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Could A Giant Artificial Reef Save Venice From Sinking?

What if we grew a sprawling structure to prop up the city from underneath?

Ever since it was first built over 1,300 years ago, Venice has been fighting off the water that surrounds it: The whole city is slowly sinking on unsteady foundations in a marshy lagoon. As sea levels rise because of climate change, the problem is only getting worse. Can the city be saved, or will it eventually go under?

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While Venice considers various alternatives–like a series of 78 massive floodgates now under construction–a researcher from University of Greenwich is working on a concept for another less industrial alternative. Using synthetic biology, the design would grow a sprawling artificial reef under the city to support it.

Photo by Rachel Armstrong

The city has always relied on technology to survive. When it was founded centuries ago, builders used state-of-the-art technology to create canals and prop buildings up on wooden poles hidden under the water. The reef was designed as a modern version of that innovation.

“Future Venice continues the technological legacy by providing a new technological platform–a living technology–one that is native to the 21st century and confers the very fabric of the city with the capacity to fight back in a struggle for survival against the relentless elements,” says Rachel Armstrong, the researcher who developed the idea.

The reef would be made from “smart droplets” that are attracted away from light. Over time, they would grow to cover the wooden poles under the city and spread to create a new platform to prop everything up.

Image: Christian Kerrigan

“It would be porous, yet rigid, and could potentially stop the city sinking by producing an upward and lateral counter-force through the process of active growth, like expanding roots,” Armstrong explains. It could possibly even grow strong enough to push the city up above sea level.

Since the droplets scoop up minerals and carbon dioxide, they may also help clean the water and reduce acidity.

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For now, the design is just a concept–the smart droplet technology is still under development and would need testing to prove that it’s safe for the environment. Once that happens, the next challenge would be political. Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and any changes are slow to get approval.

But Armstrong would like to see it happen. “It’s a potential next technological platform in the city’s development that could ‘save’ the historic site from destruction–not by creating a barrier against the elements–but by undergoing many acts of orchestrated transformation.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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