Urban Mutations Platform

UMP – Urban Mutations Platform

An interactive platform for the identification of catalysing mutations in city generation, assembly and development

In this project we developed a comprehensive urban theory, which identifies so-called mutations in a city:  alterations in the city’s genetic code, which can be beneficial or harmful, with local or global effect and can drastically affect the city’s development. The user can digitally create a city out of several non-specific structural subunits and then apply mutations, represented by structural and functional city elements that signify an explicit change within an otherwise generic city subunit. Mutations distort the city grid and quantify on the city level parameters such as: the type of disturbances caused; the gravity of each disturbance; the size of the affected area.figure6B

The applied method was inspired by life sciences and recognizes the city as a complex, higher organism. It incorporates several steps: Deconstruction: the complex system (city) is cut into smaller pieces, which can be deeply understood. Mutation: alterations are performed within the subunits. Experimentation: the mutated subunits are allowed to interact and the results are recorded.  Analysis and Synthesis: Once the effects of single mutations are understood, more mutations are allowed to interact each time, until a thorough understanding of the entire system can be reached. The city is finally reconstructed back into its totality.figure1

The resulting interactive installation was meant to bring people of all backgrounds and ages together around the table, towards a better understanding of the urban systems they inhabit.


  • Edyta Augustynowicz, Stefanie Sixt, and Sofia Georgakopoulou, ‘Attractive City – an Interactive City Generator’, in Future cities: 28th Conference on Education in Computer Aided Architectural Design in Europe (Zurich: Gerhard Schmitt, Ludger Hovestadt, Luc Van Gool, 2010), pp. 379-87.
  • Sofia Georgakopoulou, Daniel Zünd, Gerhard Schmitt ‘The city biosphere: A novel theoretical and experimental methodology for the identification of catalysing mutations in city generation, assembly and development’, in Computation and performance, 31st Conference on Education in Computer Aided Architectural Design in Europe Conference (Delft, NL, 2013), in press.

Dr. Sofia Georgakopoulou | georgakopoulou@arch.ethz.ch | +41 (0)44 633 70 69

SUA – Climate KIC

Smart Urban Adapt – Helping cities transition to a low carbon future

The city of tomorrow has to use fewer resources and to provide better living qualities. Therefore SMART URBAN ADAPT helps European cities with next-generation decision tools to design development paths for the 1-ton-CO2-society.

Current climate mitigation scenarios for sustainable urban environments are mainly defined by fixed key performance indicators. Associated action plans are likely to fail due to interactions of systems, legal regulations and economic mechanisms in the real world environment. This calls for a more integrated surveying of climate critical urban systems and adjustable adaptation mechanisms to create feasible urban development paths for climate change mitigation. Hence, this project aimed to develop a scenario based evaluation platform for the generation of accredited urban development paths and resilience benchmarks for municipalities (figure below). Previously separated urban subsystem models were integrated into large GIS data warehouses and combined emerging urban climate data sensing techniques. This platform was leveraged by novel and interactive decision support tools for the cross-sectoral, multi-scale planning, management and operation of existing cities. The modular platform would be commercially exploited in terms of (a) consultancy businesses and sustainability rule databases developed by spin-off companies, (b) middleware services, (c) key technologies (cloud based GIS data warehouse, cloud computing and sensing) and (d) modular interactive next generation software applications for urban planning, real estate investment, and community education.

Dipl Ing Jan Halatschhalatsch@arch.ethz.ch | +41 44 633 79 62

PhD projects

Sustainability for the rich?

Following up on the question, “sustainability, for whom?” three articles published recently in the media attracted my attention. 


The fresh water paradox

In the first case, six years ago, poor people – a mainly farming population – in a poor country – Ghana – are offered by Danida, the Danish International Development Agency, a true treasure: a clean water source, a standpipe, directly into their village. The upgrade is meant to enhance the villagers’ lives, offering a basic source for sustainability: safe drinking water. Six years later, the same clean water has attracted the wealthy into the area. Seeing a unique opportunity in a place where land is cheap and fresh water readily available, they have bought the surrounding farmland, relocated, built their houses and ran water pipes directly into them. “Now the taps in the new houses run 24/7 but the growing demand means that, at the village standpipe, the water only flows for three hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon”. Additionally, the local farmers who sold their land, tempted by the sudden demand, found themselves out of business. As the author of the article concludes: “…there is a paradox in that progress. The water has not brought wealth to the area. It has brought the wealthy.



