Ingenuity Results

InGenuity: NextGen's Vision for an Urban Planet

We asked young scientists in a variety of fields to answer this question:

According to the United Nations (, more than two-thirds of the human population will live in cities by 2050. How can scientists in your field help society prepare for an increasingly urbanized world? 

In the 20 May 2016 issue, along with a special section on The Urban Planet, we ran excerpts from the many interesting responses we received. Below, you will find the full versions of those essays, as well as many of the other interesting ideas we received.

Follow InGenuity on Twitter with the hashtag #InGenSci.

Essays in print
Flash Forward: Health in Style: Yawning, I stepped into my in-home physician assistant (PA) station. I am just old enough to remember when urbanites, such as myself, needed in-person checkups for their medical peace of mind. How could a scant, single, annual visit to a physician possibly diagnose everything? Slowly, the in-home PA's sleek, brushed, chrome arm, embedded with diagnostic electronics, arcs around my body. Unlike antiquated medical equipment of the past, my in-home PA2050LE is subtle, dare I say even tasteful, and blends with my bathroom's decor. In the early 21st century, there were attempts to make wearable devices for more personalized wellness. However, the true breakthrough in personalized wellness came when scientists integrated engineered cells with the monitoring electronics. Now, my PA2050LE can interface with the cells on my skin and with the cells in my body, communicating with populations of benign engineered bacteria living among my gut's microbiome. "Alert, Alert" the PA2050LE blares. "Deficient Vitamin B Detected." Clearly, the engineered cells has identified an issue and relayed a phenotypic change to the PA2050LE. In the past, nutrition abnormalities could only be approximated by diet assessment. Now with automated daily checkups, any of my biochemical markers can be monitored, recorded to my cloud-based medical records, and… "Up-regulate Vitamin B production" I respond to the PA2050LE. Within hours my engineered microbiome will synthesize the vitamin I need. I leave the bathroom, thanking my in-home PA again for saving me, and millions of others, the time and money for a trip to the doctor's office.
Keith Cameron Heyde
Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24060, USA.
Email: kch2118{at}

Model Systems: Lessons from the Colony: The study of ants reveals important lessons for humans living in an increasingly urbanizing ecosystem. Without suggesting that we live in underground tunnels, there are many architectural and functional adaptations of ant nests that human city planners would be remiss to ignore. Ant colonies use thermal gradients to circulate air without expending energy, while our buildings often spend about 50% of total energy on heating and cooling. When escaping a high-density space, ant groups undergo a liquid-to-glass phase transition, facilitating a quick group exit. Contrast with human crowds or traffic jams, which undergo a liquid-to-solid phase transition at high densities, facilitating trample damage and inefficiency. Apart from these architectural, logistical, and behavioral adaptations which could be implemented in cities, ants maintain impeccable hygiene, preventing the spread of disease. We do not need to lick each other to stay clean, but we must reconsider public health surveillance strategies in light of ongoing human epidemics. The deepest lesson of all relates to the most crucial problem facing humanity today: overpopulation. As the great ant-poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, "Your children are not your children / They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself / They come through you but not from you / And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you." Gibran's exhortation is exemplified by the eusocial brood-rearing strategies of ants. We must find a way to control the basal desires of our germline, in a socially and ecologically responsible way.
Daniel Ari Friedman
Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.
Email: dfri{at}

Pollution and Waste Management
The rapid urbanization of already overpopulated metropolitan and large cities will be a major problem in the perseverance of healthy and sustainable living conditions, due to rise in environmental pollution, inadequate solid waste disposal, shortage and deterioration of drinking water, and various health issues arising from all of these. Scientists working in natural sciences or more specifically in the areas of synthetic and computational biology have great responsibility and opportunity to address some of these problems, where genetic engineering methods based on recently developed advanced techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 can be applied to engineer microorganisms to tackle problems of the urbanized world for sustainable development. For example, bioremediation using engineered microorganisms with altered biochemical or metabolic pathways for the degradation of environmentally toxic compounds could efficiently overcome pollution. Enhanced phytoremediation of toxic and heavy metals from the environment, through the assistance of engineered microorganisms, could facilitate phytoremediation of polluted soil and water on a large scale. Principles of synthetic biology can be used in plants to improve the cellular responses to pathogens, stress tolerance, crop production, and could reduce losses due to climate change and environmental pollution. Greener biosynthetic pathways can be used for the production of compounds ranging from industrial to therapeutic values, without causing harm to the environment.
Bipin Singh
Center for Computational Natural Sciences and Bioinformatics (CCNSB), International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Hyderabad, Hyderabad, Telangana, 500032, India.
Email: bipin.singh{at}

A greater density of living means a greater density of production and consumption of the chemicals necessary to both life and our human infrastructure. A greater concentration of any chemical generally means magnification of the macroscopic implications of chemical properties and interactions. Consequently, to maintain a healthy and happy living standard, scientists in the fields of chemistry can help us prepare for increasing urbanization by furthering our knowledge of the impacts of these chemicals on our personal and environmental health. Where it is found that a chemical essential to human infrastructure, or necessarily produced by that infrastructure, has risky potential, chemists can strive to formulate chemicals serving similar roles without negative health and environmental implications. Already we have seen the egregious impacts of high concentrations of chemical pollutants in high-density cities, such as atmospheric pollutants in Beijing. Future higher-density living will represent a crunch time for any past sloppy practices regarding chemicals. Now more than ever, we must recognize that disposal of a chemical must involve a regenerative cycle rather than a destination, lest that destination become dangerously close in proximity to our living spaces, as it is in rubbish dump slums the world over. It is the role of chemists, with their intimate knowledge of both the beneficial and toxic potential of chemicals, to revolutionize how we manage chemical waste for the health of future generations.
Rose Joy Crocker
Adelaide, South Australia, 5022, Australia.
Email: rose.crocker{at}

Imagine clean air at the flick of a switch. Clean water seemingly from the air. Obvious challenges in megacities around the world are maintaining air quality and clean water supply, which the projected urbanization of the future will only make worse. Materials chemistry offers exciting and intelligent approaches to mitigate and remove air pollutants, and to extract useful molecules like water directly from the air. Metal-organic frameworks are microporous ordered crystalline materials that can act as solid sponges to selectively capture water or gasses like carbon dioxide and toxic pollutants like sulphur dioxide. Although the idea of pulling chosen molecules directly from the air on any reasonable scale is currently fanciful (although alluring—the ability to flick a switch and watch smog disappear in front of your eyes!), many scientists have proposed the use of these molecular sponges to purify land and sea vehicle emissions, to filter the emissions of large-scale industry, and to passively generate water using the humidity and temperature differences between day and night. These upstart materials still face a number of serious hurdles, the biggest perhaps being high production costs. However, this is counterbalanced by their massive synthetic tunability; estimates put the number of metal-organic frameworks already reported in the tens of thousands! We can optimistically imagine a future in which fine control of urban air quality and easy access to clean water are as ubiquitous as these challenges otherwise promise to be.
Timothy Easun
School of Chemistry, Cardiff University, Cardiff, CF10 3AT, UK.
Email: EasunTL{at}

The world is becoming urbanized, and everyone should get ready to prepare his own city for the next generation. Chemists have an important role in making the urbanized world better. With increasing populations in cities comes increased manufacturing waste products, daily life wastes, car exhaust, pollution, and need for energy. Green chemistry may be the key to solving all these problems. The inside of factory pipelines can be coated with chemical materials to react with the waste moving through them and produce environmentally friendly materials. Our most common daily waste is the all-important water; water treatment with suitable chemical materials can allow that water to be reused to water plants or aid manufacturing. Plastic is a petrochemical non-decomposable material, but it can be reused through recycling and the help of chemical additives. Even food can be turned into biofuel with the right catalyst. Transportation will always cause pollution, but chemical filters can make emitted gases safe or even recyclable. Chemists can also develop alternative energy sources. The development of novel chemical materials to be used in dye-sensitized solar cells or perovskite solar cells will improve the efficiency and produce more energy. Fuel cells can be developed as well. A chemist can turn an urbanized world into a world of beauty.
Basant A. Ali
Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Alexandria University, Alexandria, El-Montaza, 21611, Egypt.
Email: basant_walieldeen{at}

