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Teens Triumph Over Aging

While planning and plotting from points worldwide, nearly 40,000 middle school students engineer solutions for the challenges that come with old age

Members of the Mid Atlantic team from the Edlin School in Reston, VA at the Future City Competition Finals

Photo by Matt Roth

Representing the Mid-Atlantic Region, students from the Edlin School in Reston, Virginia, are surprised and psyched about winning the 26th Annual Future City Competition.

How can we ensure that the cities of the future will meet the needs of people across rapidly expanding lifespans?

One way is to start educating students about aging-related issues from a young age so the planners, engineers, architects and policy makers of the future will understand the need for communities to be livable for all ages. The next step is to ensure that students move into adulthood with the skill sets they'll require in order to succeed. 

To that aim, AARP was among the sponsors of the 2018 Future City Competition, an annual educational event that chose "age-friendly cities" as its theme for the 2017-2018 school year.

More than 40,000 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders from across the U.S. — as well as numerous nations, including Canada, China, Egypt and Nigeria — participated in the program, which tasks student teams to choose a location anywhere in the world and then work to research, conceive, design and build a tabletop-sized model version of what the city could be like in 100 or more years.

The 2018 teams had to identify an age-related challenge in today's urban environment and then engineer two innovative solutions that will allow the older adults in their "future city" to enjoy active and independent lives.

And, wow, did they innovative!

Students from the Mid-Atlantic team show AARP executive and competition judge Kamili Wilson (in red) their future city.

Photo by KRR Photography, courtesy DiscoverE

Members of the winning Mid-Atlantic Region team provide a city tour to two of the competition's judges, including Kamili Wilson (in red), AARP Vice President of Enterprise Initiatives.

Disrupting Aging

The winning Mid-Atlantic Region team from the Edlin School in Reston, Virginia, used metrics gathered from the AARP Livability Index to help them create compact communities and engineer a multi-modal transportation system (that included autonomous electric buses) to connect them. The team also incorporated the concept of "healthy aging" into its plan by designing "smart homes" equipped with non-invasive sensors to track a resident's vital signs and detect falls and even early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. The students envisioned "Healthy Happy Hours" where older adults would be encouraged to eat healthy foods, socialize, and talk about the city's history with younger generations.

The second-place team, from St. John Lutheran School in Rochester, Michigan, was also the winner of the AARP-sponsored Best Essay competition. Among the students' innovations were "AmphiPod" personal vehicles that operate on land and water and can glide up the sides of buildings in order to maximize accessibility and link to an elevated public transit system. The team also provided a substantial environmental benefit by selecting the U.S.'s largest toxic waste (or Superfund) site in Butte, Montana, as its project location. The student engineers remediated the site by capturing heavy metals and converting them into energy sources.   

Members of the Michigan team strike a fun pose after being awarded best essay at the 2018 Future City Competition

Photo by KRR Photography, courtesy DiscoverE

Students from the St. John Lutheran School in Rochester, Michigan (acting silly along with their mentors), placed second in the competition and won for Best Essay.

Exciting Innovations

The team from Huntsville, Alabama's Academy for Science and Foreign Language captured third-place. Its city (a future version of Adelaide, Australia) features a learning center called an "Intergenerational Complex for Education." Dubbed "I.C.E," the center is housed on a college campus where older adults (some of whom would live on-site) can continue their education and provide mentoring to younger students. (Check out the article "Middle School Students Pen an Age-Friendly Future" to see a photo of the Alabama Region team's model.)

Fresh ideas were by no means limited to the winners. In fact, unique innovations were visible across the competition. For instance, the Chinese team representing Shanghai-East based its city design on the three principles of "love, give and original experience" — the latter being the idea that experiences undergone during one's childhood have a far-reaching influence on thought in later years. One way the team actualized this was by preserving Shikumen, dwellings known for their traditionally Chinese architectural style, while at the same time providing more accessible and contemporary housing options. (The team's model is pictured below.)

The model city created by students representing East-Shanghai at the 2018 Future City Competition

Photo by KRR Photography, courtesy DiscoverE

The smaller buildings in the model city created by students from the China/Shanghai-East Region team depict Shikumen homes, which are a traditional but vanishing architectural style that first appeared in the mid-19th century. Today, most Shanghai residents live in high-rise apartment towers.

AARP and the Future City Competition

The competition was a truly collaborative effort. AARP provided subject-area expertise throughout the eight-month planning and implementation process. Local AARP volunteers served as team mentors and regional competition judges, and Rodney Harrell and Shannon Guzman (of the AARP Public Policy Institute), Melissa Stanton (of AARP Livable Communities) and Stephanie Firestone (of AARP International) served as judges during the first day of the finals competition, which took place in Washington, D.C. on February 19, 2018. Kamili Wilson, AARP Vice President for Enterprise Initiatives, served as one of five senior judges for determining the ultimate winners. Without question, the event inspired all involved.

"It warmed my heart to hear the students incorporating age-positive messages and considerations into their concepts and presentations," said Wilson. "They will change the future for the better, I’m convinced!"

Moreover, the learning flowed in both directions. Professionals working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and related fields, served as judges. These adults came away with a new age-friendly prism through which to view their planning and policy work, in some cases providing a vantage point many had not previously considered.

Let's continue to be inspired through creative challenges like Future City, which is training future decision makers while simultaneously shifting aging perspectives among the professionals who are making consequential decisions today.

Stephanie Firestone is a senior strategic policy advisor for AARP International Affairs. 

Page published March 2018

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