Barry Eitel

Since man has cracked the human genome and has spaceships with Twitter accounts, the next natural step is that we start manufacturing trees. The tiny city-nation of Singapore has already taken up the challenge, creating bizarre cyborg trees that are part-machine, part-living thing, yet sustainable and excellent for the environment.

The mechanical trees sort of look like the real thing, but with an element of H.G. Wells-style steampunk. Crafted by engineers commissioned by the conservation-minded government of Singapore, the trees are supposed to be like new lungs for the city. Well, artificial lungs, at least.

Singapore is known for being one of the driving economic powerhouses of Southeast Asia, even as compact as the nation is. It is also known for having almost no natural resources. The city is built on rocky ground and surrounded by ocean. The economy is based almost entirely on manufacturing and importing and exporting through one of the top five busiest ports in the world.

However, there is no ore to be unearthed nor oil to be drilled. And almost all of the forested areas have been cleared to make way for the urban center.

Now, the city is trying to reclaim some of this land and bring the rainforest back. For a forest, you need trees, obviously. But pesky real trees take decades to grow and real forests take centuries, sometimes millennia, to mature.

So Singapore decided the simplest solution would be to just make their own trees from scratch. This way they could avoid the problems that come with actual trees. No waiting for germination, no Dutch Elm disease, no roots clogging underground pipes.

The city government put lots of money into the Gardens By the Bay Project, a 250-acre expanse right on the water and close to some swanky hotels. This “garden” is populated by gargantuan man-made “supertrees.”

The artificial trees look like giant pillars. They are draped with vines and other vegetation, so they do provide some of the cleansing benefits that real trees do (although not on the same level). They also act like giant funnels when it rains, collecting water for other uses and helping ease the impact rain has on the drainage system. Most importantly, each supertree is fitted with solar panels. They actually provide the power for several nearby greenhouses featuring flora from all over the planet.

Singapore has one of the largest carbon footprints in Asia, so these artificial trees are definitely a step in the right direction. And if the impact is significant, perhaps the species will be transplanted to other environmentally-conscious countries.