Future City Competition

Towards the end of January, I was invited to attend the Northern California Regional Finals of the Future City competition, an annual competition where middle school students design a “future city” based on a specific theme, creating a virtual model using SimCity as well as a physical model. While this is not something I typically write about, I was curious about what kids that young could learn about engineering and city planning through their participation in this event. There was also the SimCity angle, and the fact that the competition is sponsored by familiar names in AEC such as Bentley Systems, Bechtel Corporation, and CH2M HILL, among others. What’s more, the event was being held close to where I am based, so it was convenient for me to attend. This article provides an overview of the competition, a closer look at SimCity and how it used, and my observations and analysis of the event as a whole.

Overview of the Future City Competition

As mentioned earlier, the annual Future City Competition is a national-level event where students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade conceptualize, design, and build future cities, based on a theme. The theme for this year’s competition was transportation, which called for participants to research transit options and present innovative ways for the residents of their cities to move around, taking into consideration efficiency, accessibility, and sustainability. Students work together in 3-person teams under the guidance of an educator as well as an engineer mentor. There are several components to the project for the teams to execute, including using the SimCity software to plan and design their cities virtually, capturing their research and substantiating their design in an essay, building a physical model no larger than a tabletop using recycled materials costing no more than $100 (see Figure 1), and finally, presenting their designs before judges at regional competitions. The winning team from each region goes on to compete in the national-level competition. This year, about 40,000 middle school students from 1,350 schools participated in the 2013-14 Future City competition, of which 37 regional winners competed in the national finals that were held last week. Details about this year’s winning team can be seen here.

The main organization behind the Future City competition is DiscoverE, whose mission is to “sustain and grow a dynamic engineering profession critical to public health, safety, and welfare.” It partners with over a 100 professional societies, major corporations and government agencies, pushing for engineering outreach and education by engaging students in hands-on engineering activities and encouraging interest in math, science, and technology in their formative years. While it is debatable whether a city planning project is the most effective way to encourage an interest in engineering among students (more on this later), there is no doubt that students are exposed to a variety of aspects related to how communities work and how they can impact the economy, competitiveness, productivity, health, energy needs, environment, and the quality of life of their citizens.

The Use of SimCity

SimCity is a popular “city-building” game that was first introduced in 1989 and is now developed by Maxis, which is a division of the leading game manufacturer, Electronic Arts. It runs on computers as well as video-game consoles such as Wii, Xbox, and PlayStation. The “game” in SimCity is to create and develop a city, allowing the player to manipulate different aspects of it such as power, water, taxes, pollution, education, unemployment, etc. with the objective of maximizing the wealth, education, and “happiness” of its inhabitants. One of the biggest factors that has contributed to the continuing success of the game is the excellent quality of its simulation, all in 3D, of course. In fact, one of the main criticisms that I have often heard leveled at professional AEC software is how poor the simulation quality is compared to that of a gaming application like SimCity. One of the other features that makes SimCity so popular is its ability to help a player create a utopian, futuristic city. Both of these strengths are illustrated in the images shown in Figure 2.

Given the ability of the application to make city planning a game (albeit a highly sophisticated one, but which would presumably still be fun to play), design futuristic scenarios, and include a high degree of realism, it seemed like a natural choice for the students to use it for designing their virtual cities in the Future City competition. They were given access to a free copy of the software, and were provided access to learning resources on how to use it. Given the complexity of the game (it seems to be targeted towards adults rather than kids) and the lack of a concise overview of how to play it (either on the SimCity or Future City websites), I found it remarkable that kids as young as middle-schoolers were able to use it to design their virtual cities. After deciding on a location, students could use SimCity to model the terrain of their city, decide on the different zones they would have and where they would be located, the buildings in these zones, and focus on designing different transportation systems that the inhabitants of the cities would use, which was the theme of this year’s competition. In SimCity, players are given a starting budget which acts as a constraint on how much they can build and what types of city services they can provide. There is also a time element to the game, so players can make ongoing decisions that impact the future growth of their cities.

Northern California Regional Finals

The Northern California Regional Finals of the Future City Competition that I was able to attend was held on January 25, 2014, at Cisco Systems, San Jose, California. There were close to 130 teams signed up to present their city designs. From a technology standpoint, it would have been very interesting to see the virtual designs done in SimCity, but the teams were required to only bring in physical models of their cities and any additional presentation materials such as a science board. It was very interesting to see the diverse array of models—some of which were very sophisticated—and get a chance to talk with some of the students about their concepts. The following set of images shows some photographs I took at the event, in addition to that shown in Figure 1.

