Richard Eisenberg, Forbes Contributor
By 2060, if not before, the United States is expected to have twice as many people over 65 than today, rising to nearly 24% of the population. Will our cities be livable for them? Maybe so, if their leaders follow some of the ingenious and thoughtful ideas that sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders presented at the Future City regional competition I attended in Piscataway, N.J. on Saturday.
The theme: The Age-Friendly City. The task: identify an age-related challenge in today’s urban environments and engineer innovative solutions “that allow their future city’s senior citizens to be as active and independent as they want to be,” according to the Future City instructions.
Targeting the Fear of Growing Old
“No one should ever feel afraid of growing old,” one Englewood Cliffs Upper School presenter said, while telling judges about his team’s city of the future, Panoptica, in southern California. Pantopica residents will take free, solar-paneled driverless buses equipped with hydraulic lifts and which have medically trained aides aboard. Every apartment building will have a ground-level health clinic. Ready to move there?
Future City is an annual, project-based learning experience from DiscoverE, a volunteer movement aiming “to inspire the next generation of engineers and innovators.” It starts with a question for middle schoolers: How can we make the world a better place?
This year, 40,000 students age 11 to 14, from 1,350 public and private schools, are competing; 50% of them are girls. (It’s almost the flipside of the Senior Planet Hack Aging hackathon I wrote about in June, where people in their 60s, 70s and 80s came up with ideas to age better.)
How Kids Compete in Future City
To compete in Future City, the kids spend 50 to 70 hours designing virtual cities using SimCity software; build 3D models costing less than $100, made with items like water bottles and tin foil as well as one moving part; write 1,500-word essays and present their visions to judges. Each team has an educator and a STEM mentor. The winners will be chosen in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20, during National Engineers Week. First price: $7,500 and a trip to Space Camp.
The idea, according to the Future City organizers, is that once the competition ends, “student participants are not only prepared to be citizens of today’s complex and technical world, they are poised to become the drivers of tomorrow.”
The Future City theme changes each year; earlier competitions focused on topics from storm water management to urban agriculture. To prepare for this year’s challenge, “a lot of teams reached out to nursing homes, AARP and other organizations working in the age-friendly field,” said Thea Sahr, director of programs for DiscoverE.
At the science fair-like, day-long competition I attended, some presenters from the 35 New Jersey schools’ 80 teams leaned on canes or wore gray wigs. Most teams had at least one girl. And it looked like all 280 kids were bundles of kinetic energy who took the issues facing older people very seriously, addressing challenges dealing with health, mobility, dementia and loneliness.
The Range of Age-Friendly Ideas
Just a few of the clever ideas: wheelchair-accessible maglev trains (magnet-operated and energy-saving, now in Japan, South Korea and China); medically monitored jewelry and clothes; homes that downsize themselves; buildings where older and younger residents interact; modified or motorized sidewalks for people with joint pain; teleportation and something called NAD+, to reverse aging.
Homes with one story or elevators were especially popular, to address difficulties climbing stairs. So were robot assistants (to keep people healthy), drones (to keep them safe) and driverless vehicles (to keep them mobile).
Most ideas were high-tech; it was an engineering competition, after all. But some were very low-tech. The Neo-Clinton boys’ team from Clinton Public School, in Clinton, N.J., featured free massages for older residents with joint pain and gym memberships. The all-girls’ Eleanor City team (inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”) from Heritage Middle School, in Livingston, N.J., sported a combination rehabilitation home/day care center so there would be "children around to cheer up” the rehab residents.
Said Sahr: “A lot of it is fanciful, but it has to be based in reality.”
Trade-offs and Compromises
The SimCity part of the competition helped the kids learn that city planning choices they'd make would mean trade-offs and could present consequences. For instance: “If I build a city with just highways, I’ll have a hard time bringing in public transit afterwards,” Sahr said. “If I raise taxes, the Sims will rebel.” The essay part developed research and writing skills. And the parts involving building the blinking, whirring models and making presentations offered lessons in compromise, public speaking and teamwork.
“Did you ever have a time where your team disagreed and had to resolve something?” one judge asked the MacDoom team of girls from Frelinghuysen Middle School, in Morristown, N.J. “How many do you want?” one girl answered.
Addressing Health Issues Besides Dementia
Some entrants devised solutions to health issues of older people that don’t get much attention, but should. Keyport Public School’s Greenhill team, for instance, suggested virtual reality goggles for residents with amblyopia (one eye is stronger than the other).
One of my favorite Future City teams: Clinton Public School’s Hisno (Houston in the future), where three girls offered ideas to help the invented city’s residents with overactive bladder (OAB). “86% of seniors experience overactive bladder symptoms multiple times a day,” one presenter said. “The prevalence of OAB is much greater than Alzheimer’s, but it was something we didn’t think a lot of teams would tackle.”
Here’s how they tackled it: Hisno has self-cleaning bathrooms every 500 yards, with 15-minute cleaning cycles once every six hours and i-Robots that clean the floors with environmentally friendly supplies. Residents wear special watches that give Hisno’s Food Control Service department permission to monitor what they eat and drink as well as their bowel movements, allowing the agency to recommend foods for a more balanced nutritional diet to avoid OAB flare-ups. (One trade-off with this idea and another proposing a facial recognition system for people with dementia: privacy.)
Top 3 Winners at Future City's New Jersey Competition
Twenty-six teams at the New Jersey competition won awards ranging from mini-drones to Samsung tablets. The top three winners:
Third place: The New Speranza team of girls from Miftaahul Uloom Academy of Union City, N.J., a private Islamic school. Speranza is Italian for “hope” and New Speranza, its brochure said, “is a city founded off of a hope of making life easier.”
The team’s two big ideas for New Speranza, formerly Jersey City, in 2037: 1) self-driving, solar-powered, wheelchair accessible cars for the hilly city and 2) medical bracelets (covered by health insurance) that monitor blood pressure, heart rates, allergies and other special conditions and then notify EMS if there’s a medical emergency.
New Speranza will also have an “innovation center” to research and implement new ideas such as solar-powered robots to “help seniors with everyday tasks,” one team member told judges. An innovation center for aging well is something thoughtful cities are beginning to adopt in the here-and-now; Next Avenue’s Chris Farrell just wrote about one in Louisville, Ky.
Second place: The E’Laurean team of boys and girls from Keyport Public School, in Keyport, N.J., whose city was designed to be “the most age-friendly in France.” Its shuttle buses hover over streets by operating on magnetic technology, AI-powered nanobots act as miniature doctors and every building has a ramp.
First place: The Raramai (from the Shona word for "live on") team of four girls from Harding Township School, in New Vernon, N.J. Residents of their city, in Victoria Falls, Zambia (the falls’ water converts to electricity), wear buttons on their wrists that update their health records in real time and have medical sensors (“HealthChips”) implanted in their wrists. Stem cell therapy injections aid those with arthritis and other joint conditions. Another feature of Raramai: three houses of worship next to each other, for religious diversity.
“When we started, it was a mess,” said one of the Raramai girls. “But we learned a lot of stuff since then.”
The Future City proposals, if they become reality, might first benefit the kids’ boomer grandparents. But one reason the competitors work so hard on their entries: the solutions truly matter to them.
“One of my favorite quotes was from an eighth grader who was interviewed a few years ago and asked why she wanted to do Future City,” said Sahr. “She said: ‘What do you mean why? If we kids aren’t thinking about this, who will? It’s my future we’re talking about.’”