2.26.2009

still thinking about the future...

I’m still thinking about the future and about Paolo Soleri...

Last Wednesday I was a judge for the final round in the “Future City” competition, http://www.futurecity.org/, part of National Engineers Week. It’s a competition among 7th and 8th graders to design, as you might guess, a city of the future. The Capitol Hill Hyatt’s underworld ballroom was a sea of tweens, clumping, giggling, and roaming in stringy packs with parents and teachers hovering nearby, but not too near. The 5 finalists were chosen right then and there out of the 38 or so regional winners who had won the trips to Washington. At that age, I would have found the whole thing unbearable. In so many ways...

As “celebrity judges”—yes, that’s what we were called, for some reason—we sat on stage and watched as each team presented its cities. Then we could ask them questions. What can one ask a 13 year old? I so wanted to ask, “is it not the case, as eminence gris Paolo Soleri says, that it is not the future your are creating, but a past? That the future does not exist, period?” But I held my tongue. That question would have no meaning to a 13 year old, to whom the past is nothing. The past is when I was 11. The past is last summer.

With heartbreaking sincerity one group after another pointed out underground transportation pods, nano-thingies, holographic recreation spaces, spinning towers of work, and little suburban pods of home. One team located it city undersea in synthetic spider silk domes. Curiously, several pointed out areas they called their “historic districts” yet those places were indistinguishable from the rest. Perhaps that was the point. There was not an ounce of irony, nor a drop of cynicism anywhere. No one laughed at the ubiquitous nanobots which would happily clean up after our future selves, or the specially engineered fish---“they’re pretty big”—that the undersea colony “invented” to dispose of waste.

What was remarkable was that these kids did this at all. And that behind each team of three stood an army of teachers, administrators, mentors, siblings, and friends all supporting, coaching, cajoling, gently critiquing, guiding, hugging, nagging, tear-wiping, ferrying, scolding, picking up, packing up, sacrificing, and...loving it. Leaving no child behind is necessary but not sufficient: let a few children soar. Oddly, that’s a tougher pitch. Educational equity is built on the former, but the latter implies that a few will really succeed. Others will be left out. Those of us in academia know this struggle intimately, most poignantly in primary and secondary school, but ultimately in the great sorting out of talent in college and graduate schools.

There is surely no greater range of body types in a single species than among 7th and 8th graders, so as each team took the stage the tall and skinny, the childishly chubby, the scrawny, the lovely and the gangly, stood frozen together for the photographers. One tiny girl had been the real dynamo of her group, holding the microphone like a pro, answering questions with eyes locked on the questioner. She smiled right at the camera, hair barely contained in a plastic headband and glasses slipping down her nose, chin up and holding her trophy in both little hands. I looked at her, flashing forward 20, 30 years, and imagined her older self looking at the photo. Where is she, I strained to see, when she reflects on the future that she made in the past? For that instant, in the photographer’s flash, Paolo, I saw the future. It’s real.

3 comments:

Professor Fleming said...

great post...i remember judging that competition in philly. lots of "home schooled" teams - it was a lot of fun.


so what about the future?...I've been thinking of doing a panel session called after sustainability. does that pique your interest? If so, let me know.

Susan said...

Hi Rob,
"after sustainability?" Very intriguing. Consider me piqued!

Professor Fleming said...

well, i have always prided myself on being 5-10+ years ahead...i have to credit you for the jump-start on sustainability, so its appropriate that we start again. I think we are too late for ACSA. We are running a big conference in Philly in the fall through a group i started called the PA Green Growth Partnership. Maybe that will be a low pressure starting point. I'll be working on the tracks this week and next for the conference, so stay tuned.

Rob