ETH Zürich explores ‘future cities lab’ in Africa

Continental Europe’s leading research-intensive university ETH Zürich is exploring the idea of establishing a ‘future cities laboratory’ in Africa following the success of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability.

And in a bid to reach out to the next generation of urban designers and planners, the Swiss university is launching a new MOOC to encourage a greener approach to building future cities – particularly in tropical and semi-tropical regions facing an urban population explosion of two billion more people over the next 25 years.

Focus on research

ETH Zürich developed its Singapore centre in collaboration with the National Research Foundation of Singapore in 2010, a move that represented a major break with the rush by Western universities to set up teaching branch campuses in Southeast Asia.

For the ETH focus has been almost entirely on research and postgraduate and postdoctoral training and engagement with industry, governments and anyone else able to influence climate change and the growing threat to health and well-being of inhabitants of the rapidly growing megacities in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world.

Perils of rapid urbanisation

Singapore was chosen for ETH’s first Future Cities Laboratory outside Switzerland because the region around the city faced most of the perils and risks of rapid urbanisation, and the Swiss university already had links with researchers and students there.

“Singapore is also a stable city state and has overcome problems that face many other places with similar environmental challenges”, said Gerhard Schmitt, professor of information architecture at ETH Zürich and founding-director of the Singapore-ETH Centre.

Speaking at the Innsbruck conference of the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, or EUPRIO, this month, Schmitt said thoughtless implementation of urban expansion models from moderate climates to cities in tropical areas was one of the reasons for problems with transportation, pollution and local climate in those cities.

“Technologies and behaviours that may reduce high greenhouse gas emissions in moderate climates are often not applicable in hot and humid climates."

Singapore research could benefit others

“That’s why we want to research something locally in Singapore that can be applied to benefit Singapore and other countries,” said Schmitt.

“It is also why we want to do research into the local climates and cultures before teaching. Our centre in Singapore has the clear goal to look for solutions to global challenges and focusing on areas that cannot be handled so successfully or meaningfully in Switzerland,” Schmitt told University World News.

“Many cities experienced their most rapid expansions without sustainability as a guiding principle.

“Take Shenzhen in China. Thirty years ago it was the size of Innsbruck in Austria (population 120,000). Today Shenzhen has developed into an urban system of 15 million inhabitants, mostly from other parts of the country, and faces challenges with transportation and social issues.

“In recent decades the average temperature in the centres of large tropical cities has risen much faster than in the surrounding countryside because of rising heat output by industry, cars and buildings.

“This heat island effect – imagine an average of more than 30 degrees and 90% humidity – encourages people who can afford it to use more air-conditioning, and challenges the ‘liveability’ of the cities."

Biggest hangover ever

“If we do not understand how large cities work and do not plan accordingly, we are heading for the biggest hangover ever in 20 years time when all this rapid development concentrates too much heat in high density cities.

“But the transformation can be tackled… as in the case of favelas in South America.”

The key, said Schmitt, was to see cities as integrated systems. Among successes to date in Singapore were raising the awareness of citizens, city planners, agencies and industries and getting them to look at new ways of managing the development of the city.

Ideas from the Future Cities Laboratory in the Singapore-ETH centre are already being put to practice, said Schmitt, such as the construction of the new United World College of South East Asia development, where planners have adopted some of the design knowledge to reduce building volume, and most importantly use the technology to save energy in air-conditioning and de-humidification.

Schmitt also pointed to Singapore’s existing sophisticated electronic road pricing system with its flexible charges based on traffic intensity in the city.

“The Future Cities Laboratory is working with the local transport authorities on modelling the system so that it can be even more dynamic and create a more efficient and climate friendly balance between public and private transportation.”

Major commitment required

Schmitt told University World News the Singapore-ETH centre required a major commitment from ETH Zürich faculty, with the personal engagement of 10 or more full professors prepared to commit to lengthy spells of time away from Switzerland as principal investigators, and of PhD, design-research and post-doc students to work in a highly trans-disciplinary environment.

