In this fourth story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores an eco-engineering high school in Singapore that is training highly moral scientific leaders to guide investigation of the world’s most controversial environmental technologies.
Arivan has just stepped off Singapore’s MRT train and is now walking his last few blocks to the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy along a pedestrian and bicycle-only street. This is his favorite part of the commute. Even though school starts later in Singapore to avoid the worst of the morning rush hour, the train ride is still chaotic. But these few last blocks along Agnes Avenue—with its lush tree canopy, birdsong, and verdant sidewalk cafes—is more park than street. Of course, not all roads in the city are so picturesque. But Arivan is proud that the students of Garden City Academy have played an important role over the years in helping to make Singapore one of the greenest cities on the planet.
Even as a second-year student, Arivan is still orienting himself to the possibilities—and responsibilities—that come with being a student at Garden City. Ever since he was little, Arivan’s education has been strongly centered on character education. Having a strong moral character, or more simply put, “being good,” has been deeply integrated into every aspect of Singapore’s educational system—from teaching empathy early on to exploring the moral complexities of modern life as children mature.
Students here gain access to some of the most controversial environmental technologies on the planet.
With Arivan having passed both his character education and science exams at the top of his class, he has earned a coveted spot at Garden City (although, naturally, he accepted it with humility). Students here gain access to some of the most controversial environmental technologies on the planet—from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nanotechnology, to geoengineering and carbon capture and storage (CCS). They are expected to graduate not only with in-depth knowledge of these technologies, but also having helped advance humanity’s understanding of them, and of how to use them responsibly, if at all.
Garden City’s philosophy is that as the planet’s ecological crises have accelerated, the need for eco-engineering has too. Not only are governments working diligently to make their cities and industries more sustainable, but widespread ecological disruptions are requiring us to make our key systems—water, electricity, transportation, agriculture, coastal infrastructure—more resilient. As the climate heats up even further in the second half of the century, there will be greater pressure to try more controversial technologies in an attempt to dig humanity’s way out of crisis.
Rather than ignoring or banning these technologies outright, the Singapore government feels that it’s better to train the next generation of scientists to be morally evolved leaders that can analyze rationally whether the sacrifices that come with using the technologies merit the benefits. As an added bonus, many of the eco-engineers that have graduated from Garden City have become a valuable asset to Singapore, bringing significant global leadership in patent development and generating abundant journal citations, royalties, and remittances.
When Arivan started at Garden City, he was invited to participate in a longitudinal study on the health and environmental implications of saltwater-tolerant perennial rice. This GMO crop was designed back in 2025 and has been undergoing long-term testing to ensure that, along with being safe, it is productive, palatable, and profitable. During the early years of the study, students were involved in growing and harvesting the rice, and feeding rice meal to rats. When the field tests found no adverse health effects, students moved on to feeding the rice to chickens, then dogs and cats.
One of the mottos of Garden City is, “What we expect of others, we must expect of ourselves.”
Two years ago, the students (under the close supervision of faculty scientists at the school) declared the rice safe for human testing. The rice is now served in the school cafeteria. After all, one of the mottos of Garden City is, “What we expect of others, we must expect of ourselves.” Arivan now plays an important role in collecting and analyzing health data. As a student in the school’s GMO track, he is routinely reading the latest journal studies and has even joined his team to present at the prestigious International Congress of Agricultural Biotechnologies. He and others in his track also regularly present updates of their own work and broader “field briefs” to students in the other three tracks at Garden City: Geoengineering & CCS, Nanotechnology & Biomimicry, and Urban & Civil Design.
This morning, the day is starting with a presentation from a Civil Design team working on “growing” Singapore’s first living house. Planted nine years ago, the trees and grasses that make up the house have now fused to a point where the interior will now be built. As the lead presenter explains, “If all goes well, we’ll have our first resident by the end of the school year.” When not at full school presentations, most students are either taking core courses or participating in their teams’ studies.
Of course, it’s not all science and moral education at Garden City. Languages—particularly English and Mandarin (the top two scientific languages), along with Malay—are a required part of the curriculum. The Arts and other means to cultivate creativity and critical thinking also are encouraged, as are opportunities to get outdoors in Singapore’s many managed natural spaces. Arivan is part of the wilderness skills club and is currently learning how to make fire using a bow drill. As Garden City administrators often state, “Connecting students to the eco-social-technical organism that the city has become reveals the mysteries of our living planet and their duty as stewards.” While that might sound like jargon to the outsider, it’s music to the students of the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy.
Read more School Days in 2040 posts:
Rima’s Day at École Gardiens de la Forêt
Saikou’s Day Aboard the Tigerfish Floating School
Lakshmi’s Day at Bunker Hill High
Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.
Author’s note: While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.
I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.