Gaming as a method for cooperative urbanism
Is public consultation a thing of the past? Alyssa Campbell takes us inside the City Innovation Game, a planning experiment in Buiksloterham, Amsterdam, that lets stakeholders create development scenarios interactively and in real time.
Amsterdam is seen worldwide as a city that has experimented with innovative solutions to meet environmental and social challenges. Today, this city-below-sea-level is advancing an ambitious sustainability plan with the goal of creating neighbourhoods that produce no external waste or pollution. Buiksloterham, a former industrial area in the north of Amsterdam that is increasingly sought out for investment, has been selected as the first test ground. Based on circular economic principles, Amsterdam’s sustainability plan aims to shift the city’s mentality towards the sharing of space, services, and resources, which is seen as necessary to achieve a carbon-neutral economy. Yet achieving a cooperative future when actors have diverse private interests is no easy task.
This is where gaming as a planning method comes into play. Last autumn, Play the City, a small start-up organisation based in Amsterdam, began engaging stakeholders in Buiksloterham in a gaming process aimed at helping them cooperatively achieve the most sustainable development possible. In contrast to traditional participatory planning methods in which the state builds a scenario and presents it to the public for debate, when planning is a gaming process stakeholders interactively ‘build their interests’ in real time as they construct a development scheme. New rules can be created as the game is carried out in order to provide flexibility to achieve a larger common goal.
Games have been urban planning tools since the 1960s. Metropolis, one of the first city games, was created in 1966 to help the Lansing, Michigan City Council work out issues in budgeting. Later, with the advent of computers, planning ‘games’ became data-driven simulations of possible development scenarios. Influenced by the top-down planning ideology of the post-war era, these simulations did not involve stakeholders, and they operated under the belief that the future of a city could be predicted through scientific analysis. Eventually, as top-down master planning became increasingly discredited, ‘free-form’ multi-player games emerged. SimCity, launched in 1989, transformed city gaming from a closed process with a single powerful actor in control to an open, multi-player scenario in which participants could negotiate urban futures. Gaming as planning brings that bottom-up principle to real-world urban development.
GAMING FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Buiksloterham, which rests atop land reclaimed from the sea, was for a long time seen as unprofitable brownfield. Today, with young creatives escaping the housing pressures of the centre, Buiksloterham has become synonymous with hipsterdom, summer festivals and artist studios. Bottom-up initiatives with involvement from self-builders, cooperatives, and small-scale architectural firms are a key part of the area’s development. With Buiksloterham now the pilot site for Amsterdam’s sustainability ambitions, these smaller actors must join the municipality, large developers, and energy companies to build a carbon neutral neighbourhood with circular food, waste, energy and water flows. Customary strict zoning rules will not be applied in Buiksloterham—brave new territory for a country known for highly centralised planning regulations.
The City Innovation Game, which Play the City developed for the area, is aimed at bringing these stakeholders together to create a sustainable vision for Buiksloterham. A pilot version of the game was played for the first time with planners from around the world as part of the 2015 International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) conference in Amsterdam. At the beginning of the test game, participants were assigned roles representing the interests of actual stakeholders, from large developers to families and community associations. Each player was given a card listing his or her desires, needs, and budget constraints. Divergent environmental, business, and social goals guided the decision-making of each actor. Ambitions ranged wanting to build cooperative housing for young professionals to social housing for refugees and private family homes.
Gathering around a physical game board that modeled the existing area in detail, players strategised to choose the site they most wanted to develop based on their needs. Actors could decide to partner with those with common interests or to progress alone when faced with competition to secure an optimal site. Players then chose the types of residential, civic, and commercial buildings they most desired, placing the 3-D pieces on the game board. With the overarching challenge of achieving the most sustainable development possible within the constraints of a given budget, players had to choose which energy, water, and waste management systems in which to invest based on cards that listed their prices, benefits and tradeoffs. Each investment was ranked according to its level of sustainability, with actors attempting to earn the most ‘green’ points.
Flexible rules that allow room for innovation through partnership were among the key themes of the City Innovation Game. For example, when considering whether or not to invest in renewable energy sources, actors had to decide whether the investment would serve only them, their immediate neighbours, or the broader area—and what benefits they would gain from investing at each scale. Players found that installing solar panels was cheaper when the costs were shared between multiple actors than when operated solely for individual use. Sometimes, a rich developer with a larger budget who was not as concerned by environmental considerations might find they were willing to finance the expensive upfront costs of installing solar panels if they were able to sell off the extra energy produced through partnerships with more financially strained actors—increasing both their sustainability ranking compared to other developers and their return on investment.
Collaboration did occur in the preliminary game, but there were several challenges and lessons learned. Architects and planners participating in the pilot game commented on the striking similarities between the challenges that arose during the simulation process for Buiksloterham and those they face in real-life, such as a lack of information sharing and limited dialogue. Communication with other participants located farther away on the gaming board was one of the main barriers to effective collaboration. While gaming might draw out new and different forms of public input, it does not necessarily solve the inter-communicative challenges that participatory planning faces on a broader scale.
ADAPTING GAMING TO URBAN REALITIES
Play the City has developed games for diverse contexts around the world, from a township in Cape Town, South Africa, to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. According to Janine Loubser, a spatial planner at Play the City, the organisation wants to avoid being seen as “outsiders intervening in a sensitive context.” Yet adapting the gaming method to communities with such divergent histories comes with several obstacles.
For one, communities can have very different levels of interpersonal trust and civic engagement—both key elements for any effective public consultation process. "In many of our projects the cultural and political attitudes were often initially a barrier," noted Loubser, with players only opening up when drawn into the gaming process. For another, divergent ways of learning have to be taken into account when creating a game. In South Africa, for example, Play the City had to develop a game that worked for players who were unable to read or write, which was achieved by adapting gaming procedures to focus on discussion and physical interaction instead of technical rules. No matter the gaming rules, some disagreements could take years, not just days, of multiple stakeholders coming together to develop a viable outcome. "We learned that even the smallest intervention requires long-term understanding of a given challenge," explained Dr. Ekim Tan, Play the City’s founder.
Eventually, gaming-as-planning runs up against the same obstacles that many ambitious urban development schemes face: political will, or the lack thereof. If a city lacks a proactive mayor or the political support necessary to bring ideas into action, any collaborative vision risks remaining, in Loubser’s words, a “pie-in-the-sky dream.” In Buiksloterham the gaming process continues, with more than 25 stakeholders coming together to play the game since last fall. While the City of Amsterdam has made no commitment to formally implement any information or plans generated from the game, the gaming process has facilitated knowledge-exchange and cooperation among stakeholders who wouldn't have otherwise come into contact. It is this opening up of new lines of communication that is a crucial first step in any collaborative development process.