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Middle Schoolers Pen an Age-Friendly Future

According to many great young minds, 100 years from now "originals" will get around and stay active with the help of AmphiPods, Garudas and IRides

The Future City Competition challenges middle school students to use their knowledge and interests in science, technology, engineering and math to improve the world. In 2018, for the 26th annual contest, teens were challenged to envision an "age-friendly city" 100 or more years in the future. Some 40,000 students participated in the competition worldwide, with nearly four-dozen teams making it to the finals. (Learn more about the event and AARP's involvement in it.) 


A panoramic view of the winning Mid-Atlantic team's Future City Competition display.

Photo by Matt Roth

According to its creators (students from the Edlin School in Reston, Virginia), the city of Halona, formerly known as Richmond, Virginia, attained "Most Livable City" status by the World Health Organization and AARP for incorporating the concept of "Healthy Aging" into its city mandate. Halona's AARP building is the third skyscraper from the left in the back row. This city, presented by the students as the Mid-Atlantic Region team, received the competition's first-place prize — a trip to Space Camp in Alabama and $7,500 for their school's STEM program.


As part of the competition, which requires the students to construct table-top displays depicting their future cities, the teams submit an essay describing both the technical and social sciences behind their solutions. Following are excerpts from a few of the essays. When looking at the photographs, keep in mind that each team could spend no more than $100 on supplies, so recycling into use existing household items was key. You may recognize some of the recyclables. (Hint: Empty pill bottles make great apartment towers.)

Team: Alabama Region

At the Intergenerational Complex for Education (I.C.E), located in a future version of Adelaide, Australia, retirement facilities and schools are comingled. "Each complex has its own specialty," write students from the Academy for Science and Foreign Language in Huntsville, Alabama. "Some include engineering, culinary, computer science, and trade school. Retirees may choose to live in the complex of their expertise where they share their knowledge while interacting with the younger generations. Interaction occurs in classrooms, during special events, and throughout the day." (The Alabama Region team placed third in the competition, winning $2,000 for its school's STEM program.)

The Intergenerational Complex for Education is a building in the Alabama team's Future City Competition display.

Photo by KRR Photography, courtesy DiscoverE

One of several intergenerational education complexes in a future version of Adelaide, Australia.

Team: Illinois Region | Chicago

In Happyville, North Carolina, "The older population is encouraged to actively participate in their community by teaching younger generations their talents and experiences in exchange for young people educating them with the latest technologies." In their team essay, students from Chicago's St. Paul of the Cross School, representing the Illinois Region, explain that "back in the 21st century, many problems overwhelmed citizens, putting extra stress on those over the age of 65." Older people "felt isolated from other Happians because it was difficult getting from place to place and taxing to comfortably use public transit." Among the team's solutions: A soft, stretchy exoskeleton, which is a wearable robot that provides "endurance and strength to the wearer." Paired with "suction shoes," the ensemble enables the user to stay "completely mobile, balanced, and on their own two feet."

A replica of an IKEA store appears in the Illinois team's Future City Competition display.

Photo by KRR Photography, courtesy DiscoverE

Among the activities that make the residents of Happyville happy: Shopping at IKEA!

Team: Michigan Region

The brightly-colored buildings in Copper Valley, Montana, the future city created by students from the St. John Lutheran School in Rochester, Michigan, glow after dark. The color palette (seen below) was inspired by the "pink and blue Bastnasite mineral" that was discovered in the former copper mine when it was being remediated of toxic metals. Team Michigan placed second in the competition (earning $5,000 for its school's STEM program) and won for Best Essay (AARP staffers served as the judging panel). Among the team's aging-friendly innovations are MEC-Lace (Medical, Education and Communication) devices, which are real-time health care interfaces with medical personnel. The laces "track vital signs and provide dermal medication delivery," note the inventors, who add that "strain-energy harvesting piezo-nanobeads in footwear powers MEC-Laces, encouraging residents to stay active at Copper Valley's 31 parks." (If you need a refresher on piezoelectric technologies, this article might help.)

The Future City model by Team Michigan features eye-catching pink and royal blue buildings

Photo by KRR Photography, courtesy DiscoverE

Team Michigan's future city of Copper Valley (once known as Butte, Montana) is located on former copper mine and EPA Superfund site.

Team: Pennsylvania Region | Pittsburgh 

Formerly known as Oslo, Norway, the residents of Idunn Eir live in "multigenerational complexes (MGCs), which are innovative buildings that combine ground level commercial and community spaces with housing units above." Clusters of MGCs and commercial buildings combine with other clusters to form villages that feature public services, 24-hour health clinics, daycare centers, after-school programs, urban gardens and cultural and educational activities. People travel between villages by using the city’s underground hyperloop system. "Above ground, vehicular roads have mostly been replaced by pedestrian and bike paths," writes the team from The Ellis School, an all-girls school in Pittsburgh. Explaining the need for the MGC, the students point out that, "Traditional housing did not adequately support aging in place. Conventional housing design included high risk environments such as unsafe bathrooms, dangerous kitchens, and narrow doorways and hallways."

A multi-colored high-rise housing complex in the Pittsburgh team's Future City Competition display.

Photo by KRR Photography, courtesy DiscoverE

Five MGCs (Multigenerational Complexes) connect to one another and shared facilities. P.S. Recognize the recycled pill bottles? The black balconies are created from elastic ponytail bands.

Learn the Lingo

Much about the imagined future needs translation. We'll focus on the words introduced at the top of this article.

  • "Originals," according to the Homedale Middle School students representing the Idaho Region, is the respectful and preferred term for describing the people we currently refer to as "older adults," "the elderly" and/or "senior citizens."

  • An IRide is a "smart chair that can take you almost anywhere you want to go," according to the Louisiana Region team from Scotlandville Pre-Engineering Magnet in Baton Rouge. Used by senior citizens (aka: originals) an IRide is a "highly smart and intelligent robot that is like [a] personal assistant."

  • Garudas, an offering of the competition winning Mid-Atlantic Region team, from the Edlin School in Reston, Virginia, are "quad-passenger" transportation capsules that attach to a ground-based or low-flying module.

While IRides and Garudas do sound cool, the Michigan Region team offers a personal vehicle that can be self-driving or operated autonomously on both land and water.

  • "AmphiPods glide up the sides of buildings, allowing seniors to enter without having to take stairs,” the students write about their Montana-based future city. "Access is easy-in/easy-out, and living space is expanded, since AmphiPods act as a mini balconies!" 

According to the Michigan team's essayists, "unparalleled elder services are also available throughout the city, including intergenerational living at Montana Tech," where, in return for reduced-rate lodging, "students provide companionship to seniors while learning from their wisdom and life experiences."


Melissa Stanton is a senior advisor and editor for AARP Livable Communities.

Article published March 2018

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