Today the Singapore-ETH centre has about 30% of members coming from Europe, including its current director Professor Peter Edwards, a British scientist who headed the environmental sciences department at ETH Zürich.

A further 25% are Singaporean PhD candidates, post-docs and professors, with the rest made up of experts and researchers from Asia, North and South America and Africa.

Schmitt continues to be actively involved and is responsible for the simulation platform, turning data into information and then into the knowledge required for the urban design and planning scenarios.


Schmitt and his ETH colleagues are now looking forward to building on some of their collaborative ventures underway in Africa and to eventually establish another centre along the lines of the Singapore-ETH Centre.

“ETH members have worked closely with the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and our first joint venture has developed into the country’s major planning institute in urbanisation,” Schmitt told University World News.

“The foundations for this collaboration were laid by Ethiopian students and faculty members studying at ETH Zürich and returning to their country – and with a lot of effort from ETH’s Professor Dirk Hebel, the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development, or EiABC, gained autonomous status in 2009 and is flourishing.

New cities in Ethiopia

“At the moment the EiABC institute is planning two new cities, with ETH professors Franz Oswald and Marc Angélil working with local inhabitants in the Lake Tana region in Northern Ethiopia, and with Swiss industry, to design and build urban systems for the rapidly growing population.

“The first of these new future city projects, Nestown, is already starting to take shape. It has been designed to encourage people to stay in a good area of the country instead of following the drift into existing urban areas, which can’t cope with sudden population growth.”

A major challenge is the lack of building materials like steel, which Ethiopia has to import.

“But there is natural stone and eucalyptus trees are plentiful. Together they can make a very stable building construction based on natural resources.

“Bamboo is another promising material. Research by the EiABC and Dirk Hebel in Addis Ababa, Singapore and Zürich has lead to a new composite material with a tensile strength higher than steel.

“Bamboo and polymer combinations are now being tested to see if they can safely replace steel as a building reinforcement material for use with concrete.

“Bamboo grows widely in many sub-tropical areas of Africa, Asia and South America and if the results of the long-term tests are as positive as we hope, the use of bamboo fibres embedded in polymer could replace expensive and CO2 intensive building materials in many countries.

“Processed bamboo may not only be good for buildings, but also for use in cars and airplanes, depending on fire resistance. It is very lightweight and very strong,” Schmitt told University World News.

ETH centre for Africa?

Schmitt said he would like to see a new ETH-Africa centre established, perhaps in South Africa, within a few years.

“We know from our Singapore experience that to be successful we will need a group of dedicated faculty, able and excited to spend an extended period of time abroad, and we need peers in the country or region we choose.

“So joint research projects and publishing joint papers are needed first. Then we can think about setting up another centre.”

Longer-term, Schmitt revealed to University World News that his colleagues were also thinking about the possibility of another centre in South America.

“We already have ETH design-research projects in Rio, Sao Paulo and other major South American cities. But a decision will not be made in a rush. That is not the Swiss way,” said Schmitt.

New MOOC on Future Cities

Schmitt also revealed that a new MOOC on “Future Cities” is being launched from ETH on 24 September by the edX consortium.

“We have more than 10,000 already signed up and the aim is to give an overview of the city as a system and how and when you can influence the system to make it more resilient.

“It will take nine weeks to complete and we hope to inspire the new generation of designers, planners, architects, engineers and urban sociologists to think in a more holistic and sustainable way about the design and management of the cities of the future.”

Stop focusing on student recruitment

Directly addressing his audience of European higher education marketing and corporate communication practitioners at the EUPRIO Innsbruck event, Schmitt urged Western universities to focus less on international student recruitment and more on working in partnership with developing regions like Southeast Asia and Africa.

“We often seem obsessed with trying to recruit, almost extract, as many of the best and most talented international students from other regions to study at our universities.

“Instead we should do something together with these universities. That way, researchers, students, society and industry benefit much more, as we have seen with the Singapore-ETH Centre,” he said.

* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.