Norman Foster Foundation Think Tank 2018—Foster Initiative for Autonomous Communities

MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, MA, United States Principals—Norman Foster and Nicholas Negroponte

The Foster Initiative—a collaboration with MIT—grows out of Norman Foster’s long-time interest in the application of new technologies to transform slums.

The theme was picked up during the Foundation’s On Cities Workshop with one of the mentors, Nicholas Negroponte, who co-founded the MIT Media Lab and is actively working with Foster on the subject.

The Foster Initiative could be described as the pursuit of new kinds of systems that would enable cities to provide all the civilised amenities— such as water, sanitation and power—without the heavy infrastructure of underground sewers, conventional roads and transmission pylons. Hence one of the titles, Cities without Infrastructure.

We are on the threshold of developing new means to create clean power and water, convert human waste to fertiliser, and totally rethink mobility and agriculture. This new approach to urbanism could not only transform slums without bulldozing them, but also respond to the need of shelter after natural disasters or the mass migration of refugees. In the long term, it would feed back into mainstream cities to enhance the quality of life with greater sustainability.

As a research project so far based at MIT, several subprojects have been identified and are being addressed by teams as diverse as space scientists and engineers inspired by biology. One of these subprojects investigates the idea of planting seeds to grow buildings. It is not implausible planting a genetically modified version of trees in order to create the underground roots or foundations of a building—a logical extension could be the building as an organic growth. This is one of several initiatives under the umbrella of the Foundation’s venture with Nicholas Negroponte and MIT.

Three brainstorming sessions have so far been held at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts (4 and 5 October, 2 November, 30 November). The following people were invited to participate: 

Luis Alonso
Luis Bettencourt
Stewart Brand
Norman Foster
Elena Foster
Ian Goldin
Danny Hillis
Donald Ingber
Bjarke Ingels
Hernan Kraviez
Kent Larson
Nicholas Negroponte
Dava Newman
Gui Trotti
John Williams
Chris Wise