In most urban areas of the contemporary world, drinking water contamination leads to a multitude of people suffering from malnutrition, mismanaged solid-waste disposal, and deficient sanitation. It is, therefore, imperative to develop low-cost modes of water quality scrutiny. One large advantage of cities is the enormous implementation of technology. The world has witnessed the phenomenal growth of cell phone users in the past decade; even low-income factions of the urban population in developing nations have gained access to so-called "smart phones" and have acquainted themselves with "apps" and "social media." We might be able to exploit this vast expanse of cell phone usage for developing the next level of "end-user technology" for urban wellbeing. Biologists can collaborate with app designers and hardware developers to create inexpensive cell-phone (app)-based biosensors for easy water quality analysis, analogous to the new generation of glucose-monitoring instruments. With this approach, the price can be brought down because the cell phone will negate the need of expensive additional hardware. A low-cost probe may be required that might be connected to the phone. The water quality analysis apps could be integrated with the social media, alerting others if water tests positive for contaminants and flagging areas with polluted water supply on the map.
Gunjan Guha
Cellular Dyshomeostais Lab (CDHL), School of Chemical and Bio Technology, SASTRA University, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, 613401, India.
Email: gunjan.doc{at}

Renewable Energy
Chemists can improve lives in 2050's mega-cities in three ways: re-imagining the food supply, decreasing energy usage, and preventing disease outbreaks. Fresh fruits and vegetables, grown in backyard gardens today, may be difficult to obtain for future city dwellers. Hydroponic growing units in homes will provide herbs and leafy greens. No green thumb? Food scientists will develop nutrient shakes and bars—like Soylent or Ensure—tailored to address specific nutrient deficits. Waste products like rinds, peels, or bones will be saved aside for microbial fuel cells biochemical engineers hope to place under the sink. Unless materials scientists and physical chemists have devised efficient, readily-available solar power, urban citizens will have to conserve whatever energy they can obtain, perhaps using secondary batteries to capture "leaky" current from wall sockets. By 2050, flexible materials and displays will replace TVs and laptops, driven by improved chromophores and novel fabrication methods. Insulation, to keep freezers cold and ovens hot, will be advanced using hybrid ceramics and high-temperature polymers. Crowded public spaces may lead to more rapid outbreaks of resistant bacterial and viral infections. We'll have to create new scientific roles—medical ecologists, informatician nurses—to accurately model, predict, and treat diseases before they become epidemics. Analytical chemists will lead development of smartphone-based sensors for volatile organics in your breath, to diagnose disease before a hospital visit. Drinking water, long subject to fluoridation, may also begin to incorporate trace amounts of statins, aspirin, or vitamins to improve general health.
Michael A. Tarselli
NIBR Informatics, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.
Email: mike.tarselli{at}

An increase in urbanization is almost always coupled with an insatiable hunger for energy. This has certainly been the case with many developing nations. It is imperative that the world find new methods to produce sustainable energy, which put little or no burden on the environment. Many organisms, eons ago, mastered the ability to capture free energy in its smallest form: an electron. Yet, scientists have only begun to break ground in the fields of biorenewables, bioenergy, and artificial photosynthesis. A new hope has come from the thermophilic archaeal genus Thermococcus. Thermococcus does not breathe oxygen, like mammals; instead, it reduces protons. This remarkable metabolic dance yields pure hydrogen gas for only the cost of the sea water media used to grow the microbes. Biohydrogen excites many researchers because fuel cells and combustion systems produce a fair bit of energy and only water as a byproduct. The major hindrance for hydrogen fuel cells technology is that hydrogen is expensive. This cost is due to the time and expense of electrolysis or extraction from natural gas pockets within the Earth. This cost could be circumvented by using microbes. Biochemists the world over are working to turn these hydrogen-making microbes into large-scale hydrogen production systems, so that in the latter half of the 21st century, humans can rely on a renewable form of energy that sits well on the conscience for generations to come.
M. Clayton Speed
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.
Email: cspeed{at}

Increasingly, we rely on technology to optimize our lives. As such, breakthroughs in energy and material science are needed to provide for the increased consumption of our cities. Our computers are reaching the speed limits of traditional silicon transistors, as well as the size limits prescribed by quantum mechanics. Research in carbon nanotube and graphene transistors could be the key to continuing the past 50 years of exponential growth in computational power. With a worldwide shortage of helium imminent, the development of high-temperature superconductors is no longer a dream but rather a necessity if our medical professionals are to continue saving lives with MRI diagnoses. As our cities become larger, the distribution of resources will become too difficult a problem for humans to solve without the aid of robust, automated control systems, designed to be mathematically correct and physically optimal. Perhaps most important, we must find safe and environmentally friendly ways of generating and storing energy. Fusion promises to be a source of this clean energy, but only with the hard work of our plasma and nuclear physicists. The creation of higher-capacity, safer batteries would go a long way toward solving our energy storage needs. As people migrate to the cities, the total number of humans on Earth will also grow, taxing our planet's resources far past the current unsustainable levels of consumption. Along with the consumption reduction efforts of our governments, continued basic research in physics promises to alleviate some of the issues we and future generations will face.
Congzhou Mike Sha
Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
Email: consha{at}

Health Care and Disease Prevention
Epidemiologists describe how diseases spread across people, places, and time. The dimension of place is rapidly evolving to mean "city," which in turn means closer proximity to each other and to reservoirs of disease. And if you think that only matters for infectious (communicable) diseases like Ebola or Zika or malaria, think again. A social epidemiologist, Dr. Nic Christakis, has conducted innovative network analysis to establish that even conditions like obesity—which we previously believed to be noncommunicable—can spread between friends, family members, and coworkers. This happens through common social norms and behaviors, access to health resources, and the shared environment. As the global population moves into cities and social networks grow denser, the spread of disease will likely pick up its pace. But so can the spread of health! Epidemiologic tools afford us a bird's eye view on the evolving patterns of disease distribution, which can then be harnessed to inform smart public health campaigns and urban planning initiatives.
Stella Aslibekyan
Department of Epidemiology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35205, USA.
Email: saslibek{at}

Given that 70% of the world will live in cities by 2050, we can rejoice in the many benefits that urbanization will bring to global quality of life. But the sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits associated with urban living are also primary causes of increasing worldwide incidence of cardiovascular diseases, already the number one killer in developed countries. As biomedical researchers, we can help fight the global cardiovascular epidemic by realigning research priorities toward understanding disease prevention in the urban world. For instance, more research can be done to seek a quantitative, mechanistic understanding of different dietary components on cardiometabolic health using cellular and molecular tools, which can help refine current models that rely heavily on epidemiological data and that may inadvertently fuel simplistic concepts of "good" versus "bad" food groups in ever-changing dietary fads. More research is also needed to identify molecular signals that confer the cardiovascular benefits of physical activity, which can lead to therapeutic targets that can mimic specific benefits even for aging or incapacitated populations. In parallel, data scientists can use mobile health data from fitness devices and smartphones to model the optimal amount of walking required to minimize cardiovascular risks, which can help inform urban planning decisions. Given the anthropogenic nature of urban diseases, biomedical researchers can make contributions to human health both by providing knowledge that guides evidence-based policy-making to prevent disease and by finding cures to treat disease after it occurs.
Edward Lau
Department of Physiology, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.
Email: edward.lau{at}

Being in cancer research, at first sight, it would be hard to think that my field of work could help society to prepare for such an exodus; however, having two-thirds of the world population living in big cities would mean that the food, transport, and even waste industry would increase immensely. Consequently, different types of possible carcinogens as smoke, asbestos, electric and other types of radiation, along with infection-derived carcinogens might also increase. In this scenario, cancer prevention and treatment would be very important to ensure that the increase of the urbanized population won't be at the expense of health. It would be crucial to constitute a worldwide consortium of cancer research and prevention, formed by scientists, physicians, economists, and ecological, social, and psychological experts that would provide clear and applicable health politics. These would include early diagnosis, mandatory tests, and public health efforts, along with personalized treatments. However, none of these politics would be useful unless third-world countries are included and protected from the high costs of tailor-made cancer medicine and regular clinical tests. In my lab, we make daily efforts to find new treatment options that would enhance patient's life quality and that would ultimately increase the success of already-known strategies. Nonetheless, we fight with the idea that our discoveries could help thousands and could also leave millions excluded unless the issue of drug costs is addressed. If people migrate to the cities because of the opportunities, let's give them that.
Ada G. Blidner
Laboratorio de Inmunopatología, Instituto de Biología y Medicina Experimental, CONICET, Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires, C1428ADN, Argentina.
Email: adablidner{at}

