Here’s how gaming can help plan the cities of the future

A screenshot from Cities: Skylines. Image: Paradox Interactive.

Games are often looked down upon by people desperately trying to appear grown-up – so any value they have beyond entertainment has historically been widely ignored.

But this attitude is, gradually, changing – and one can see why. The technology behind games has now developed to a point of almost visual realism, and the once simple models that your old, coal-powered PC could barely handle now look positively stone age in comparison to some modern games.

So various industries have been using gaming technology to educate and inspire since as long ago as the 1960s. The simplified model of reality that a game offers can be used to make impenetrable and technical subjects accessible to a wider audience.

Take city planning. For a quarter of a century now, games like the SimCity series have challenged players to design their own city with real life urban problems in mind. In an entertaining way, players are thus introduced to issues like housing density, infrastructure, zoning and disaster prevention – topics which would send most people to sleep if encountered in a classroom. The next generation of city planners have thus encountered the creative aspect of the job from an early age, without being scared away by the mire of technospeak.

Having inspired the little ones, now we need to educate them – and games can help on this front, too. The levels of complexity involved can be ramped up to something more appropriate for those actually learning city planning professionally.

In Cilvia, a game designed by Royal College of Art graduate Johnny Lui, budding architects take on a virtual London city council and try to get their proposed buildings passed the various planning constraints put in their way. SimCityEDU twists the SimCity games to add a more educational slant, allowing teachers to plan lessons and assign students specific simulated urban problems to overcome.

The potential of gaming doesn’t just extend to educating the city planners of tomorrow: it can be used to engage locals in developing the space around them, too. I can’t imagine many people who haven’t thought about how their surrounding environment could be improved – the question is how these ideas can be harnessed.

The Amsterdam-based Play the City attempts to answer this question, by using games to support collaborative decision making on urban design projects. For example, the centre of Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township, was in dire need of a makeover. The market was a jumble of shipping containers, housing the area’s businesses.


Play the City came up with an interactive way of bringing local traders and developers together, to help remodel the market. That way, the communities, who will ultimately use the space, could contribute to its final design; and the developers could be sure they were building something that would actually work.

Khayelitsha was redesigned through the collaboration of around 100 participants – so just imagine what you could do with 3.5m. That’s the number of people playing Cities:Skylines, the 2015 heir to the SimCity crown.

Like its predecessors, the game opens the questions faced by city planners up to the public, and the simulation provided by the game is so accurate it can produce results applicable to the real world.. As designer Karoliina Korppoo explained in her TED talk, if something works in the game, it is highly likely to work in real life, too. In other words, the cities of the future could rely on ideas provided not by the dusty office elites, but crowd sourced through games, to engage the millions of active minds out among the public.

The slightly oxymoronic-sounding ‘serious games’ are those intended for a purpose other than entertainment. It’s perhaps in an attempt to gain un-required legitimacy in the eyes of those who otherwise dismiss gaming that modelling and other educational games are often categorised as such.

But this attempt to distance games from the fun aspect risks undermining the very benefit that city planning games can bring. Such games can engage people otherwise uninterested in the complexity of the city in the possibilities of city planning itself. You can’t do that without fun.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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