The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the futures of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all environmental challenges to become super-ecofriendly. This month, we highlight the future of the Italian city Florence.
(For an Italian-language review of the Ecotopia 2121 project, see National Geographic Italia)
About seventy years into the future, when Leonardo Scimiescco is a final year student at The Florence Art Academy, he is too wild and too energetic to sit still in class for three hours a day to draw bowls of fruit. However, he does enjoy entering the ‘technopreneur’ competitions that come to him via the design department. One of these is a challenge to design a new ecofriendly kind of toilet. So whilst at a café-bar across the street from the Academy, he scribbles down notes onto art paper, making a few calculations next to them, whilst sketching out his ideas.
Advances in 21st physics make it possible for mini-Black Holes to be created in the lab. Standard Black Holes, as most everyone knows, are collapsed superstars in darkest space sucking in other stars and planets and all that fall too near them. Mini-Black Holes could do the same at a ‘mini’ level on Earth, perhaps. Inspired by this idea, Leonardo designed and drew pictures of a Black Hole Toilet System in which a user may relax upon a commode to do their business assured in the knowledge their waste would disappear forever when the chain is pulled. They’d never have to see it, again. Or in the case of a city-wide roll-out; the city would never have to manage it again. It was gone, like magic, in a puff of mini-Black Hole smoke.
After he submitted it to a panel, some judges were appalled. They knew that Black Hole technology could not make stuff disappear forever. Whatever is thrown into a Black Hole was just transported along the space-time continuum to reappear in another place. Thus, Florentines could flush their Black Hole toilet only to have the waste appear out of thin air in Rome to whack the Pope or the Prime Minister clear in the face. Both Leonardo and many Florentines might think Rome deserved no better but they would have to admit Black Hole technology suffered from the same problem as many other technologies; something called The Externalization of Disbenefits -- one person’s solution becomes another person’s problem.
However, Leonardo also submitted another toilet design which combined biotechnology with information technology to create a genetically-engineered ‘smart bio-toilet’ that would recycle bodily waste into usable organic matter and nitrates and then pack them into small dry pellets for convenient use in the domestic garden. The toilet was also capable of a decent conversation whilst in use, as well as being soft and warm to the touch. Instead of cold hard ceramic, the bio-toilet felt more like you were sitting in the lap of a large cuddly teddy bear.
Most of panelists didn’t like this design very much either except for the head judge who was CEO for an IT firm and always seeking to invest in new IT concepts just in case one of them might take-off.
Leonardo ended up winning the competition and was awarded a few million dollars to develop the design, which he totally failed to do, preferring to use the money to make amusing urban art installations all over the city. However, others did take over the concept to make a marketable product. There were some teething problems associated with its use, however, especially in many art academies around the world, since when the students came back drunk and needed somewhere to sick-up, most of Leonardo’s intelligent bio-toilets were so disgusted with what was being forced into them that they ejected it back at the offending student. Until this problem was fixed, users had to be careful where they puked.
Leonardo’s penchant for combining art and science along with his eccentric innovations were enough to earn him the nickname as Leonardo II, after renaissance artist/scientist Leonardo da Vinci. Like the first Leonardo, Leonardo II, had an obsession with flight, and he set about lifting Florence’s buildings into the sky to float above each other, thereby increasing the architectural space without destroying the Florentine cityscape with skyscrapers or urban sprawl. He proposed using new sturdy lightweight plant fibers combined with helium gas-vesicles that enable buildings to float in the sky in the same way that gas-bubbles enabled large heavy seaweeds to float in water.
Leonardo came up with many more wild designs and wild theories but usually they were confined to the drawing board. One of his theories which gained currency in Florence was The Germ Theory of Ideas. It is usually believed that the brain is the anatomical organ which thinks up new ideas and creates original thoughts. According to Leonardo II, though, this is not at all the way ideas and thoughts are created. Sure the brain controls reflex actions and nerve impulses, he says, but you can hardly get a great inert lump of squishy pink meat to think up original ideas. The creative process, said Leonardo II, is the result of a contagious disease which is transferred via idea germs, microscopic amoeba that live within the fine spore-laden organic dust of many urban environments.
And so in Florence 2121, the usual cleaning and disinfecting of everything in the home and in the workplace became a thing of the past. The machines and the chemicals once used to sterilize the urban world were retired and a healthy dusty microbial ecosystem became the fashion.
One rather unsavory side-effect of the growing popularity of Leonardo’s germ theory is that an increasing number of the students in Florence 2121 seem to spend most of their time licking dusty walls and sticking fingers up their noses in a desperate desire to ingest the accumulated microbes. Florence, as a whole, also became shrouded with a soft microbial dust cloud, The Mystique, it was nicknamed, as people worked to create the appropriate ecosystem for creativity.