LettersIngenuity: Nextgen's Vision

Full speed ahead to the City on the Hill

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Science  20 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6288, pp. 886-889
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag1520

We asked young scientists from a variety of fields this question: According to the United Nations (http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/), 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? Excerpts of our panel's proposed contributions follow, categorized by the challenges they address. For responses that span categories, we have printed the author's name with the first excerpt and initials thereafter. Read the full responses, and many more, at scim.ag/UPInGen.

Pollution and Waste Management

To efficiently overcome pollution, we could use engineered microorganisms with altered biochemical or metabolic pathways to degrade environmentally toxic compounds. Enhanced phytoremediation of toxic and heavy metals from the environment, through the assistance of engineered microorganisms, could facilitate the treatment of polluted soil and water on a large scale.

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}research.iiit.ac.in

When a chemical has risk potential, chemists can formulate similar chemicals without negative health and environmental implications. 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.

Rose Joy Crocker

Adelaide, South Australia, 5022, Australia. Email: rose.crocker{at}me.com

Scientists have proposed the use of 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.

Timothy Easun

School of Chemistry, Cardiff University, Cardiff, CF10 3AT, UK. Email: easuntl{at}cardiff.ac.uk

The inside of factory pipelines can be coated with chemical materials to react with the waste moving through them and produce environmentally friendly materials. Water treatment with suitable chemical materials can allow water to be reused. Plastic is a petrochemical nondecomposable 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. Chemical filters can make emitted gasses safe or even recyclable.

Basant A. Ali

Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Alexandria University, Alexandria, El-Montaza, 21611, Egypt. Email: basant_walieldeen{at}alex-sci.edu.eg

Biologists can collaborate with app designers and hardware developers to create inexpensive cellphone (app)-based biosensors for easy water-quality analysis, analogous to the new generation of glucose-monitoring instruments. The water-quality analysis apps could be integrated with 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}gmail.com


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Renewable Energy

The development of novel chemical materials to be used in dye-sensitized solar cells or perovskite solar cells will improve efficiency and produce more energy.


Waste products like rinds, peels, or bones will be saved for microbial fuel cells that biochemical engineers hope to place under the sink.

Michael A. Tarselli

NIBR Informatics, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA. Email: mike.tarselli{at}novartis.com

Biochemists the world over are working to turn hydrogen-making microbes into large-scale hydrogen production systems.

M. Clayton Speed

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA. Email: cspeed{at}rams.colostate.edu

Fusion promises to be a source of 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.

Congzhou Mike Sha

Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Email: consha{at}sas.upenn.edu

Model Systems: Lessons from the colony The study of ants reveals important lessons for humans living in an increasingly urban ecosystem. 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, whereas 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. Human crowds and traffic jams, in contrast, undergo a liquid-to-solid phase transition at high densities, leading to trample damage and inefficiency. 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—addressed by the communal brood-rearing strategies of ants.


Daniel Ari Friedman

Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. Email: dfri{at}stanford.edu

Health Care and Disease Prevention

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 of 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}uab.edu

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.

Edward Lau

Department of Physiology, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA. Email: edward.lau{at}me.com

With two-thirds of the world population living in big cities, carcinogens such as smoke, asbestos, radiation, and those derived from infection might increase. It would be crucial to provide early cancer diagnosis, mandatory tests, and public health efforts, along with personalized treatments. However, none of these policies would be useful unless Third World countries were included and protected from the high costs of tailor-made cancer medicine and regular clinical tests.

Ada G. Blidner

Laboratorio de Inmunopatología, Instituto de Biología y Medicina Experimental, CONICET, Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires, C1428ADN, Argentina. Email: adablidner{at}gmail.com

Biomedical informaticians can use mobile technology and the Internet of Things 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.

Kun-Hsing Yu

Biomedical Informatics Training Program, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. Email: khyu{at}stanford.edu

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.

Joyonna Carrie Gamble-George

Vanderbilt Brain Institute, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN 37210, USA. Email: joyonna.c.gamble-george{at}vanderbilt.edu

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.