Urbanization affects both developed and developing countries, changing lives at the macro and micro levels. Growing up, I witnessed members of my extended family gradually migrate from a mountainous village to the Taipei metropolitan area. To them, this cosmopolitan city with more than 7 million people was the Promised Land for better education, job prospects, and social mobility. Billions of people worldwide are pouring into the cities for similar reasons. However, air pollution, psychological stress, unhealthy dietary options, and sedentary lifestyle in the cities lead to serious urban pandemics, including respiratory illnesses, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. As a biomedical informatician, I see many new technologies with great potential to tackle these issues. For instance, we can use mobile technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) to track dietary patterns, build exercise break reminders, record blood pressure and blood sugar levels routinely, and monitor psychological stress. Harnessing big data analytics, we can identify lifestyle and biomarker patterns associated with the development of illnesses and establish an early-warning system for disease prevention. With secure data transmission and storage methods, we can link patients' lifestyle information with their medical records, which will provide physicians with valuable longitudinal data, facilitate patient follow up, and ensure the quality of home care. In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters: one representing danger and the other alluding to opportunities. Urbanization brings huge challenges, but with big challenges come great opportunities for promoting healthy lifestyles and advancing precision medicine on a global scale.
Kun-Hsing Yu
Biomedical Informatics Training Program, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.
Email: khyu{at}

As the world endures increases in urban growth and higher population densities, inhabitants in towns and cities will be exposed to and become more vulnerable to economic, environmental, and social stress. Neuroscientists can help society combat the negative influence of urban living on inhabitants' brain biology by using research to determine how economic, environmental, and social stressors translate into cognitive and mental disorders, including anxiety and depression. Findings from the research can be used as a foundation to work with local community organizations and urban planning and governmental entities to promote and implement public health strategies that can reduce the risk for brain disorders in urban areas. One potential public health strategy can be the development of comprehensive wellness centers in places of employment and near housing units. The centers' main purpose should be improving physical, mental, and social wellbeing on an individual and community level. Thus, the wellness centers should provide urban residents with feasible and affordable mechanisms for: (i) increased food and water security and access; (ii) engaging in healthy behaviors and the cash economy and maintaining wealth; (iii) reducing environmental pollution and poor hygiene, (iv) personal, professional, and educational development regardless of socioeconomic background, age, ethnicity, or gender; (v) adequate and improved housing conditions; and (6) a sense of community and belonging on the job or in or near the home. This will enable these centers to advocate for the welfare and sustainability of rapidly urbanizing communities.
Joyonna Carrie Gamble-George
Vanderbilt Brain Institute, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN 37210, USA.
Email: joyonna.c.gamble-george{at}

With increasing life expectancy, increased urbanization would place a strain on urban healthcare resources. While chronic diseases can be well controlled with existing drug regimes, medical compliance and monitoring remain major challenges in patient care. Indeed, poor management of chronic diseases arising from cumbersome drug regimes, polypharmacy, or defaults in follow-up visits to the doctor contributes substantially to hospital admissions and emergency department visits. Advancements in drug regimes for chronic diseases (such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and hyperlipidaemia) and electronic monitoring of chronic disease parameters could help in reducing the crunch on local healthcare resources. Electronic monitoring of disease parameters, such as blood glucose levels and blood pressure, reduce the need for frequent 3- or 4-month follow-up visits for chronic disease management, and enable physicians to titrate medication regimes more accurately to effectively treat diseases. It is highly plausible that with increasing digital interconnectivity in urban areas, electronic monitoring could reduce the frequency of outpatient visits a patient would require for chronic disease management, while allowing a physician to optimize drug therapy more effectively for patients. In addition, advancements in drug pharmacokinetics and delivery of medications for common chronic disease (such as insulin administration) would translate to better medical compliance, and lower incidences of adverse drug reactions and complications that require inpatient treatment. Taken together, improved medical compliance and disease monitoring through these scientific advancements can enhance better management of chronic diseases and potentially lower long-term healthcare resource utilization in an increasingly more densely populated city.
Bryce W. Q. Tan
Department of Physiology, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 117597, Singapore.
Email: brycetan03{at}

Community Building
We often hear that cities should be smart, resilient, and self-sufficient. What if they only had to be green to be all that at the same time? There is a growing understanding that urban nature benefits city dwellers in diverse ways. From parks to vegetated strips or street trees, nature-based solutions help filter air pollutants, treat stormwater, and cool down air temperature during heat waves. Recent research shows that they also help to build a sense of community and can substantially improve our physical and mental health. In short, urban nature provides us with many invisible benefits that make our cities better places to live. Making the invisible benefits visible is the objective of the research on urban ecosystem services. Urban ecosystem services researchers evaluate urban nature's effect on communities. For example, urban parks clean up the air but they can be perceived as unsafe at night, or consume scarce water resources. Ecosystem services scientists believe unraveling these questions is worth the effort. By discovering how urban nature benefits us, we can design more resilient and efficient urban environments, and importantly do so in a way that is fair to all communities. Nature should not be reserved to the wealthiest who can afford to travel to remote protected areas. It can be part of our everyday life, just outside our windows.
Perrine Hamel
Natural Capital Projectâ€"Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.
Email: perrine.hamel{at}

Big data–driven behavioral and social science research can play an important role in solving problems caused by urbanization. China is experiencing a rapid process of urbanization. The rapid urbanization process has caused many severe social problems, including the wealth gap, the medical resources shortage, and unemployment. Also, a certain degree of material life improvement cannot always guarantee the improvement of spiritual life. Many new citizens cannot adapt well to city life. This also leads to some social problems, such as drug abuse and mental health problems. The increasingly available multi-source and heterogeneous big data resources have provided a new way to analyze the behavioral characteristics and the decision-making models. The social big data include demographic data, online social media data, and individual's daily interaction data with external environment (such as household data, transportation data, and public service data). From the social big data analytics, the behavioral patterns of new citizens and the operation status of the urbanized world can be revealed and discovered more accurately and efficiently. It is important to understand people's behavioral changes and to monitor the operation status of society during the urbanization process. Social big data analytics can support the development of more precise public policies to solve the many problems in the process of urbanization. Big data–driven management science research has important practical implications in supporting the decision-making of the government.
Kaile Zhou
School of Management, Hefei University of Technology, Hefei, Anhui, 230009, China.
Email: kailezhou{at}

An urbanized environment presents us with a new environment, an environment we have made for ourselves. A savanna dwelling ape moved out of its native environment and built immense concrete shelters to protect itself from the ravages of the environment. And in this process, which we evolutionary biologists call niche construction, we have evolved. We are beginning to understand how agriculture transformed our species: We can process starch rich food more efficiently, and some of us can digest milk into our adulthood. But how has the urban environment affected us? Now there are populations that have been urban for thousands or at least hundreds of years. Have some human populations adapted to the urban environment? Can this knowledge help others to adapt to their novel environment? Genomics and evolutionary biology can answer these questions. Furthermore, urban living requires cooperation and division of labor with an ever-increasing number of people. The study of cooperation has by now provided us with a glimpse of the situations that facilitate cooperation. We can now tackle systems in which differences among individuals, wealth inequality, and division of labor (i.e., the provision of more than one Public Good) can be incorporated. The results of these analyses can help policy-makers to guide society to a more harmonious coexistence. We already know that the rampant wealth inequality hinders cooperation, for example in climate-change mitigation. Science can give good advice on how to solve our problems, such as urbanization, but in order to have any effect the public needs to know and take that advice.
Ádám Kun
Plant Systematics, Ecology, and Theoretical Biology, Eötvös University, Budapest, 1117, Hungary.
Email: kunadam{at}