I also had the opportunity to connect with the mentor of the winning team from Northern California regional final—Girl Scout Troop #2225 from Salida, CA—which went on to place 5th in the national finals. The images below show the team members and mentors, a close-up of their physical model, and some screenshots of their SimCity virtual model.

Figure 4. The winning team from the Northern California Regional Finals, which went on to place 5th in the national finals of the Future City competition The physical model of their design and SimCity screenshots are also shown. (Courtesy: Kristi Engel)

Observations and Analysis

While this event was somewhat outside the realm of AEC technology that is my area of expertise, I could not help but appreciate the hard work, knowledge, and poise exhibited by the students who participated in the Future City competition and presented their designs to the adults judging them. It was hard to believe that these were just middle school children—they exhibited a maturity and understanding way beyond their years. There was no doubt that the time and effort they put into their city design projects were rewarding in so many ways: they learned about issues related to city design and urban planning which they would otherwise never had exposure to at that age; they researched existing transport systems and got a chance to think creatively about new ones; and many of them, through project-related field trips, got a chance to visit professional agencies and government organizations working in city planning and transportation. They also learned to do research, work together in teams, develop persuasive presentations, improve their writing and public speaking skills, and work on a deadline. All of these skills would be invaluable to them in any kind of career they chose to take up in the future.

While the benefits of participating in an event like this for the students are undeniable, I was not entirely convinced about the premise of the Future City competition itself. To start with, there was no competition brief as such, defining a set of specific requirements that the city designs had to meet. There was a grading rubric with broad directives to create a well planned design and layout, provide a variety of city zones, essential infrastructure components and city services, and so on, but these were intended for judging designs rather than providing specific criteria that had to be met. Thus, all of the designs were so diverse that it was hard to judge where they stood vis-à-vis each other. To be a real competition, there has to be one context and one design brief, as it with professional-level design competitions. Here, with no specific criteria, it was almost as if “anything goes.” I was puzzled by how the students decided, apart from homes for the residents, what else was needed. For example, how many schools should the city have, and of what kind? Are universities needed? How about hospitals, fire stations, waste disposal, power stations, etc.? How much waste will be generated? What is the expected power consumption?  What kind of work will the residents be doing? It seems that SimCity has some checks and balances for zoning and services, so it was not a total “free for all.” But city planning in real life is vastly more complex, and requires highly trained and dedicated professionals. Having a middle school competition for city design almost felt like it was trivializing the field, and not providing a proper design brief made it even worse. Students did not get a real understanding of how neighborhoods are planned and how cities work, forcing them to make seemingly random decisions about what to have in their city designs.

Also, I was not entirely convinced that SimCity was the best software for students to use for designing their virtual city designs, despite its amazing simulation capabilities and game-like interface. For one, it is far too complicated, and the students are pretty much on their own when it comes to learning to use it effectively. From the presentations I saw at the Northern California Regional Finals, there wasn’t any evidence that the use of SimCity had contributed to the design ideas of the students. It’s a pity that we don’t have a SketchUp-like tool for city planning; that would have been easier to use as well as more informative for the students. (Talking of SketchUp, many students used it for creating models of individual structures in the cities, which were then 3D printed for their physical models. They seemed to have had a lot of fun doing this.)

And finally, as a trained architect, I was somewhat bemused by the presumption of the organizers of the Future City competition to use “city planning” as the medium to teach “engineering” to students. Architecture, and related disciplines like landscape architecture, interior design, urban planning, and city planning are specialized disciplines in their own right, rather than subsets of engineering. There are, of course, design-related engineering disciplines such as civil engineering, structural engineering, MEP engineering, and mechanical engineering, but expecting a competition like Future City to encourage more “math and science” interest among students, was, I thought, somewhat misplaced. If that is the objective of the exercise, I think it would be better served by devising some other kind of competition that falls more within the realm of traditional engineering.

In any case, notwithstanding the intent of the competition organizers, the AEC industry should be thankful for competitions like Future City for exposing young kids to infrastructure design in their formative years and encouraging them to research and learn more about topics that are typically not part of the middle school curriculum. At least some of them might go on to work in the AEC field after they graduate, and perhaps even come up with innovative ways to design our cities in the future!

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.


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