The Smithsonian Institution wants you to imagine the almost ideal city block of the future. Not the perfect block, not utopia, but the kind of urban place where you get most of what you want, and so does everybody else.
Call it urban design by compromise. With a new interactive multiplayer game, the museum is hoping to show that the urban spaces of the future can achieve mutual goals only by being flexible and open to the needs of other stakeholders.
The exercise is part of the new exhibition Futures that opened this weekend at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building in Washington D.C. It’s a wide-ranging showcase of technologies, artwork, and ideas that offer fresh ways of thinking about and envisioning the various futures that can lie ahead. To show how people can have agency in guiding the future of cities, the exhibition’s curators decided to dial in on a single city block.
The game is designed for three players, each in the role of either the city’s mayor, a real estate developer or an ecologist. The roles each have their own primary goals – the mayor wants a well-served populace, 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 discrete projects or by amending what another player has contributed. Options are varied, but include everything from traditional office buildings and parks to community centers and algae farms. The players each try to achieve their own goals on the block, while facing the reality that other players may push the design in unexpected directions. These tradeoffs and their impact on the block are explained by scores on four basic metrics: daylight, carbon footprint, urban density, and access to services. How each player builds onto the block can bring scores up or down.
One player in the developer role for example, could choose to build a creative campus on a city block – a selection that could result in good numbers for the city’s urban density and access to services. A player in the ecologist role might choose to put a wildlife habitat next door. That might be good for the city’s carbon footprint and the amount of daylight coming into the block, but might be an awkward neighbor to the bustling creative campus next door. To try to balance things out, a player in the mayor role might adjust the wildlife habitat into a wetland – offering some ecological value while helping process the stormwater falling on the mostly paved campus next door. Every role gets a little of what they want, without squashing the goals of the others.
“This is where we all intersect. There are all of these people with diverse backgrounds, diverse sets of needs compressed into a small amount of space, and we need to figure out how to collaborate and get along,” says Brad MacDonald, director of creative media at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. “This project is an exercise in people getting used to the idea of articulating what’s 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 developed a tool for AI-based generative design that offers up options for a city block’s design, using computing power to make suggestions on what could go where and how aiming to achieve one goal, like boosting residential density, might detract from or improve another set of goals, like creating open space. “Sometimes you’ll do something that you think is good but it doesn’t really help the overall score,” says Brian Pene, director of emerging technology at Autodesk. “So that’s really showing people to take these tradeoffs and try attributes other than what achieves their own goals.” The tool is meant to show not how AI can generate the perfect design, but how the differing needs of various stakeholders inevitably require some tradeoffs and compromises.
AI is used to boil down the multitude of options into a set of discrete choices and then to explain how one choice differs from and is in some ways better than another. In evaluating the development of the city throughout the game, the AI suggests choices each player can make and tracks the outcome.
But the game is not suggesting that we turn AI loose on the question of what makes a good city. “We didn’t set out to create a new urban design tool,” says Pene. Rather, the game is intended to highlight the ways AI can be useful in weeding through millions of options to find those that meet the broader goals of a community, from sustainability to economic prosperity. Designing for those goals, and chucking out all the designs that are at cross purposes, is something AI is well suited to, Pene says. “All the yucky 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. AI becomes what Pene calls a “design assistant.”
Together, the players have a total of 30 tiles to use in their city building process, with the four metrics being tracked along the way. Like any city, there’s no correct answer or right way to design it, just an infinity of options with drawbacks and tradeoffs on the way towards something close to what most people want.
“Our hope with this is that visitors take away [the idea] that AI and generative design can act as a compass, helping them navigate tradeoffs while removing bias and guiding them towards possible futures and maybe even better outcomes,” Pene says.
In line with the exhibition’s forward-looking theme, the game is also an attempt to show what urban design processes could look like in the future. One intention, Pene says, is to explore “how are humans potentially going to interface with new kinds of design tools and each other. There’s a lot to learn.”
Ultimately the game is meant to give people a sense of realistic optimism for the future of cities. They may not be all world peace and flying cars, but they also don’t have to become the authoritarian dystopias of so many films and science fiction stories.
“There’s so much dystopia out there. We need lots of optimism,” Pene says.
“Dystopia is easy,” says MacDonald. “Finding positive solutions, that’s hard work.”