A winning vision of a city on cleaner energy in 2060

NUS undergrads crowned national champions of Shell Singapore’s ‘Imagine the Future Scenarios’ competition

Over the year-end holidays, six second-year students from the College of Humanities and Sciences and NUS College at the National University of Singapore banded together to take on the interdisciplinary challenge of envisioning what the future could be if a city ran on cleaner energy.

Signing up for the 2022/2023 ‘Imagine the Future Scenarios’ competition to dream up two such alternate scenarios for an Asian or Middle Eastern city, the students envisioned how Dhaka’s ability to tackle climate change and rapid urbanisation would chart the future of Bangladesh’s capital city, eventually emerging national champions in the competition.

This is the seventh edition of the competition organised by Shell Singapore to encourage students to use their knowledge and imagination to anticipate the future and the challenges it could bring.

Team leader for ‘Team DHAKA2060’, Sophie Du Toit, said she and her team mates were drawn to the competition’s blue-sky proposition which allowed breadth for exploration, creativity and critical thinking, while challenging participants to consider the future from a grounded, realistic perspective.

Sophie, who is currently majoring in Global Studies with a keen interest in what sustainability could look like for current and future generations, said, “It was the competition’s strong emphasis on future planning vis-a-vis a transition to green energy which really drew us to participate in it. The prospect of engaging a nexus of issues – governance, clean energy and urban resilience – in order to craft plausible scenarios of a world 30 to 40 years into the future was “both exciting and deeply interesting.”

The team spent two months researching and brainstorming to demonstrate how Dhaka can capitalise on its existing resources and investments to make the green switch and develop a strategy that can accommodate potential policy changes. This led them to formulate two divergent scenarios of what work, life and play would be like for the city’s future citizens in 2060.

In the first ‘Green Straitjacket’ scenario, they speculated on what a city governed by a centralised government, with strict domestic controls over energy production and supply, would look like. Conversely, in the second ‘Silicon Delta’ scenario, they envisioned the city under decentralised, laissez-faire governance with a high reliance on foreign powers for energy imports.

Elaborating on their choice of city, Daniel Poon, who is currently pursuing a double major in Chemical Engineering and Political Science, said, “The city of Dhaka presents many unique opportunities alongside challenges, which have generally been sidelined in favour of bigger-name cities in the region. It is our hope that our project will be able to convincingly demonstrate the potential and corresponding pitfalls of Dhaka’s industrial and social future in the decades to come.” 

Using theatrics to take their audience on a journey

Having scoped out plausible visions for the city’s future, the team took on the challenge of creating a skit to bring their audience on the journey to a ‘future’ Dhaka in the year 2060.

Morris Yang, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) major, said the group made a unanimous decision to go with a more unconventional approach instead of presenting a typical slide show to bring the concept to life. With the goal of engaging the audience through relatable characters and realistic scenarios, Team DHAKA2060 mustered up ‘theatrical courage’ to create a skit to project how life in Dhaka might be in 2060. 

“A skit opens up another dimension for us to demonstrate their lives, hopes and dreams – and even their anxieties – beyond words and pictures.” This approach, explained Morris, was both risky and challenging as it was different from the structured academic presentations the students were familiar with in their university projects.

The team spent many evenings and nights rehearsing and polishing their skit in front of their classmate and residential hallmates. Not only did the rehearsals make for a fun experience, it unearthed hidden acting talent among the group and the risk taken paid off as the presentation turned out to be the most rewarding moment of the competition for each member.

“The theatricality of our presentation really immersed the audience in the worlds we’ve created. Being able to express our point with confidence was what helped us stand out in the competition,” said Eleyn Yap, a fellow PPE undergraduate.

History and Political Science double major Jeff Chin shared, “It was really gratifying to hear from the judges that they enjoyed our skit presentation and the energy it brought to the competition. The time and effort we put into bringing our ideas to life paid off, and it was a proud moment for us.”

Solutions that emerge from a confluence of ideas

Apart from daring to take a path less travelled in their presentation method, Team DHAKA2060 also credited the team’s win to its academic diversity which allowed them to consider multiple dimensions for each future scenario.

 “While some of us were inclined to analyse the political possibilities for Dhaka, others pointed out (the) geographical constraints. The diversity in the way we think and see things became very obvious when it came to discussing Dhaka’s future. Everyone shared from their own perspective, yet ultimately, it was these differing and individual worldviews that strengthened the nuance of our case,” Eleyn said.

Iyan Danial Mohamad agreed that having many brilliant minds all pondering the logic of each idea helped immensely in ensuring they were sound. The Communications and New Media major who is also pursuing a double minor in History and Interactive Media Development, said, “Naturally, the fact that all of us came from different backgrounds as well also allowed us to expand the scope of our ideas, which was important so that we were able to cover more aspects of how a city could develop over the next few decades.”

“We were considerably more open to reiterating and challenging existing ideas without adhering to a dogmatic belief in the tried-and-tested,” said Morris.

Leaning on and trusting each other’s strengths, the team overcame their initial worry that they may have bitten off more than they could chew taking on a city that was rapidly evolving politically and socio-economically. However, it was the team’s varying view points and opinions that ultimately drove them to look at the issues from a macro perspective led to more convincing and multi-layered arguments that withstood questions from the judging panel.