Crime Prevention and Safety
More people means more technology. To prepare for an increasingly urbanized and technically-integrated world, digital forensic cyber-crime investigation and information security researchers are looking at how technology can better allocate resources in real-time while ensuring that such systems do not make available personal information about users in physical or digital environments. In case systems are abused, researchers are developing new techniques to quickly investigate rapidly emerging, large, distributed, complex systems and data in order to detect and reconstruct criminal activities. Especially important, researchers must be able to prove the reliability and integrity of evidence derived from these complex cyber-physical systems to meet the standards of admissibility in court. All this research must strike a balance between user convenience, community sustainability, personal security, and, of course, justice. Forensic and information security scientists will ensure that with more people sharing space and resources, each person will still be able to maximize their safety, security, and wellbeing in both physical and digital spaces.
Joshua I. James
Legal Informatics and Forensic Science Institute, Hallym University, Chuncheon, Gangwon, 24252, Korea.
Email: joshua.i.james{at}

Health would be of paramount concern and research interest. Metabolomics as a tool for profiling biomarkers of human diseases holds tremendous potential as both diagnostic and prognostic tool. Lab-on-a-chip devices integrated to real time monitoring of critical metabolites (small molecules such as sugars, lipids, amino acids, and peptides) by mass spectrometry holds promise. These devices can be fitted to human body or tested off site, but would lead to bar coding of the human population based on their health status, i.e., diseased and those predisposed to a disease. With emergent and re-emergent pathogenic outbreaks striking every decade in the form of SARS, flu, Zika, and Ebola viruses, the preparedness to screen for the presence of such pathogens and their resulting effects would be invaluable. With urbanization, the ecometabolomics, toxicometabolomics, and meta-metabolomics approaches would help monitor the level of damage in our surrounding food, air, water, waste, and soil among others. The changing dynamics of the ever-expanding human exposome (the plethora of chemicals human skin is exposed at every second from domestic and work lives) leading to the exposomics studies will be recorded for increase in potential carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens among others to make sure that human life is safeguarded in 2050! A rise in crimes, drugs, and addictions could be tackled with the use of analytical tools available in miniaturized forms to the law-keepers to record the entire human metabolome snapshot at the site of crime, to test the victim's cause of demise and suffering, and possibly to deliver justice to convicts on site in timely fashion. We welcome 2050!
Biswapriya Biswavas Misra
Department of Genetics, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, San Antonio, TX 78227, USA.
Email: bbmisraccb{at}

Before the 2000s, a person was depicted as a tiny piece of society and the role was not important as an individual. Since the Human Genome project, genetics has brought a new perspective for individuality. Now it is obvious that the next centuries will be focused on the individuality of a person. Genetic technologies will bring irreplaceable changes to an increasingly urbanized world. Dating pools have been massively increased with the introduction of dating apps. The popularity of these applications will continue to increase as it becomes more difficult to establish genuine physical contacts due to the life in virtual space. The dating apps will be developed to match only genetically compatible partners. Due to intense lifestyle, genetically engineered foods will be cheap, contain high nutritional value, and require no preparation time. Medical systems will be reorganized to work even faster to meet the increasing demand for medical care. Knowledge of a patient‘s genetic sequence will expand the choice of available tests and shorten diagnosis time. With increasing criminal rates in cities, security systems will become even more difficult to crack as they incorporate genomic information. By 2050, we might need to provide part of our genome sequence to enter workplaces, banks, and shops. To prepare society for future advancements, scientists in genetics and genomics have to ensure secure genetic data handling, spread their ideas and findings in an understandable way, and further develop tools for an accessible education in Genetics.
Klaudija Daugelaite
Lithuanian University of Health Sciences, Kaunas, LT-50393, Lithuania.
Email: klaudija.daug{at}

If more than two-thirds of the human population lives in cities by 2050, considering the shortage of land resources, growing huge populations, and urban load capacity, especially in developing countries such as China and India, there will be an increasing number of high-rise buildings, or even ultra-high-rise buildings such as the Empire State Building, appearing in cities. This trend may cause more urban fire safety problems. Over the past decades, around the world there has been abundant fire in high-rise buildings such as MGM grand hotel Fire (1980) and Shanghai "11.15" Fire (2010), which caused many deaths and substantial capital losses. We could address that problem. First, by collecting related fire hazards data through applying high-precision and real-time monitors powered by Big Data and Cloud Computing technology, we can obtain the maps of fire hazards development and conduct comprehensive risk analysis, and the results could be presented to the people in the high-rise buildings in a special fire alarm APP. Second, we could establish a fund for fire safety to carry out fire technology innovation for high-rise buildings, such as a fire prevention facility, fire-fighting robots, or heat-resisting escape compartments. We could also conduct regular or unscheduled safety checks and implement emergency exercises for unexpected fires. Finally, besides promoting the fire safety culture among the public, we could compile universal escape guidelines and urge the government to formulate laws and regulations of fire safety for high-rise buildings.
Jian Zhang
School of Safety and Environmental Engineering, Hunan Institute of Technology, Hengyang, Hunan, 421002, China.
Email: zhangjian3954{at}

Food Security
Climate change is a major issue in this context. Our society needs to develop more sustainable ways of living while providing enough resources for future demands. More people living in cities can result in a greater disconnection with nature and our dependency on it. Consequently, we need to create ways to connect people with their natural environment. In the past few years, the concept of "Climate Smart Agriculture" has been developed. In the same fashion, we should start thinking about "Climate Smart Cities." These cities should focus on decreasing both their water and carbon footprint, and they should also be resilient to the expected climatic changes. An important aspect of this transformation will be to redesign our food system such that cities not only constitute demand for food produced in rural areas, but also serve as producers themselves. These "Climate Smart Cities" foster a strong human-nature relationship, and promote a more responsible attitude on how people living in cities sustain themselves. For example, parks and green areas need to satisfy not only aesthetic and recreational demands, but also provide space to empower citizens to produce their own food. The field of climate change can provide valuable information to support the design and adaptation of cities by 2050.
Nicolas Eduardo Bambach
Centro de Cambio Global Pontificia, Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, RM, Chile.
Email: nbambach{at}

In the movie "Soylent Green," starring Charlton Heston, an increasingly urbanized world faces a major problem: food security. This manifests in two distinct forms. On one hand, urban populations are so dense that people cannot access food (essentially creating a citywide urban food island), and on the other, reliable sources of food are dwindling. This is where future molecular biologists must step in, so that society may avoid a horror story like that of "Soylent Green." Molecular biologists can help by working together on a food source for the future urbanity that is humanity. This food source must be easily transportable, nutritious, palatable, and above all, sustainable. Such a source could draw from any number of organisms, such as algae, seaweed, rotifera, and other photosynthetic/bottom-dwelling organisms. This would enable the food source not to depend on the availability of feed (as is the case with farmed fish and livestock). Furthermore, this would enable city-dwellers to focus their energy on non-food issues that are endemic in any metropolis (such as crime, poverty, and corruption). People shouldn't have to fear starvation in a modern setting, and by developing novel food sources, molecular biologists can preclude that.
Michael Patrick Christopher Schwoerer
The Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19128, USA.
Email: mschwo{at}

Research on plant-microbe interactions has the potential to improve productivity of both increasingly pressured farmland and farms located within cities. The latter case, in which crops are grown indoors in space-efficient and environmentally friendly "vertical" farms, might particularly benefit from new fundamental research. The importance of microbes for plants has been well described: They can make nutrients available, increase growth rates, and stimulate disease resistance. Likewise, indoor farming is nothing new but has grown rapidly in recent years, partly because of new LED lighting technology. Indoor growth allows tight control of environmental conditions, useful for both production and experiments. Hydroponic and aeroponic growth methods offer substantial water savings and enable specific types of experiments. Indoor growth also enables exclusion of pests, pathogens, and foodborne illnesses, although this could have the unintended consequence of reducing levels of beneficial microbes. Therefore, it will likely be useful to inoculate indoor crops with synthetic communities of microbes, after optimization and extensive testing. Small reference plants such as Arabidopsis thaliana will be important for this effort; the compact formats in which they can be grown enable automated imaging, inoculation, microbe sampling, and chemical analysis. Unfortunately, the indoor farming sector has thus far been slow to share experience and technologies, and the growth of indoor farms may depend more on economics than environmental benefits. Nevertheless, the promise of consistent year-round fresh food, even in the densest urban centers, suggests that we should invest in relevant biological research.
J. Steen Hoyer
Computational and Systems Biology Program, Washington University in St. Louis, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO 63132, USA.
Email: j.s.hoyer{at}

