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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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