Systems Thinking Meets Lego: First CSU Integrated Systems Urban Design Challenge a Success

3D model of a urban area made by students at Colorado State University during the Urban Design Challenge
3D model of a urban area made by students at Colorado State University during the Urban Design Challenge. Photo courtesy of Meadow Conrad

As the world’s population continues to grow, how do we ensure new developments are more sustainable, resilient, and resource efficient?

These questions, coupled with the challenge of integrating water and energy systems into existing city infrastructure, guided the week-long Water-Energy Integrated Systems Urban Design Challenge hosted by Steve Conrad, associate professor of systems engineering.

The first Colorado State University UDC took place May 23 – 27 at the Powerhouse Energy Campus and brought together students from across campus and local industry partners for a hands-on challenge.

History of the Urban Design Challenge

The initial UDC, held in Denver in 2014, was tailored for water and energy utility companies to break down integrated planning barriers and create a more effective working relationship.

“What this initial tournament exposed was that participants who solved problems through game-playing techniques were more active in decision making,” Conrad said. “Participants also had more investment in addressing integrated planning in urban environments.”

After the success of this tournament, Conrad and his collaborator Steven Kenway, an engineering professor at the University of Queensland, decided to modify the challenge for students. The first student focused UDC was held in Brisbane in 2016. Since then, annual challenges have been hosted in Brisbane, Vancouver, Ghent, and most recently Fort Collins.

“As part of my appointment in Systems Engineering, I wanted to bring this same interdisciplinary approach to how we might address water and energy problems both here in Fort Collins and more broadly across Colorado and the nation,” Conrad said.

Redesigning Midtown Fort Collins

Throughout the week, participants heard from local stakeholders who are investing in redeveloping the Midtown area of Fort Collins. Midtown is considered the area between Drake and Harmony Roads along College Avenue.

“We worked with McWhinney and the Midtown Improvement District to outline some big systems questions that they are facing when redeveloping the area,” Conrad said. “What’s unique about the challenge is that we look at urban design through the metabolic processes that run through the city – water, energy, transportation flows. We brought the partner challenges and questions in these areas to the students to shape their thinking.”

CSU faculty members and industry partners presented during the week, providing information on approaching an urban site through systems-thinking, design, and environmentally focused lens.

“I look at all of my work as a systems problem and we know everything is connected. Change, whether positive or negative, will manifest itself in a multitude of ways,” said Basil Hamdan, stormwater quality engineer for the City of Fort Collins. “I specialize in water quality, but when I work to enhance the quality of our water, it has impacts both locally and regionally. These impacts are economic, social, and environmental.”

Students work together to build their 3D model of the Midtown Area in Fort Collins during the Urban Design Challenge at Colorado State University
Students work together to build their 3D model of the Midtown Area in Fort Collins during the Urban Design Challenge at Colorado State University. Photo courtesy of Meadow Conrad

Students went to Midtown for a site visit, which included walking from the MAX to the Foothills mall to gain a better understanding of the barriers facing people who take public transportation to the area. Students also learned about green infrastructure improvements, visiting several rain garden installations in Foothills mall parking lots.

During the second half of the challenge, students started redesigning the area with their team. They were asked to incorporate principles about minimizing water impact, create a regenerative energy hub, and design for multiple modes of transportation.

The teams brought together students from various disciplines, including Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Systems Engineering, Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Construction Management, and Environmental and Natural Resource Economics.

“My goal for the challenge is to have students think beyond their core discipline that they’ve gained a solid foundation in,” Conrad said. “We are hopefully helping to make multiple connections where they can apply that foundation and look at the broader integrated systems challenges found in urban environments and their future work.”

The final day of the challenge culminated with the three teams designing a 3D model of their site using Legos.

The 3D models were then judged by industry partners, and awards given out for best design, place to live, use of solar, connection with the environment, encouraging multiple forms of transportation, and minimizing downstream impacts.

“Judging itself was very difficult given the students did a terrific job,” said Ashwin Dhanasekar, research program manager at The Water Research Foundation and CSU alumni. “We were looking for innovative concepts, smart-thinking, creative solutions and a balance between going all out on renewable energy and having a livable solution, and the teams delivered on this. There seemed to be a lot of thought that had gone into these plans – under Conrad’s guidance, they had thought through almost every last detail that would matter.”

