Rural and hyper-connected: here is the ecovillage of the future

With an idea born in Silicon Valley, James Ehrlich’s ecovillages hybridize technology, low density, circular economy, and self-sufficiency. The first, in Sweden, is designed with White Arkitekter.

“I never aspired to be a real estate developer, I don't think that’s something a person can really aspire to”, says James Ehrlich, a leading member of Singularity University and founder of ReGen Villages, a spin-off of Stanford University. Ehrlich’s as yet unrealized ecovillages are a pseudo-urban concept that proposes a real immersion in nature, without cars, within commuting distance from the city.

The Three Magnets diagram by Ebenezer Howard, from the book “To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform” (Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., London 1898)/ Image via Wikipedia

If we look back in time it’s certainly nothing new: from Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City at the end of the nineteenth century, Frank Lloyd Wright Wright’s Living City in the 1960s, to Stefano Boeri’s present forest cities in China or his Smart Forest City in Mexico. The return to nature and low-density urban forms are comforting projections into the future, sometimes leading to utopia. Nature then, needless to say, is the great obsession of the Urban Century. Today, in the light of the health emergency and with the push for agile work, the rural dimension seems to become a solution that is increasingly close to being viable.

Realizing the possibility of “a positive, optimistic post-Covid world” is Ehrlich’s ambition, but he is neither an architect nor an urban planner. He could be defined as an entrepreneur, but he’s certainly a multifaceted person: he was born in New York but he has been living in California for decades. It’s more precisely in San Francisco that he started his career as a designer and developer of video games. In his personal history also appears an interest for organic food, which began with the study of American family farms. This interest led him to produce the pilot of “The Hippy Gourmet” at the Burning Man in 2000, broadcasted weekly by Californian networks since 2001 and, since 2004, nationwide on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), later, it also became a book. It was the focus on healthy, sustainable nutrition that made the TV show’s culinary offer ‘hippy’.

His urban idea is rooted in all this: he is a hybrid of Silicon Valley’s technological culture, Atari’s videogames, hippy culture and family farms, which after all tastes a little bit like utopia. The ReGen Villages are basically newly founded neighborhoods based on the idea of circular economy. In these places, decentralized from the city, a “regenerative, self-sufficient and resilient community” will be established. Waste will be transformed into resources, permaculture and aquaponic systems will be employed, every drop of water will be collected and reused, while regenerating the land. A system that, according to its creator, will see “next to people’s homes, small greenhouses, small plots and gardens, in addition to the controlled environment greenhouses and the large state-management farming, we are going to be overproducing food that people can trust as they would know where it comes from”. In short, a more literal transposition of the farm-to-table concept.

Diagram of the circular system on which the first ReGen Village in Sweden is based. Courtesy White Arkitekter

ReGen Villages will go through with all of it using Village OS operating system, which exploits artificial intelligence and machine learning for an efficient use of resources, but that’s not all. Ehrlich says that “the goal of the software is a new rulebook” for planning: Village OS allows us to outline master plans taking into account a complexity of factors including local legislation, lot-specific environmental characteristics and, last but not least, costs. This foreshadowing ability can even guide the choice of location of these villages, based on the resources of the lots. Therefore, the software is not only a management system but also a real simulator that anticipates and guides the project and construction of the village.

A render by White Arkitekter of the pilot ReGen Village in Sweden

“It allows the community and the stakeholders to assess what they can toggle and move around, without going back to the drawing board. So,” continues Ehlich, “civil engineers, architects and planners, they can just change the shape and size of the community centre or add more density and dynamically observing things changing on the screen and the changes in cost, other implications and ripple effects”.

While the first plans for ReGen Villages mainly consisted of single groups of houses, today Ehrlich is working on a higher density, with small-scale housing complexes that include affordable homes and social housing. The emphasis is placed on how these ecovillages will be realized with different construction technologies depending on location: from Mediterranean Europe to Scandinavian countries, from the United States to Africa.

The Swedish ecovillage in an image by White Arkitekter

Generally, in ReGen Villages, the architect “must work on the aesthetic and cultural interpretation of the digital masterplan. In conjunction with, most importantly, prefab, earthing materials and circular building materials principles.” Ehrlich claims to be “architecturally agnostic” and for the first ReGen Village he involved White Arkitekter in the development of the master plan and the construction of buildings with a positive energy efficiency index. The goal, after the exchange of ideas with several Swedish municipalities, is to start the implementation of the first project this same year, in an as yet undefined location.

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