The Smithsonian Institution wants you to imagine the near-ideal urban block of the future. Not the perfect neighborhood, not utopia, but the kind of urban place where you get most of what you want, and everyone else too.
Call it urban design by compromise. With a new interactive multiplayer game, the museum hopes to show that the urban spaces of the future can only achieve common goals by being flexible and open to the needs of other stakeholders.
The exercise is part of the new exhibition Futures contracts which opened this weekend at Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building in Washington DC It is a vast showcase of technologies, works of art and ideas that offer new ways of thinking and envisioning the various futures that may present themselves. To show how people can have the power to shape the future of cities, the curators of the exhibition decided to focus on just one city block.
The game is designed for three players, each in the role of the city mayor, real estate developer or environmentalist. The roles each have their own main goals – the mayor wants a well-served population, the developer wants to build successful projects, and the ecologist wants the urban environment to coexist with the natural environment. Each role takes turns adding to the block, either in separate projects or by modifying what another player has contributed. The options are varied, but include everything from traditional office buildings and parks to community centers and seaweed farms. Players each try to achieve their own goals on the block, while also facing the reality that other players can push the design in unexpected directions. These compromises and their impact on the block can be explained by scores on four basic metrics: daylight, carbon footprint, urban density and access to services. The way each player builds on the block can increase or decrease the scores.
A player in the role of developer, for example, might choose to build a creative campus on a block – a selection that could result in good numbers for the city’s urban density and access to services. An environmental actor could choose to put a wildlife habitat aside. This could be good for the city’s carbon footprint and the amount of daylight entering the block, but could be an annoying neighbor for the bustling creative campus next door. To try to balance things out, an actor in the role of mayor could adjust the wildlife habitat to a wetland – providing some ecological value while helping to deal with the stormwater falling on the mostly paved campus next door. Each role gets a little of what it wants, without overwhelming the goals of others.
“This is where we all meet. There are all of these people with diverse backgrounds, diverse sets of needs packed into a small space, and we have to figure out how to collaborate and get along, ”said Brad MacDonald, director of creative media at Smithsonian Arts and Industries. Building. “This project is an exercise in getting people used to the idea of articulating what is important to them, and the idea of compromise and balance. “
To create the game, the Smithsonian teamed up with Autodesk, the maker of architectural design tools like AutoCAD, an industry standard. Autodesk has developed a tool for AI-powered generative design that provides options for island design, using computing power to make suggestions on what might go where and how to aim for a goal, such as increasing residential density, could harm or improve another set of goals, such as creating open space. “Sometimes you’ll do something you think is good, but that doesn’t really help the overall score,” says Brian Pene, director of emerging technologies at Autodesk. “So it really shows people that they have to make those trade-offs and try out attributes other than those that achieve their own goals. The tool is meant to show not how AI can generate the perfect design, but how the different needs of different stakeholders inevitably require trade-offs and compromises.
AI is used to summarize the multitude of options into a set of discrete choices, and then to explain how one choice differs and is in some ways better than another. By evaluating the city’s development throughout the game, the AI suggests choices each player can make and tracks the outcome.
But the game isn’t suggesting that we let the AI loose on the question of what makes a good city. “We didn’t intend to create a new urban design tool,” Pene explains. Rather, the game aims to highlight ways in which AI can be useful in sorting through millions of options to find those that meet the broader goals of a community, from sustainability to economic prosperity. Designing for these goals and eliminating all contrarian designs is something AI is well suited to, Pene says. “All the manual, laborious tasks around so many different parameters, different permutations to look at, different metrics – AI can do that and present options to individuals to make decisions,” he says. The AI becomes what Pene calls a “design assistant”.
Together, players have a total of 30 tiles to use in their city building process, with all four steps being tracked along the way. Like any city, there is no right answer or right way to think of it, just endless options with drawbacks and tradeoffs on the way to something close to what most people want.
“Our hope is that visitors take [the idea] that AI and generative design can act as a compass, helping them compromise while removing biases and guiding them to possible futures and maybe even better outcomes, ”Pene said.
In keeping with the forward-looking theme of the exhibition, the game is also an attempt to show what urban design processes might look like in the future. One of the intentions, says Pene, is to explore “how humans will potentially interface with new types of design tools and with each other.” There is a lot to learn.
Ultimately, the game is meant to give people a sense of realistic optimism for the future of cities. They might not all be world peace and flying cars, but they also don’t have to become the authoritarian dystopias of so many sci-fi movies and stories.
“There is so much dystopia out there. We need a lot of optimism, ”says Pene.
“Dystopia is easy,” says MacDonald. “Finding positive solutions is hard work. “