The world's urbanization has made traffic jams that were already bad even worse. It is time for scientists to combine technologies on artificial intelligence (AI) and modern wireless communications to ease the problem. AI makes cars smart; self-driving cars can make decisions automatically according to traffic conditions. Meanwhile, vehicle-to-vehicle communications and the incoming fifth-generation wireless systems make it possible for cars to talk with each other, regardless of the distance between them. With these technologies, massive amounts of information can be exchanged among cars, and a sophisticated scheduling and decision-making scheme can enable individual cars to make wise decisions and avoid traffic jams.
Lei Jiao
Department of Information and Communication Technology, University of Agder, Grimstad, 4885, Norway.
Email: lei.jiao{at}

The growth of our cities in the upcoming years will lead to increased pressure on the structural components and complexity of the system city. This will require among others more sophisticated monitoring of water conservation, energy supply, lightning, waste reduction, pollutant and air quality management, building cooling, architectural structure maintenance, and pandemic disease. A major problem of the existing city infrastructure and architecture is that they are designed without much flexibility. The system city needs to be more environmentally sustainable and adaptive in order to meet the challenges to come. Synthetic biology (SynBio) is about the artificial design and engineering of biological systems and living organisms. SynBio as a practical application of systems theory is especially suited for a complex system such as a city. Biological systems have the ability to adapt to new information from a changed environment. Moreover they have the potential for structural repair. The city of the future can potentially be engineered less like a conglomerate of machines and more like a natural system. Cells can be engineered to sense and respond to environmental signals. Communication networks through sensors can be embedded in the city infrastructure. Protocell technology, a new material that possesses some of the properties of living systems, can be manipulated to grow architecture. We might see self-repairing architecture. Cells can be engineered to produce energy. Altogether SynBio has the potential to contribute to solutions to the problems initially mentioned.
Gerd Moe-Behrens
Leukippos Institute, Berlin, Berlin, 10777, Germany.
Email: gerdmoebehrens{at}

More and more people are moving to the cities. Whether space is expanded horizontally or vertically by building higher buildings and using underground infrastructure, an increasingly urbanized world will necessitate bigger cities and could leave little space for the natural environment. If nature is kept out, people living in such a megalopolis could become completely disconnected from the natural world. Scientists have the power of maintaining the link between people and nature through education and science outreach. But to truly understand and become advocates of nature, people need to experience it first hand and on a daily basis. It is becoming increasingly important to abandon the current model where people and nature are geographically separated for a model where nature is truly integrated in our cities. Landscape architects and ecological engineering scientists have the skills to design networks of self-sustainable and functioning natural ecosystems within the urban matrix. Urban parks, green roofs, and vegetation corridors can all contribute to the integration of nature in cities, but they need to be more present and better connected to ensure the continuity of the natural ecosystem in the urban environment. The paradigm needs to shift from planting trees and building parks within the city to building the city around the natural environment.
Stéphane Boyer
Department of Environmental and Animal Sciences, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland, 612, New Zealand.
Email: sboyer{at}

Online essays

The field of ecology is in an interesting position to help society prepare for an increasingly urbanized world. Historically, ecologists sequestered themselves in the most remote, natural, and un-urban places that could be found in order to understand the inner-workings of the environment without human disturbance or influence. Over time, ecologists and others have come to realize that every inch of the Earth's surface is influenced by humans, from the center of ocean gyres to the poles to mountain peaks. Ecologists began to include the human element in their studies instead of excluding it. Many ecologists study impacts of human activity on ecosystems; a few even study urban areas as ecosystems in order to understand their living beings, from flora to fauna to microbes to humans, and how they and their surroundings interact. Ecology is built on studying interactions between living and nonliving components of a system. In an increasingly urbanized world, this more and more includes how humans interact with our surroundings both urban and rural and how we interact with the other living beings on this planet. Ecology can provide insight into urban areas as ecosystems that interact with other ecosystems through consuming inputs and generating outputs with downstream impacts. The focus on interacting components uniquely allows ecologists to target the questions needing answers.
Sarah Marie Anderson
School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, USA.
Email: sarah.anderson2{at}

According to the United Nations, more than two-thirds of the population will soon be living in cities. Although this prediction marks a substantial step toward an ideal life quality, urbanization requires a well-established scheme because population increase in cities imposes many challenges. For instance, how will we supply enough food to the population? How will we avoid environmental problems such as global warming caused mainly by inadequate anthropogenic practices (such as unnecessary use of vehicles, energy sources, the emission of pollutants to the environment)? Several disciplines of biology will be vital to preparing us for an urbanized world. Agriculture, botany, and molecular biology will help us to improve crops, both to supply food to sustain the world's population and to meet the fiber demands such as cotton needed to produce garments. Finally, ecology will allow us to develop strategies to guarantee less pollution and avoid/mitigate global warming. My field will help to address key issues to design a controlled and viable long-term development that big cities need.
Rigoberto Medina Andrés
Instituto de Investigación en Ciencias Básicas y Aplicadas, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos, Cuernavaca, Morelos, 62209, México.
Email: rigoberto.medinaa{at}

Ecologists study the interaction of living organisms that build the communities that collectively house life on Earth. These natural communities interconnect in ways that assure their mutual continuance. Shallow estuaries and wetlands buffer neighboring terrestrial habitat from storm surge. Seagoing salmon migrate up freshwater streams to spawn, dying in the process and substantially contributing to the pool of nutrients spruce forests need to grow and prosper. In the grand organization of nature, these interconnections are the rule, not the exception. Urban environments are the apex of human cultural achievement and, on the surface, appear to be separate and distinct from these natural communities. But humans are a part of the natural world and are just as dependent on the mesh of organismal interaction as any other species. Human urban habitat requires a steady supply of water, food, and oxygen while also requiring the removal of human waste and excess rain and floodwaters. To continue sustainably as human population pushes past the 8 billion mark, we must strive to integrate our food production and urban habitat with surrounding natural communities. The 2004 Aceh earthquake and tsunami taught us that communities that retained coastal mangrove forest suffered less destruction than those that did not. Estimates for the number of humans deriving protein from the world's coral reefs range up to half a billion people. In learning to preserve natural ecosystems, ecologists will lead us to a 22nd century where human habitat is firmly rooted in the natural habitats that nurture humans.
John Michael Artim
Department of Biology, Environmental Science Program, Arkansas State University, State University, AR 72467, USA.
Email john.artim{at}

In December of last year, children in Beijing had a "smog day" where, instead of being closed for snow, schools were temporarily shut down because of dangerously high air pollution. The red alert lasted 3 days, clearing only after strong winds had swept through the city. Air contamination in large cities around the world is intensifying as a growing population burns more fossil fuels to meet energy demands. Scientists in solar fuels research seek to address this problem by using the Sun's energy to activate and transform substrates into useful chemicals. For example, immobilization of a hydrogen-producing molecular catalyst onto a semiconductor yields an integrated photocathode to generate hydrogen fuel from water. This approach can also be used to activate carbon dioxide for reduction to hydrocarbons, thus closing the loop of CO2 emission/use by varying the catalytic component. In a third example, the semiconductor/catalyst construct could drive the conversion of nitrogen to ammonia, thus circumventing the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process. As solar energy capture and conversion technologies (such as solar panels) become more efficient, our generation's pressing challenge is finding readily deployable storage solutions for intermittent renewable energy. As urban growth continues, clean air in cities will become rare unless our energy production and consumption can be decoupled from fossil fuels and associated airborne contaminants. By using solar energy to drive fuel production we can help create a future in which urban centers still have clear blue skies.
Anna Beiler
School of Molecular Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287â€"1604, USA.
Email: anna.m.beiler{at}

"Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two: one the city of the poor, the other of the rich" (Plato, The Republic). While people living in cities enjoy the "urban advantage," sporting better health outcomes compared with their rural counterparts, reports have repeatedly highlighted inequities plaguing urban health. With more than a billion people (approximately a third of the world's urban population) estimated to be living in slums, nowhere is inequity more pronounced. Overcrowding, malnutrition, lack of sanitation, and infectious diseases adversely affect the slum inhabitants, who also have inadequate access to healthcare services. Meanwhile, sedentary lifestyles and noncommunicable diseases threaten the city's affluent class. Children growing up in cities are uniquely vulnerable to this dual threat. The situation is even worse if we add respiratory morbidities accompanying environmental degradation. Economic growth does not necessarily create a healthier city. Being an inherently complex process, urban health planning needs a transdisciplinary approach. Healthcare outreach services should be designed to meet the needs of marginal populations. Population-based research should be bolstered to generate contextually relevant evidence to inform practice. Research should also focus on socioeconomic patterning of urban diseases and their effects on children. Research-driven improvement in healthcare technologies must be accompanied by a policy-driven approach toward health equity. "A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one" (Aristotle, Politics). Our cities are getting populous. The onus is on us to make them great.
Tamoghna Biswas
West Bengal University of Health Sciences, Kolkata, West Bengal, 700040, India.
Email: tamoghnab{at}

Research regarding the science of cities will increase as people continue to move into urban settings. However, there is a knowledge gap between the issues and benefits of urban life and what the public and political leaders are aware of when they make decisions. A socioeconomic spectrum is also present that will allow certain groups of people access to resources while omitting others. Cities function by setting boundaries, compartmentalizing, and maximizing efficiency for a diverse yet concentrated and dense population. But by doing so, it can result in a "survival of the fitness" mentality. Nanomaterials can help ease the transition into cities by developing stronger composite materials for building city infrastructure and by contributing to molecular diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for personalized medicine. The latter will require teaching the public what is available regardless of neighborhood, educational background, language, and socioeconomic group. As scientists and engineers, we can disseminate data and laboratory findings beyond our scientific and immediate audience, to reach the greater community. In turn, our preparation will require communicating our work in a tangible and more palatable portion so that all members of the city can be aware of the benefits from findings and inventions of the laboratory.
Eun Ji Chung
Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089â€"1111, USA.
Email: eunchung{at}

Urban food deserts are already an acknowledged problem among nutritional scientists, and it's likely that this problem will be exacerbated as more and more people inhabit cities. Scientists in this area should investigate how high-quality fruits and vegetables can be accessible to people at affordable prices throughout cities, particularly in low-income areas. Giving people access to healthy foods empowers them to make better health decisions. Eliminating urban food deserts will help improve the health of people living in cities.
Ryan Alexander Coots
Department of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA.
Email: rac359{at}

The transmission of emergent diseases like the Zika virus will accelerate as humans continue to concentrate in dense urban areas, placing greater stress on an already taxed scientific and medical infrastructure to cope with these new threats. Existing pathogens will find it easier than ever to pass from host to host, growing increasingly virulent with successive infections. At the front lines of the ongoing brinkmanship between the staggering forces of human ingenuity and the terrible, evolutionary impetus of pathogens stand unlikely heroes: pharmacists. Often (though not limited to) operating in the community setting, pharmacists bear the brunt of much of the initial triage during urban epidemics as patients seek accessible, potentially over-the-counter, low-cost care. As drug experts, pharmacists must take the lead on antimicrobial stewardship efforts to prevent the development of treatment resistance and encourage vaccination when available. Armed with education, pharmacists are ideally positioned to prevent antimicrobial resistance by individualizing therapy (both to the patient and the pathogen), collaborating with prescribers to optimize prescribing practices, and providing point-of-care testing to their patients in the community. Vaccination is key to preventing the spread of disease, and pharmacists must continue to spearhead vaccination efforts to maintain herd immunity. Furthermore, pharmacists must continue to engage with the rest of the scientific community, using their pharmacological expertise to help design novel treatments against emergent diseases and translate evidence into clinical practice. As scientists and clinicians, pharmacists must adapt and grow as a profession to meet the healthcare needs of the future.
Joseph Michael Cusimano
Columbus, OH 43220, USA.
Email: joecusi{at}

Design thinking is a methodology that provides a multistage framework to develop solutions that meet the needs of respective "users"; it has commonly been used by design firms in creating various products and services that we use every day. I contend there are a few key facets of design thinking—specifically those relating to the people involved—that should be applied to the world's grand challenges, including that of increased urbanization and the problems it presents. Most important: It's not just about what scientists from my field can do. Multidisciplinary teams are fundamental in design thinking, because diverse teams (i.e., those comprising non-experts) provide unique insights and fresh perspectives that more readily lead to innovative solutions than uniform teams. To address future widespread urbanization, we will need to involve historians, architects, authors, engineers, botanists, lawyers, accountants…the list could go on endlessly. At its core, design thinking is a user-centered approach. Empathy is the first stage of the process; it involves interviews, observations, research, and occasionally "body-storming," when you put yourself in the place of the user. Empathy is intended to provide a deep understanding of the individual for whom we are designing a workable solution. So, this will mean not just working with each other as scientists (or otherwise), but also focusing throughout the process on involving the people that make up society, i.e., those whom we are helping to prepare.
Eileen Burke Diskin
Innovation Academy, UCD, Dublin, 8, Ireland.
Email: diskineb{at}

As an MD-PhD specializing in translational neuroscience, I would like to highlight the impact of rapid global urbanization as an under-reported risk factor for human physical and mental morbidity. The neuropsychiatric/human health implications of urbanization are manifold: Urbanization is associated with increased rates of depression and other psychiatric illnesses in the migrated population. The rapid influx of diverse populations to cities can potentially introduce novel microbial strains, with a possible alteration in antibiotic resistance profiles. Substandard living conditions (for example, a competition for space, amenities, and recreational facilities) resulting from urbanization increase the risk of communicable as well as noncommunicable disease in both the migrated and native populations. Finally, a much neglected aspect of urbanization is the stress associated with relocation, which affects children and adolescents in particular. This becomes even more critical based on the emerging evidence that exposure to early life stress can lead to trans-generational inheritance of behavioral and metabolic perturbations. Besides spreading awareness about the unhealthy outcomes of urbanization, neuroscientists should develop simplified models to study the dynamics of urbanization with a critical focus on the demographics of the migrating populations, as well as the availability of resources in the metropolitan areas to which they are relocating. This would help identify which populations/cities are unsuitable for such relocations besides bringing forth appropriate windows for intervention.
Ali Jawaid
Brain Research Institute, University of Zurich, Zurich, 8057, Switzerland.
Email: alijawaid84{at}

If one finds himself/herself in the Amazon rainforest, he/she will be amazed by the great number of species of all kingdoms of life. The scenery is quite different in Times Square, an extreme representative of big urban centers, where different species have been substituted by skyscrapers, pollution, and noise. It is clear nowadays that urbanization has hammered biodiversity over the past 200 years following the Industrial Revolution. Urbanization is not only reducing the number of species, but it is also imposing environmental pressures that canalize embryonic development toward specific phenotypes, "blurring" heterogeneity. Developmental biology studies biodiversity and the different developmental mechanisms that transform a single cell into an organism. Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) is a sub-field of developmental biology that studies the evolution of these developmental mechanisms. Its interface with ecology (eco-evo-devo) investigates the environmental factors that drive this evolutionary change. The solutions to combat decreasing biodiversity in urban centers have, so far, revolved around introducing non-native species to substitute for the loss of the native ones. An alternative route to preserve biodiversity is to understand how the environment has affected the embryonic and post-embryonic development of different animals and plants during the course of evolution, and how different species have managed to evolve and explore new environments when under pressure. This way, we could potentially estimate the significance of different environmental factors, which if regulated would relieve selective pressures that dampen biological diversity, and allow some natural beauty to decorate our metropolis.
Nikolaos Konstantinides
Department of Biology, New York University, New York, NY 10012, USA.
Email: nk1845{at}