Bryce W. Q. Tan

Department of Physiology, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 117597, Singapore. Email: brycetan03{at}hotmail.com

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 begin to incorporate trace amounts of statins, aspirin, or vitamins to improve general health.


Flash Forward: Health in style Yawning, I step 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}vt.edu

Community Building

From parks to vegetated strips or street trees, nature-based solutions help to build a sense of community and substantially improve our physical and mental health. Urban ecosystem services researchers evaluate urban nature's effect on communities and design more resilient and efficient urban environments in a way that is fair to all.

Perrine Hamel

Natural Capital Project-Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. Email: perrine.hamel{at}stanford.edu

Social big data include demographic data, online social media data, and individ-uals' daily interaction data with external environment (such as household, transportation, 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.

Kaile Zhou

School of Management, Hefei University of Technology, Hefei, Anhui, 230009, China. Email: kailezhou{at}gmail.com

The results of cooperation analyses can help policy-makers to guide society to a more harmonious coexistence.

Ádám Kun

Plant Systematics, Ecology, and Theoretical Biology, Eötvös University, Budapest, 117, Hungary. Email: kunadam{at}elte.hu

Crime Prevention and Safety

To prepare for an increasingly urbanized and technically integrated world, digital forensic cyber-crime investigation and information security 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.

Joshua I. James

Legal Informatics and Forensic Science Institute, Hallym University, Chuncheon, Gangwon, 24252, Korea. Email: joshua.i.james{at}hallym.ac.kr

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 a timely fashion.

Biswapriya Biswavas Misra

Department of Genetics, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, San Antonio, TX 78227, USA. Email: bbmisraccb{at}gmail.com

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.

Klaudija Daugelaite

Lithuanian University of Health Sciences, Kaunas, LT-50393, Lithuania. Email: klaudija.daug{at}gmail.com

If more than two-thirds of the human population lives in cities by 2050, there will be an increasing number of high-rise buildings, which may cause more urban fire-safety problems. By collecting fire hazards data with high-precision and real-time monitors powered by big data and cloud computing technology, we can obtain maps of fire hazards and conduct comprehensive risk analyses. We can also focus on fire technology innovation for high-rise buildings, such as fire-fighting robots and heat-resisting escape compartments.

Jian Zhang

School of Safety and Environmental Engineering, Hunan Institute of Technology, Hengyang, Hunan, 421002, China. Email: zhangjian3954{at}126.com

Food Security

In “Climate Smart Cities,” parks and green areas must not only satisfy aesthetic and recreational demands, but also provide space to empower citizens to produce their own food.

Nicolas Eduardo Bambach

Centro de Cambio Global Pontif cia, Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, RM, Chile. Email: nbambach{at}ucdavis.edu

Molecular biologists can help by working together on a food source that is 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).

Michael Patrick Christopher Schwoerer

The Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19128, USA. Email: mschwo{at}sas.upenn.edu

Research on plant-microbe interactions has the potential to improve productivity of crops that are grown indoors in space-efficient and environmentally friendly “vertical” farms. Microbes can make nutrients available, increase growth rates, and stimulate disease resistance in plants. Indoor farming has grown rapidly in recent years, partly because of new LED lighting technology. Hydroponic and aeroponic growth methods offer substantial water savings.

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}wustl.edu

Genetically engineered foods will be cheap, contain high nutritional value, and require no preparation time.



It is time for scientists to combine technologies on artificial intelligence (AI) and modern wireless communications to ease the traffic problem. AI makes cars smart; self-driving cars can make decisions automatically according to traffic conditions. Meanwhile, vehicle-to-vehicle communications and 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}uia.no

Research in carbon nanotube and graphene transistors could be the key to continuing the past 50 years of exponential growth in computational power. 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.


With the help of synthetic biology, 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.

Gerd Moe-Behrens

Leukippos Institute, Berlin, Berlin, 10777, Germany. Email: gerdmoebehrens{at}icloud.com

Landscape architects and ecological engineering scientists can design networks of self-sustaining and functioning natural ecosystems within the urban matrix. Urban parks, green roofs, and vegetation corridors will be more common 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}unitec.ac.nz

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