in the October 2020 issue.)

The Mega City also includes an industrial and high-tech corridor to accommodate a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing in the United States, a concept that is gaining traction right now in the wake of supply shortages experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the historic core, adaptive corridor, and regenerative community — three other distinct neighborhoods in the Mega City concept — are expected to develop from existing cities’ infrastructure, preserving what is unique about each city’s culture and heritage while offering walkable, livable communities and economic opportunities for all residents. 

“We didn’t want to show a utopian future that doesn’t have any social or economic struggles,” Meegan explains. “But we do want to look at how those might evolve. The adaptive corridor deals with areas that, for example, may have been passed over by previous mass transit development and the economic benefits that go with that. We look at how things like autonomous vehicles can offer access to those areas and connect them to the economic opportunities of the city.”

A final area, the densified suburb, also stems from current trends, as job growth extends from downtown cores to nearby suburbs. This trend is perhaps best exemplified by Amazon, which recently chose Arlington, Virginia — a suburb of Washington, D.C. — for its East Coast headquarters, where it expects to bring 25,000 jobs and spur plenty of small, local businesses around it.

This magazine reaches its 90th anniversary this month (read “Civil Engineering Is 90!”) and has seen phenomenal changes in cities and infrastructure in that time. Will the changes predicted in the Mega City come to pass over the next 90 years?

Or maybe, 20 minutes into the future?

This column first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.

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