An increasingly urbanized world, with ultra-high population densities concentrated within relatively confined spaces, will face two primary issues: sanitation and sustainability. Sanitation relates to problems arising from waste disposal, sewage treatment, and environmental pollution. The increased population also brings about higher energy consumption and raw material usage. As a material chemist working on nanoscience and technology, my contribution toward alleviating these problems will come in the form of detecting environmental toxins, helping with cleanup, and designing more efficient materials. Sensitive detection of toxins, especially in water, is essential to ensure that the water is safe for consumption and that efficient cleanup plans are put in place to minimize any disruption in supply to the general population. In terms of sustainability, new materials are constantly discovered that can achieve ever-better performance in terms of energy harvesting, conversion, and even storage. It is important to delve deeper into the periodic table and hunt for increasingly efficient materials to power the urban population.
Yih Hong Lee
Department of Chemistry and Biological Chemistry, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 637371, Singapore.
Email: titusster{at}

Environmental neuroethics is an emerging subspecialty within the field of bioethics that focuses on the ethical and societal issues pertaining to how one's environment influences brain and mental health. Air pollution in densely populated urban areas has been shown to cause detrimental effects in the developing brain, such as structural abnormalities and systemic inflammation. Additionally, exposure to high levels of pollutants in older populations has been shown to increase cognitive decline. The potential environmental harms to our brain also extend to mental health; living in urban environments has been shown to be a risk factor for psychiatric diseases such as depression and schizophrenia. As our population becomes increasingly urbanized, one must ask whether these harmful effects will be concentrated in certain demographic regions or socioeconomic groups. Individuals new to urban environments may be ill-equipped to adapt to their new environment, leading to increased poverty and risk to one's brain health. Researchers in neuroethics are actively trying to anticipate these challenges and attempt to mitigate the potential adverse health effects through advocating for constructive policies and social action. This can be achieved by bridging the gap between scientific discovery and the needs of the public to formulate evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers. Neuroethicists also play a prominent role in undertaking knowledge dissemination initiatives to better inform the public about these issues. By investigating the effects of environmental change and urbanization on brain health, neuroethicists hope to improve the quality of life for all in the decades to come.
Cody Lo
Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia, National Core for Neuroethics, Vancouver, BC, V6T 2B5, Canada.
Email: codylo94{at}

The global burden of dementia is expected to increase dramatically in the near future. Epidemiological studies indicate that countries with greater degree of urbanization exhibit higher incidence of dementia. A possible reason is that changes in the microbial environment at urbanized areas induce immune dysregulation, which is closely associated with the pathogenesis of dementia. As urbanization "catalyzes" the process by which the risk of dementia is raised, the increasing number of patients suffering from dementia exerts further burden of medical care on the urbanizing society. An undesirable feedback loop is therefore created. Fortunately, via the joint efforts of neuroscientists in the world, the mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of dementia are being revealed with a good progress. Recently, neuroscientists also achieved much better understanding of how our immune system is involved in the mechanisms. The useful research findings provide strong hints on the identification of substances that have the highest potential to cure dementing disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, thereby facilitating the development of novel therapeutic strategies applicable to clinical practice in the community. The contribution of neuroscientists to the breakthroughs in biomedical discovery will definitely support healthcare professionals to cope with the challenge of rapidly rising population in the coming decades.
Chun-Wai Ma
School of Biomedical Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.
Email: cwma2010{at}

Urban living places great demands on infrastructure, medicine, energy, and food supplies. Areas of high population density require adequate housing and transportation. Infectious diseases are often potentiated by people living in close proximity. The necessity of strategies for clean, sustainable, and more efficient energy production will only increase. Food and clean water, the most basic requirements for supporting human life, will be less abundant. Scientists will need to work collectively to address these challenges. Supramolecular chemists, with their unique perspective on the interactions between molecules, are poised to contribute to the endeavor. Our training builds an intuitive sense of molecular structure and a special understanding of forces that are individually weak, but collectively strong. Our work is inherently interdisciplinary and our results often have broad applications. The supramolecular chemistry approach is especially suitable for the development of safe, specific, and more effective drugs. This same approach is being used to identify new strategies for energy production and to increase the efficiency of current methods. The burgeoning field of supramolecular polymers is producing new materials with incredible strength and stimuli-responsive properties. The extensive research on molecular sensing and binding continues to show promising utility in medicine and water purification. I anticipate that the demands of an increasingly populated and urbanized world will be answered in part by the ingenuity of science and technology. Interdisciplinary and global collaboration will be central to our success and supramolecular chemists will be among the specialists leading the charge.
Joseph William Meisel
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63121, USA.
Email: jwm5hd{at}

Access to electricity is indispensable to the modern quality of life. In a simplistic view, you could consider this access to be a balance between two components: where your electricity comes from, and where it goes. On one side of the equation we see cities expanding and power consumption increasing around the world. How do we produce more electricity to balance that out? Fossil fuels are cheap sources of energy for now, but are they worth the price that we will pay for the damage that they cause to the planet? Solar and wind power seem like great, clean options, but will energy storage technology make up for their unreliability? For big cities what we really need is a reliable, large-scale baseline power source. Maybe we can take a lesson from the sun about producing energy. After all, it's been pretty successful for billions of years. We know the recipe for doing what the sun does: heating up hydrogen until the electrons are stripped from the atoms, allowing the exposed nuclei to "fuse" together and produce energy. When we tear the electrons away we actually create a new state of matter, a plasma. By studying plasmas, we hope to learn how to control them and utilize the energy released from the fusion reactions. There's a lot of amazing progress being made in this area, from the Wendelstein 7-X experiment that just began operating to the ITER experiment that is now under construction. It is an exciting time for plasma physics!
Matthew Parsons
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.
Email: msparsons73{at}

Urban infrastructure is a collection of social and technological infrastructures. It is in their interaction, and the ways in the social and technological shape one another, that life in cities takes shape. If they function correctly, these infrastructures, both social and technological, are invisible. It is only through disruption or crisis that they become visible—for instance through power failures or political protests. Science and technology studies endeavors to render these invisible structures that shape what life in cities means, visible. This visibility is a requirement to understand the changes we expect as new technologies and new types of social interaction enter the city's infrastructure, ranging from self-driving cars to new forms of labor or political identities. Cities can be obdurate and innovative, but understanding why requires understanding the roles of the social and the technological in city life. This entails among other things the collection of narratives, for in those stories the tacit norms, values, and interpretations associated with technical and social infrastructures are brought into view. To understand life in the cities of tomorrow, we have to study life in the cities of today, the ways in which technologies influence the social dimensions of life and the ways in which our relationships, interpretations. and values shape our material surroundings. Cities and life, after all, co-evolve.
Bart Penders
Health, Ethics, and Society, Maastricht University, Maastricht, Limburg, 6200MD, Netherlands.
Email: b.penders{at}

Increased urbanization and development in the coming decades poses unique challenges as well as opportunities. Challenges arising from development include tackling global warming and climate change, whereas increased urbanization offers opportunities in minimizing such impacts with better planning. Roughly half of the annual anthropogenic carbon emissions are taken up by a combination of the terrestrial biosphere and the world's oceans. The behavior of these large carbon sinks is highly variable with large year-to-year variations, and at present poorly understood. My field utilizes atmospheric measurements of carbon dioxide and methane on a global scale to quantify the amount of carbon taken up by these sinks on a regional scale during different times of the year. A better understanding of the carbon cycle science can help the future cities so that we preserve the largest carbon sinks and perhaps even strategically develop newer ones. We could plant trees that take advantage of the higher carbon dioxide levels around urban areas and "suck" some of the carbon out of the air right at the source. While reducing anthropogenic emissions is top priority, mitigating their impact on the environment and the ecosystems can go a long way towards preserving the Earth as we know it.
Anand Ramanathan
Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, University of Maryland, College Park, NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD 20771, USA.
Email: anand.ramanathan{at}

