The Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) is a transdisciplinary research programme focused on sustainable urbanisation on different scales in a global perspective, laying the foundation for a new form of urban studies programme. FCL is co-initiated by the ETH departments of Architecture (DArch) and Civil Engineering (DBaug). It is the first research programme of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC). It is home to a community of over 100 PhD, postdoctoral and Professorial researchers working on diverse themes related to future cities and environmental sustainability.
Cities accommodate more people today than at any point in history. Cities are more interconnected than ever before. Cities concentrate some of the most intractable of contemporary social, political and economic dilemmas. And, as substantial consumers of energy and producers of greenhouse gases, cities are central to the project for global environmental sustainability. But successful cities are also, more than ever, the engines of national and transnational economies, sites of diversity and creativity, and centres of innovation and entrepreneurship. As such, cities are likely to be the places where the challenges of urbanisation and environmental sustainability will be most productively addressed.
The general principles of sustainable, equitable and vibrant development for cities are well known. They are the basis of such documents as the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Global Agenda 21, and the United Nations Millennium Goals. Achieving the ambitious goals set out in these documents involves appreciating both the threats that cities pose to social equity and environmental sustainability, and the potential they contain to innovatively respond to such threats.
More specifically, we ask: how might cities be designed, produced, managed, maintained, and inhabited in a way that supports the aims of global sustainability? The Future Cities Laboratory is committed to addressing both the wider threat and potential of the contemporary city, and the specific implications of this question through a transdisciplinary frame.
In order to address this challenge, the Future Cities Laboratory adopts the idea of ‘urban metabolism’ as its conceptual framework. This framework helps us consider the city as a complex system that calibrates, manages and configures various stocks and flows of resources, such as energy, water, capital, people, space and information. Guided by principles of sustainability, we seek to encourage circular flows of such resources, rather than accepting the conventional, unsustainable and linear logic of inputs and outputs in which raw materials are processed, packaged, distributed and consumed, and the remains wasted. Considering the city as a dynamic metabolic system composed of stocks and flows resources, helps to focus the research of FCL on the consequences of resource allocation, distribution, and deployment through time.
Cities today are no longer easily distinguishable from their agrarian hinterlands. They reach into their immediate geographical contexts, and beyond to form networked spatial configurations that are regional and global in scope. As a consequence, urban research today necessarily requires investigations with different ‘depths of field’, ranging from the micro-scale of building components to the mezzo-scale of urban clusters and the macro-scale of territories or metropolitan regions. At the same time, such research must acknowledge the interplay between scale-specific and trans-scalar flows of people, materials, and information. These multiple scales, then, form a second conceptual framework for FCL.
The research programme is structured around the scales of territorial planning (l-Scale), urban design (m-Scale), and building technology (s-Scale). It will examine urban sustainability at the level of the city as an entity, at the level of urban ensemble or neighbourhood, and at the level of architectural fabric. Central to this approach is the intermediate role of urban design as a bridge discipline between regional planning and architecture. As actions at the small scale can have large scaled effects, and vice versa, communication between the various scaled projects is integral to the effectiveness of the overall research programme.
The work of the Future Cities Laboratory takes place through 10 research projects, or modules, whose aims are outlined in this website. Each module consists of a team of academics, researchers, practitioners, and PhD candidates, working in collaboration with various governmental agency representatives, and industry partners. The individual modules have the license to explore their chosen themes with relative autonomy within a set of wider collective goals. These collective goals begin with the ‘urban metabolism’ framework.
The FCL is also committed to transdisciplinary approaches to research, and to engage with the city at multiple scales. These transdisciplinary aspirations are supported in specific ways. First, three Assistant Professors in the areas of architecture and building construction, architecture and urban design, and architecture and territorial planning have been appointed to work across the boundaries of the modules.
In addition, the research work of all the modules are supported by an innovative approach to urban data capture, visualization and simulation, through the Simulation Platform. The Simulation Platform offers a virtual site where materials from all of the nine modules can be placed and inter-related individually or collectively, through practical scenarios in collaboration with various stakeholders, be they investors, planning officers, researchers, or community groups.
The research programme of the Future Cities Laboratory is elaborated through three primary approaches. First, the programme is underpinned by basic principles of academic research in which methodology, research technique, empirical data and theoretical proposition are set out with clarity and rigour. Second, the FCL research programme draws on the Design Research Studio format. This workshop-based format, so important in recent approaches to architectural and urban design, stimulates future-oriented thinking and scenario testing on multiple scales. It serves as an effective platform for integrating multiple disciplinary perspectives on the city in practical ways. The third research approach is practice-based. It involves case studies in which construction sites and urban settings are understood as live research laboratories. This process-oriented form of research draws out the situated nature of knowledge production, and offers concrete solutions and guidelines directed toward the sustainable development of buildings, districts, and regions.
Both the practice-based approach and the Design Research Studio complement the foundational principles of academic research by offering settings in which urban planning and design scenarios can be tested in collaboration with diverse stakeholders, be they investors, planning officials, academic experts, or community groups.