Sunday, February 14, 2016

Transitioning to Arcologies

Point 1: Resource exhaustion has been singled out as an important factor in determining how many alien civilizations are present at any time in the Milky Way. Point 2: Recycling of resources is an obvious way to extend the usage period of a planet's resources and would be adopted by any intelligent species facing resource exhaustion or possibly long before it became a significant problem. Point 3: Raising the recycle rate very high, or in other words, reducing the depletion rate to a very low value requires much of an alien civilization, and living in arcologies appears to be the living arrangement most conducive to low depletion rates.

Question 1: If an alien civilization evolved into a living arrangement nothing like an arcology, would it be possible for them to transition into ones rapidly enough to put low depletion recycling in place before shortages cripple the living standard?

In more basic terms, if A has to happen to prevent civilizational collapse, but B, which is not-A, is the existing situation, and if there is no path from B to A, then collapse will happen. Is there a way for an alien civilization to move the entire population, except for some small numbers, into arcologies, organize the necessary recycling, and live according to the conditions this imposes? If not, we have a stronger answer for why there are no aliens visiting Earth.

Can such an arcology be built and would it stand up to time and be usable for long periods of time? Consider the structure itself first. If it is built for a finite period of time, like a century, and then is expected to be abandoned or simply demoed, then the mass of the building is not being recycled. This does not have to be the process, however. If the building is thought of as a piece of equipment, the same principles of recycling might be imposed on it as are imposed on other complex items, such as transportation vehicles or systems, computing systems or networks, power generation and distribution facilities, utility infrastructure and so on. These principles start with the object being designed to be decomposable into parts which are themselves either also separable further or are amenable to recycling by themselves. For example, electrical and fluid and information transmission services inside the arcology would have wiring, piping, cabling or whatever that can be taken off the arcology, either for repair or replacement, or when the structure itself is being recycled. Instead of being cast into a structure, these transmission systems would be removable whenever necessary. Moreover, each part of the transmission system would be removable and could be taken for recycling.

The structure itself is subject to the same rules. The building has to be capable of being disassembled. A large explosive demolition is not what one would see. Instead, the same process of construction would be repeated in reverse for deconstruction. This may seem strange or impossible, that buildings larger than our skyscrapers and much more versatile in the interiors, containing all that the civilization needs and permitting all that it wants to do to be done inside, could be disassembled like a Lego block structure. Yet even here, in the primitive backwater called Earth, some steps have been taken in that direction, perhaps enough to indicate that disbelief is not necessary.

A Chinese company, Broad Sustainable Building, has figured out a process of building skyscrapers out of prefabricated parts. This is not the same thing as designing a building to be taken down, but the concept of building huge buildings, for example, BSB's 30 story hotel/office building, was put up in 15 days by fabricating a huge number of identical pieces in factories, testing them there, and then assembling them onsite. The details of the design are not completely clear, but with removable fasteners between parts, the concept of deconstruction seems quite reasonable. The breakthrough implication for an recyclable arcology is not in the speed with which construction can proceed, but the demonstration of the concept that large buildings can be put together out of pieces, assembled like, yes, Lego blocks.

The Chinese company, BSB, did not design their components to be recyclable and neither did they come up with the concept of pre-fabricated skyscrapers for the purpose of someday recycling them. There is no impetus on Earth at this point to do this, and no profit in it and no purpose for it at this time. But this methodology is a step toward the recyclable arcology that demonstrates that safety and stability concerns, structural integrity, and many design features can be accomplished with a building that consists of fairly small components. They did not stop at 30 stories because of some strength limitations and plans for higher buildings, using the same methodology, have been done.

An arcology that was sufficiently wide, and 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 stories tall would certainly be sufficient to house a city's population. BSB has never displayed for much wider cities and there is a good reason for that. Cities on our planet are divided into blocks, some square and others irregular, with roads between them, and it is a much more difficult thing to obtain planning approval to make these transit corridors disappear and be replaced with a single large imposing building. It certainly has been done, but BSB is building pre-fabricated buildings in part, perhaps a large part, because they are less expensive, and so building ones to match all or part of a city block is quite to be expected. The expansion in footprint is something that is not without issues, but they do not detract from the concept of a decomposable building of recyclable parts.

There is no reason to think that an alien civilization would build a city as an arcology, live in it for a century or two, and then move onto another one while taking the old one down and recycling the parts. There are many reasons why a different strategy would be adopted. The different strategy is to have a large arcology, part of which can be disassembled without greatly disrupting the life within the city, and then reassembling it out of renovated parts. Imaging a large arcology, one percent of which was under reconstruction at any time. This means that all of the city would be renovated every century. Of course there are questions of how to route traffic if there is constant changes of construction areas, how to re-route utilities and so on, but they do not seem insuperable, simply something a good computer could figure out.

There are other issues about transitioning to arcologies, but they will have to wait to another post.

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