Utopia on a chip – The world in a hundred years.

Illustration Susanne Gold/ Text Arthur Pease

To commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the construction of the Acropolis, governments have commissioned the planning and testing of a future city in the virtual world – a city that is based on the democratic principles, human dimensions and classic architecture of ancient Athens. Long before the city is built in the physical world, future residents use deep immersion systems to visit it – including students from a massive open online course who intend to test an energy-saving hypothesis.

 A virtual city brings ancient models of urban life into the future and becomes a center of learning for students who want to create the perfect urban environment.

“It’s really starting to take shape,” I said to Solon as we looked across the vast agora. In the distance, beyond an impressive Ionic colonnade, we could see the virtual city stretching out into the distance. “Amazing how realistic it looks,” he said, shaking his head in mock disbelief. Solon and I – my name’s Ligeia – are the project’s Chief Integrated Systems Architects. But of course hundreds of others, including historians, sociologists and all sorts of technology specialists from companies and universities all over the world, are also involved. We’ve been meeting in a network of powerful “deep immersion” virtual reality labs for months. The labs provide such an intense feeling of reality that some of us, Solon and I included, have started projecting ourselves in period Greek clothing.

Most of us have not physically met, but we were all recruited by the Greek and European Union governments to conceptualize, create and optimize a virtual city based on the democratic principles, human dimensions, and architectural style of ancient Athens.

Designed to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the construction of the Acropolis back in 438 BC, the new city, which will be called Aristopolis, will be officially opened just months from now in fiber optic wideband to the worldwide community. Considering its human, historical and technological dimensions, this project is the ultimate challenge in terms of systems integration.

Of course, for now, I’m just talking about the virtual version of the city. But it is a construction-ready, fully-functional version, complete with energy- and resource-optimized-and-integrated infrastructures from water and power to ubiquitous virtual-presence communications, and from underground-piped-in-light hydroponic gardening and meat-culture farming to networked transportation and predictive health care – in short, at the moment, it’s a city on a chip.

A striking site high above the Aegean Sea for the city’s physical counterpart has been set aside and its basic below-ground infrastructures, including a subway line to the next largest city and pipes to an underwater desalination plant, have been installed.

But before ground-level construction begins, contractors have been encouraged to build their municipal, residential and commercial buildings and infrastructures in the virtual world where they can be tested, analyzed by future users, and optimized.

Around 7,000 virtual residential units have already been realized. Before signing a rental or sales agreement, future residents can use their own deep immersion units or visit a community immersion center to explore the city on foot or on an electric rider, get a feel for the sights and sounds of their prospective neighborhood, meet local butchers and bakers, re-acquaint themselves with the lost art of face-to-face contact, test-decorate their future homes, and purchase appliances that will be automatically integrated into each building’s carbon-neutral energy management system.

Thanks to its virtually limitless potential as a laboratory for urban studies, Aristopolis is already being used – even before its official opening – as a test bed for a range of MOOCs – massive open online courses. For instance, just this morning, a high school math & science class that includes hundreds of 17- and 18-year-olds from around the world submitted an algorithm for testing. Using their schools’ deep immersion systems, two boys representing their class, one from Dubai, the other from Baku, Azerbaijan, joined us – virtually, of course, in the agora.

“Let’s take a look at what they’re up to,” I said to Solon, pulling a pencil-thin Scroll Viewer from my wrist holster. The boys, whose faces and names appeared on the viewer following a split second security check, explained that their algorithm was designed to predict the amount of energy a city can save in heating and cooling costs if it invests in a material that allows its pavements to alter their color – and thus their thermal absorption – based on ambient temperatures and seasonal conditions. “We’ve examined the leading products and built a database,” said one of the boys, who identified himself as Faruq. “We want to test our top choice on location.”

“Sounds like an excellent idea,” I said. “But is the product rugged enough to withstand decades of wear?” “We do not foresee a problem with regard to resilience,” answered the young man with self assurance. “We have identified a product that consists of a transparent carbon nanotube-based microencapsulated polymer solvent that radically changes its color based on temperature. It is absolutely impervious to degradation and can be sprayed onto most surfaces by standard automated street maintenance equipment.”

“Is it expensive?” I asked. “That depends on how much energy it saves,” answered the other student, Wahib, without missing a beat. “With your permission, we would like to download our algorithm into the city’s Intelligence Platform in order to initiate the experiment.” “They certainly came well prepared,” I said to Solon as I pulled up our 3-D Virtual City Control Center (VC3) panel on my Scroll-Viewer. The panel displayed what appeared to be a vast semicircular desk below a bank of brightly-lit monitors. I reached my hand into the image and touched the monitor marked “Streets,” which instantly swiveled to the center of the panel. Meanwhile, an icon for the boys’ algorithm popped up on the Scroll-Viewer. I dragged and dropped the icon into the Streets panel.

Simulating the accelerated passage of days and months, the streets in the viewer image began darkening and brightening in rapid succession – as did the surface of the agora around us, reminding us that, after all, we too were in the virtual world. “The algorithm assumes coverage by the polymer solvent of all paved surfaces that are exposed to direct sunlight for at least 10 percent of the year,” explained Wahib. “It determines this by measuring the angle of the sun for each square meter of surface over a year, while taking the shadows cast by nearby buildings into account. It then calculates the difference in temperature over time between the current static surface and the dynamic one being tested and translates this into radiated energy and an estimate of the amount of energy saved per dwelling to maintain a comfortable temperature.”

“Does your program take lighting into account?” asked Solon. “After all, on a dark winter night you would not want to have dark paving material. That would require more energy for lighting.” “That is a subject we would like to examine in collaboration with polymer-solvent manufacturers,” interjected Faruq. “Several members of our class pointed out that it may be possible to include a photochromic layer in the sprayed material. The pavement would then work like windows and sunglasses that become increasingly transparent as the level of light decreases, thus returning the material to its original white complexion at night.”

“And there is an additional advantage,” said Wahib; “since streets and sidewalks are contiguous, the carbon nanotube material, which is conductive, forms a virtual information network covering the entire city. Once connected with your VC3 – as it already is – and after a brief learning phase, the system would be able to identify patterns of movement throughout the city in real time as well as over seasons. If you think about it,” he added, “it could add up to a new kind of vote-with-your-feet democracy in which businesses and city departments would have the information to provide services based on where people really are.”


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