The great smog of Athens

The second event concerns an EU country, up to now considered advanced and westernized, a place of comfort for many. The crisis-stricken Athens, in Greece, comes to show us that sustainability – especially in terms of environmental effects, but also in terms of personal well being – can be a very fragile state of affairs, directly affected by the economic situation. As Athenians face more and more pay cuts, ever-increasing taxes and the possibility of becoming unemployed, prices around them keep rising. The immediate effect of a recent tax increase in heating petrol (leading to almost doubling its price compared to last year) was not what the government was hoping for (namely to avoid heating petrol used as vehicle gas). What the measure actually caused is a massive reduction in the usage of petrol-based central heating systems: petrol is just too expensive to afford. People have turned to cheaper wood as a source of heating, using either their fireplaces, where available, or installing wood-stoves and burning anything that comes in hand. The result is a phenomenon similar to what was experienced back in 1952 in London (when central heating was unheard of): the great London smog. The later, caused the deaths of some 4’000 people, with more recent analysis bringing this number up to 12’000. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/countryside/9727128/The-Great-Smog-of-London-the-air-was-thick-with-apathy.html). This event – lasting only a few days – lead to the 1956 Clean Air Act in an effort to reduce smog.

In Athens, such a phenomenon is unfortunately not just due to a coincidence of lack of technology and the wrong type of weather. The topography of Athens, a large basin surrounded by mountains, is enough to support such occurrences. The most outrageous problem, however, is that the technology is there, central heating is installed, but the economic situation brings it into paralysis. We witness an advanced country continuously making steps backwards, returning to situations that technology had until now eliminated. And the question that comes to mind is: what is the point of researching on new technologies, new methodologies and new solutions for a sustainable future, if we completely ignore or are not able to provide the means that are necessary to support it?



Fluorescent streets

The third case is a great example of how existing and widespread technology can be used in order to reduce energy consumption and how private incentive and smart ideas can overcome bureaucratic, political and economic hindrances.

In Holland, designers from the Studio Roosegaarde and infrastructure management group Heijmans have proposed a smart and easy solution in order to reduce the required lighting in the streets, without compromising driving safety: the Smart Highway, winner of the Best Future Concept at the Dutch Design Awards. In fact the Smart Highway, which is due to get implemented and tested initially in Branbant in mid-2013, includes features that will increase safety in the streets. The design features a glow-in-the-dark tarmac, which is able to illuminate the street markings for up to 10 hours after nightfall. Additionally, the roads will feature illuminated weather indicators, i.e. given a certain drop in temperature, snowflake shapes will appear on the street surface to warn motorists of icy conditions. According to the interview that Studio Roosegaarde’s communications partner Emina Sendijarevic gave to the Wired magazine: “Research on smart transportation systems and smart roads has existed for over 30 years … What’s lacking is the implementation of those innovations and making those innovations intuitive and valuable to the end-consumers — drivers. For this, a mentality change needs to take place … This is a story that goes beyond the ‘Smart Highway’ as such — it’s about the fact that Heijmans and Roosegaarde are not going to wait any longer for innovations to find their way through the political system, but will start building this highway now”.


Dr. Sofia Georgakopoulou, iA, ETHZ

Survey: What is sustainability for you?

While discussing the subject, E.K., musician and video editor from Athens, currently living in Holland, said to me: “When I hear the word sustainability I hold a knife. Sustainability for whom? That’s the correct question right there.”; to which I had to immediately exclaim “my point exactly!”. The current social and economic situation dictates that we take into account a great variety of social and cultural parameters in order to create sustainability measures that make sense for all. And since the problem we are, in the long run, trying to solve is global, we do have to take all into account.

So here are some thoughts I have collected, from citizens around Europe, which I hope to be able to enrich in the following weeks:


Michael Papapetrou, Physicist, Dublin, IR

“Sustainability is:

For environmentalists: You take your bicycle and go to the local pub for a beer. But you cant’ enjoy it because you are worried about the fertilisers that were used for the wheat, all the water that went into the production process and if the pub will recycle the bottle. You can’t sleep in the night thinking that maybe it is because of people like you that the environment is in such a state

For the others: You take your SUV and go out of town to the big shopping centre to buy a 60″ plasma tv for your bedroom. You are delighted with yourself because the manual is printed on paper from “sustainably managed forests”. You go to sleep leaving the tv on, just in case you want to watch some later, sleep like a baby thinking if all were just like you the world would be full of forests.”