Sustainability engineering can substantially help the decision-making to prepare an increasingly urbanized world. Sustainability engineering enables decision-makers to use decision support models for sustainability assessment, enhancement, and design to promote the development of a sustainable city. Sustainability assessment based on Multi-Criteria Decision-Making helps the stakeholders in the city to achieve their objectives while considering economic propensity, clean environment, and social responsibility simultaneously. For instance, sustainability assessment of different land-use scenarios can identify the most sustainable land-use pattern for increasing the population capacity of the city. Sustainability enhancement identifies the weak points of the existing scenarios in cities that are not sustainable and enhances its sustainability through modifications. For instance, the modification of a district's heat supply system from a fossil fuelâ€"based scenario to a waste-to-energy–based scenario can significantly reduce environmental load, mitigate resource depletion, and promote the development of an eco-city. Sustainability design for urban planning designs the scenarios that have the best sustainability performances at early design stages through optimization. For instance, the optimization of an industrial and urban symbiosis network can allow wastes generated by cities to be recycled and reused in industry, producing products that can be deployed to cities to maintain the urban development in a low-carbon way. Decision support framework based on mathematical logic can draw a clear roadmap for preparing an increasingly urbanized world with a bright future.
Jingzheng Ren
Department of Technology and Innovation, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, 5230, Denmark.
Email: jire{at}

Increased urbanization reinforces the need to study the cell. For one, understanding the cell remains imperative in continuously providing better strategies to combat diseases that affect present-day societies and will threaten the healthy urbanized societies of the future. In this context, molecular biologists and biochemists have been preparing society for urbanization as exemplified by increasing utility of biomarkers in early diagnostics and in targeted therapy. Apart from the vital role of the field in health and medicine, the study of the cell can inspire how to cater to other needs that an increasingly urbanized world will be demanding. For example, elucidation of how the genetic code is read and written has driven initiatives to utilize DNA as a compact means of storing digital information. This will certainly be useful as urbanized societies produce more digital data. Sustainable urban planning can also benefit from molecular biology and biochemistry. Growing research has mapped how different molecules are efficiently sorted, compartmentalized, and trafficked within and between cells both spatially and temporally. The intricacies of cell sorting, cell compartmentalization, and cell trafficking could guide how sustainable urban environments and infrastructure are built and developed. Like healthy cells, urbanized societies must be able to adapt and interact with each other. Like engineering a healthy tissue of healthy cells that interact at an effectively regulated and especially sustainable manner, molecular biologists and biochemists, with collaborations from experts in other fields, can certainly play an active role in development of an urbanized world that transcends national borders.
Paul Gerald Layague Sanchez
Institute of Molecular Biology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, 11529, Taiwan.
Email: pglsanchez{at}

By the year 2050, if the UN predictions materialize, overpopulation in cities will have a huge impact on the environment. It will be imperative to continue monitoring and sampling the environmental quality of rivers, streams, lakes, and sea coastal waters near crowded cities because human activities will enormously alter the ecosystems of these waters. It will be vital to carry out strict controls and impose regulations on water discharge procedures such as sewage and industrial effluent treatment, principally in undeveloped countries. Performing controls and improving the conditions of contaminated areas, for which the work of scientists is necessarily involved, can certainly improve the quality of human life and its environment.
Maria Romina Schiaffino
Centro de Investigaciones y Transferencia del Noroeste de la Pcia. de Buenos Aires (CONICET-UNNOBA), Junin, Buenos Aires, 6000, Argentina.
Email: rschiaffino{at}

As the world becomes more urbanized, the density of physicians per a given area will only continue to increase. This will lead to further sub-specialization within each given field of medicine. For example, in rural settings, it is common to have a pediatrician who regularly deals with a broad scope of disease; however, an urban setting will have specialists in pediatric cardiology, pediatric pulmonology, pediatric neurosurgery, and so forth. Although these specialists are experts within their particular subsets, they often lose their abilities to treat the medical problems not confined to this microcosm. If this trend continues, physicians will lose their ability to practice independently without consultation as they will become reliant on the expertise of colleagues. If we do not stop this momentum, the age of the renaissance physician will give way to the age of the ever increasingly partitioned subspecialists. Time will tell whether this expertise will result in higher-quality medical treatment or if the disappearance of the one-stop shop will merely increase the expenditure of resources.
Eellan Sivanesan
Department of Anesthesiology, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, FL 33131, USA.
Email: eellansivanesan{at}

Urban ecosystems are non-linear, self-organizing, feedback-driven, complex systems. They are driven by heterogeneous human activity and environmental influences. When fractured by unplanned urbanization, poor civic governance and/or unrest, they become hotbeds for new pathogens with epidemic potential. The world has witnessed such calamities in the recent past with influenza, dengue, Ebola, polio, yellow fever, and drug-resistant tuberculosis. Infection surveillance systems have been developed worldwide to detect, monitor, and respond to such calamities. But being deterministic, they fail to anticipate emerging infections and break down in the absence of epidemiological data. Infection surveillance is a large decision problem with several interdependent variables. This makes it suitable for stochastic optimization and agent-based modeling. Such systems are already in use for tackling urban challenges like traffic routing, energy management, weather forecasting and disaster management. An intelligent urban infection surveillance system can account for human mobility, cultural and trade peculiarities, socioeconomic disparities, human-to-animal contact, urban microclimates, land-use patterns, and habitat fragmentation. Such systems allow dynamic decision-making by tackling uncertain data, revealing interconnections between human behavior and urban subsystems, predicting breakdown scenarios, and flagging planning discrepancies. They can better predict where and when new pathogens, host-species and drug resistance are likely to emerge. Despite being computationally intensive, they use decomposition systems to allow speed and accuracy. They can be adapted for the resource-poor developing world and be productively integrated with similar systems in the developed world. Although not a panacea for the infectious disease challenges of the urbanized world, it is a definite step forward.
Prashant Sood
Institute of Medical Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, AB25 2ZD, UK.
Email: drprashantsood{at}

I have devoted my masters and Ph.D. thesis to research of circadian rhythms and their interaction with the environment. Industrialization, shift work, and artificial light at night negatively affect a person's internal clock and its synchronization with natural light. The result is increased susceptibility to metabolic disorders and cancer. Light pollution and a lack of respect for natural light are rising problems in urbanized areas. All aspects of urbanized life are going to more severely affect an increasing number of people. Understanding of the molecular basis of circadian rhythms and their interaction with environmental stimuli is key to prevention and amelioration of negative consequences of life in urbanized areas on human health and well-being. The circadian scientists are keen to answer these challenges.
Matus Sotak
Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases, Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech Unit, AstraZeneca R&D, Gothenburg, Mölndal, 43183, Sweden.
Email: matus{at}

Environmental scientists working together with urban planners and socio-economists can help society prepare for an increasingly urbanized world by discovering and developing concepts, technologies, and practices to make urban areas more alive, livable, and resilient to climate change. Increased urbanization means more landscape cast in concrete, stone, and asphalt. Environmental services of green spaces in cities obviously include air and water purification, wind and noise filtering, microclimate stabilization, rain water infiltration and water storage. Urban parks and open green spaces improve the quality of urban life (1), and green city spaces are important biodiversity conservation areas, and migratory routes when well-connected (2). Yet, while urban squirrels might be appreciated, what if rainwater tanks from urban farming cause a mosquito plague? Scientific focus on ways to create and sustainably maintain well-connected green spaces in and around urban areas—for water storage, plants, animals, soil organisms, and human beings—can increase the well-being of the urban environment, urban quality of life, and resilience to climate change. The needs and relations between ecology, recreation, well-being, and economic benefit need to be investigated, considering both benefits and possible problems. Involving multiple stakeholders in discovery and support for ideas and practices for greener cities is also vital for implementation. Increasing urbanization is unavoidable and greener cityscapes have the potential to improve and protect urban life. Environmental science in cooperation with people science has much to offer.
1. A. Chiesura, Landscape Urban Plan. 68, 129 (2004).
2. H. Rudd et al., Restoration Ecol. 10, 368 (2002).
Martine van der Ploeg
Department of Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University, Wageningen, 6708PB, Netherlands.
Email: martine.vanderploeg{at}