Introducing Students to Urban Design, Regenerative Systems

Students were drawn to sign up for the challenge because of an interest in urban water, energy, urban design, or community planning.

“I was introduced to UDC by Conrad and although I am new to community planning and urban design, I wanted to learn about the process community planners go through when designing a new site,” said Joshua Oluwatumise, a Ph.D. student in systems engineering.

Oluwatumise was a member of the Four-Sight team, named for the four team members who were “foreseeing” the future of the Midtown site. Four-Sight won the award for best design and best use of nature.

Another Four-Sight team member, Dixie Poteet, a master’s student in civil engineering, was interested by the discussions of regenerative systems during the week. Regenerative systems can restore or renew their own sources of energy and materials.

“Learning more about synergies (and how success is reflected in a regenerative system) helped expand my thinking beyond ticking off a framework checklist to reach a certain ‘level’ of sustainable,” Poteet said.

No caption, just alt-text: Students work together to build their 3D model of the Midtown Area in Fort Collins during the Urban Design Challenge at Colorado State University
Photo courtesy of Meadow Conrad

Katie Bond, a master’s student in construction management, was really impressed by the speakers, especially a presentation by Jessica Thrasher, education and outreach manager at The Colorado Stormwater Center on green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is an approach to water management that protects, restores, or mimics the natural water cycle.“Thrasher’s talk about stormwater and green infrastructure was eye opening,” Bond said. “I find myself looking for, and identifying, green infrastructure wherever I go now.”

Bond was a member of The Regenerators who won the award for best place to live.

“The Urban Design Challenge was a really great and creative opportunity to learn,” Oluwatumise said. “I was able to learn so much in such a short time due to the approach taken [by bringing] an interdisciplinary approach to yield the best results in urban design for communities.”

A Global Design Challenge

Looking forward, Conrad is working to make the UDC part of a global challenge. In the future, the winning team at CSU would compete against winning teams from University of Ghent, University of Queensland, and University of British Columbia. There are plans to include more universities in the global challenge.

“We want students to learn both from different disciplines and cultural perspectives on how we might solve the challenges in our cities,” Conrad said.

Conrad also hopes to continue to grow the Challenge to include students from more departments and colleges on campus and to provide course credit for students that participate in the challenge.

And, most importantly, Conrad hopes that students have fun and enjoy learning about how water and energy systems influence urban design.

“I want students to have an opportunity to apply their knowledge to a real problem,” Conrad said.  “I also want students to have fun in an engaging way that allows them to build their networks with other students interested in the same topics.”


Team 1: The Regenerators

Team 2: Four-Sight

Team 3: The Hub



Overall Winning Team – Four-Sight

People’s Choice Award (voted best place to live) – The Hub & The Regenerators

Future’s So Bright Award (best use of solar) – The Regenerators

Best use of Nature Award – Four-Sight

Minimized Downstream Impact Award – The Regenerators

Best Place to Travel to Award – The Hub


Industry & University Partners:

  • Thomas Bradley, Department Head and Woodward Professor of Systems Engineering
  • Steve Conrad, Associate Professor in Systems Engineering
  • Brian Dunbar, Executive Director of the Institute for the Built Environment
  • Jamie Giellis, Founder and President of Centro
  • Basil Hamdan, Stormwater Quality Engineer at the City of Fort Collins
  • Jocelyn Hittle, Assistant Vice Chancellor of the CSU Spur Campus
  • Tim Kemp, Senior Engineering Manager at Wilson & Company Inc & master’s student in Systems Engineering
  • Steven Kenway, Professor at the Australian Centre for Water and Environmental Biotechnologies at the University of Queensland
  • David McLean, Dean of the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering
  • Erika Miller, Assistant Professor in Systems Engineering
  • Matt Ross, Ecosystem Scientist at the CSU Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory
  • Kamran Eftekhari Shahroudi, Professor in Systems Engineering and Principal Systems Engineer at Woodward, Inc.
  • Roger Sherman, Landscape Architect, Principal at BHA Design
  • Jessica Thrasher, Education and Outreach Manager at the Colorado Stormwater Center


Judging Panel:

  • Ashwin Dhanasekar, Research Program Manager at The Water Research Foundation
  • Wade Troxell, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering
  • Clyde Wood, Vice President of Commercial and Mixed-Use Development for McWhinney

Photos courtesy of Meadow Conrad