Matthias Busold, Principal at Kienbaum Executive Consultants GmbH, Hamburg, DE

“Sustainability is always acting future-related. In business it is the Hanseatic model and consists of trustworthiness, reliability and long-term personal relationship rather than quick money.”


G.A., Physicist, Athens, GR

“Modern PC crap; and an excuse for corporations to carry on blood sucking people with a cloak of self-righteousness.”


A.R., Postdoctoral researcher on Ultrafast Spectroscopy and Attosecond Science, ETH, Zurich, CH

“Use of resources, which causes the minimum possible harm on the environment, on the long term, and from a global perspective.”


Ines Warnke, Nutritional Scientist, DSM, Basel, CH

“Here some of my sustainable life principles – so in short it is not one thing it is a matter of attitude:

– Recycling e.g. of paper, glass etc. even better avoid the production of waste (save a plastic bag a day).

– Avoid buying items with a short life span (e.g. Tupperware instead of cheap plastic kitchen stuff).

– Clothes-Exchange Parties; fully load the washing machine, don’t use the tumble dryer.

– Switch off lights where it is not needed.

– Print on both sides.

– The use of “AquaClick” to reduce the amount of consumed fresh water.

– Car-Pooling.

– Energy saving houses / flats.

– Sharing of once in a while used equipment.

– Eat less meat and buy regional and seasonal products.”


The parking lot question

The discussion about sustainability was inspired by a recent presentation of two large-scale urban projects in Switzerland. The investors’ goal is to create officially certified, sustainable areas; their main strategies to achieve this includes: short home – office distances, good public transport system, use of renewable energy sources, increased bicycle parking places and a reduced number of car parking spots per number of flats (approximately 1 spot per 4 or 5 apartments). The latter left me rather perplexed. I can understand this measure i.e. as an effort to reduce traffic load in a city centre – I have seen this function and it is rather effective. However, is it our goal to restrict car usage all together? and consequently also air travel, boat travel, and all motor-driven travel in a bulk? Does this make our lives more sustainable? Personally, this strikes me as stepping back in time. When a technological application has harmful side effects, do we ban it all together, or do we try to improve and solve the problem?

According to statistics from 2008, Swiss vehicles per capita amount to 562 per 1000 people [“Energy, transport and environment indicators – eurostat Pocketbooks”. Eurostat. 2010 edition]; more than half of the Swiss citizens own a car, a number which has very likely risen even more in the last 4 years. Out of intuition I would say that car owners would simply not consider relocating into developments that offer no car parking possibilities. Alternatively, they would find different parking solutions, in a car park or street nearby (while depending on the culture, the measure could simply lead to illegal parking when applied to other countries). In the latter case, the creation of one sustainable area would mean the overload and probable deterioration of another and therefore no particular improvement in the overall sustainability of the larger urban agglomeration. On the other hand, in the case that car owners simply choose not to live in such developments, eventually we create a re-shuffling of the population, again without an improvement in the overall sustainability. The measure can have a positive effect, in preventing existing residents from purchasing (more) cars, thereby contributing to a deceleration of the (currently increasing) trend of car use and purchase in general (registration of new cars has gone up by ~11.5% in 2010-2011 [http://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/portal/en/index/themen/11/03/blank/key/fahrzeuge_strasse/inverkehrsetzung.html]). This may not decrease the current energy consumption, but it does help stabilize it.

In general, a definition of “what is sustainable and for whom” is required. Faced with a problem as universal as global warming, how much sense does it make to try and fight it with measures as local as “less parking space in one new development”?

Dr. Sofia Georgakopoulou, iA, ETHZ


M-Arch Jing Zhou


PhD Research Summary


Jing Zhou is a PhD candidate at the Chair of Information Architecture, ETH Zürich with the scholarship of CSC (Chinese Scholarship Council). She obtain her Master degree of Architecture from Southeast University, Nanjing (China) in 2012.

With a population growth and density growth in some cities, the urban space in the high-density environment has a tendency towards “ verticalization ”. Her doctoral research mainly focuses on measuring and simulating the dynamic accessibility for kinds of user groups and different activities in such a tridimensional space system by considering of the vertical transportation.