Imagine the Future 2017

George Mason University, October 8-9

Illustration by Rashin Kheiriyeh of the Imagine the Future 2017 Group’s Concept for OBFCs

Inspired by nature and designed by the Imagine the Future 2017 Group are Ocean-based floating communities (OBFCs). OBFCs are smart, self-sustaining, resilient and energy-efficient islands that can connect and share resources. They use and depend on desalinated water, as well as water collected from rooftops and underground collection systems. Food is harvested from vertical farms using hydroponic techniques; urban gardens are fed by retention ponds; and decentralized power is generated (and later stored) using solar, wind, biomass and hydro power. Modern materials with smart and integrated technologies (e.g. solar cells) and self-healing properties are built into the islands’ outer shells. Sensors used in monitoring and recognition adapt material properties and outer-shell position to maximize performance.

The OBFC’s design is based on several characteristics of the lotus flower. The island is protected by petals that open and close toa best position for solar and wind energy charging, and protection from storm surge, wind or other forces, and act as a defense or shield for harmful ozone, radiation, smog or even air-borne diseases. The protective shells can open to different levels, simultaneously raising and lowering the island base, countering changes in sea level. In preparing for hazard events with notice, the petals can fully close and the island can move to a less dangerous location. Nanocoatings and other smart materials on the OBFC’s surfaces mimic the micro- and nano-scopic architecture of lotus leaves, providing similar self-cleaning and ultrahydrophobicity properties. The OBFCs can be deployed individually to evacuate a coastal area after a storm or combined for longer-term purposes, such as semi-temporary housing for displaced persons. They may be configured to have a centralized island with satellite locations that can be repositioned using predictive reconfiguration strategies for preparing for extreme events.

Island surfaces are designed to maximize living, working and green spaces, while transportation corridors and utilities are located in the deepest portions. Taking inspiration from underground dirtscapes, under the sea level are housing units with views of sea life that provide an urban “scuba” park. The OBFCs are sentient and include an underground (undersea) world that is transparent to allow for monitoring and control. They are connected and disconnected through a series of tubes mimicking the lotus flower’s stem and underwater root systems. These tube systems can be used to maintain a stationary location and share energy or possibly transport people between islands. The OBFC can be accessed by transportation pods through tube-like portals much like the lotus flower’s stamen. At the surface, buildings are designed with combined functionalities, using concepts of dual-purpose spaces such as water reservoirs that serve as meeting places or fields for sporting events when water levels are low. A robot-oriented design approach will be used, wherein robots are built into the infrastructure elements to facilitate automated maintenance above and below the water’s surface.


Imagine the Future 2017 brought together about 50 leading experts from across the United States and around the world to discuss ideas for new ways to create, design, operate and control infrastructure systems. Participants from academia, industry, federal agencies, community-based groups, and professional organizations were encouraged to think creatively and challenge established norms, and ultimately develop ideas for the future of the built world. On October 8 and 9, on the George Mason University Fairfax Campus, with their expertise in shaping, maintaining, and protecting the built environment, they participated in tracks on immersive mixed reality, cognitive infrastructure systems, multipurpose infrastructure, a world without borders, sustainability- and community-based design, and space-age construction with applications in outer space and the underground. The symposium included discussions, visionary lectures, demonstrations, and group activities aimed at helping participants to innovate. They shared and debated ideas, drew images of their inventions, built on others’ thoughts, stole ideas from each other, and voted. At the end of the event, the participants generated proposals for the Imagine the Future Hackathon. The final outcome of the Hackathon, our OBFC concept, was rendered by author/illustrator Rashin Kheiriyeh with input from the group. Other concepts that were discussed at length include:

(a)  multi-purpose structures, such as the parking-flood reservoir structure designed for the Mall in Washington, D.C. and a traffic lane that alternates as a roadway and pedestrian way;

(b)  a synchronized world with green lights for all of us all the time;

(c)  human-settlements on earth satellites – floating cities – with space elevators connecting to “spaceship” earth;

(d)  virtual space and underground worlds supported by mixed virtual reality for improved quality of life in the under or outer worlds, and support in planning and operations;

(e)  artificial intelligence-based healing, monitoring and recognition systems;

(f)  ideas of floating or variable-height structures for creating resilience to flooding;

(g)  popup, portable water capture and purification systems for post-disaster support; and

(h)  measures, such as pollution scrubbers, chemical HVAC filters, electrostatic air pollution filters, glass films and domes to protect from an imagined virus brought back from Mars.

lotuses at Aquatic Gardens

Pictures by Miller-Hooks, Lotus flowers at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, July 2017