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.

 
 
 
 

Meet the Sheffield social enterprise using shipping containers to tackle the housing crisis

A shipping container, repurposed as housing. Image: REACH.

A Sheffield-based social enterprise is hoping to navigate the rocky waters of the UK housing market, by creating affordable 1, 2 and 3-bedroom homes from shipping containers.

Inspired by an episode of Grand Designs, former police officer Jon Johnson set up REACH – Recycled, Environmental, Affordable Container Homes – in January 2017. Following a small grant from charity UnLtd, the social enterprise built a prototype which it is currently showing off to interested parties from around the UK. Johnson believes it can build 6,000 units a year, helping to plug the housing shortfall and creating genuinely affordable homes.

Just 1.4 per cent of homes in large developments approved by planners in Sheffield in 2016 and 2017 met the government’s affordable definition. In Manchester, it was literally none..

“We need to build the houses people want, where they want them, rather than what developers can bully through,” says Johnson. “I’ve got 40 or 50 housing reports. Are we going to keep writing reports or are we going to do something about it?”

During Johnson’s almost 30-year career in the police force, he saw first-hand the effects that insecure and poor-quality housing can have on communities in Britain. “It underpins everything in society. Everybody needs somewhere to live,” he says. “And if you haven’t got a decent place to be, that is adding to mental or health problems. You're onto a loser from the outset.”


“Decent housing is a human right like air and water,” he goes on. “It’s always been done to us by people who don’t care about standards or quality as long as they’re making money.”

Johnson used skills learnt through his furniture recycling store, Strip the Willow, to decorate the prototype, and sourced every bit of second-hand wood he used locally. The panelling used to be a counter in a local Indian takeaway, the cladding on the roof came from a local mosque. The bedroom headboard is made out of a piano, and light fittings are made out of cymbals.

Each of his eco homes will be 60 per cent recycled, built offsite in three weeks and powered by renewable energy sources. “We aim to make use of million tons of waste we put into landfill every year,” he says.

Changing the playing field

But followers of the UK housing market will be unsurprised when Johnson says there are vested interests and serious obstacles to overcome before REACH can achieve its dream of turning a cottage industry something more substantial.

“The same people will just keep profiteering out of everyone else’s misery,” he says. “We're trying to do housing the right way. It’s about people and planet, not just profit. Housing shouldn't be about giving out millions in bonuses at end of the year.”

But REACH won't be able to build any homes without land – perhaps the biggest hurdle for them to get over.

Following the Second World War, the government freed up land and built prefab housing estates around the country. Johnson believes a similarly bold approach is needed to meet the housing demands of the 21st century.

However, the publication of the social housing green paper last week made no promises to build more social housing. It “doesn’t commit a single extra penny towards building the social homes that are desperately needed,” said housing charity Shelter.

Frustration with this situation led Johnson to set up the National Federation of Affordable Building (NFAB), which brings together organisations from across the offsite construction sector who all would like to see a change in policy. “The reason we set up NFAB was because so many SMEs have had conversations with Homes England and got nowhere.”

The current Homes England system for listing land means building companies need to have a turnover of £50m before they can even be considered for public land – a bidding process that excludes all SMEs such as REACH.

REACH does have backing from the Local Government Assocation, though. It also has Sheffield City Council on board, and is hoping the council will soon be given a piece of land to build the first nine homes, freeing up funds for its first off-site factory.

It's clear that it’s going to take some forward-thinking councils for it to succeed. “We need a Dunkirk style situation with SMEs getting some innovation into the market,” Johnson says. “The issue of land and how much its worth is entirely notional. Land is expensive because people think it is.

“If Homes England can ringfence a percentage of the land they give to the big builders every year, and have that for affordable development, we won’t have a problem because the SMEs will have somewhere to access the market instead of queueing up for massively expensive land.”

At the moment, he notes, “Big builders don’t want to do things any differently because they're protectionist of their profit margins. SMEs can’t get a look in. We need to alter that playing field.”

A sustainable trend?

One popular misconception of homes made from shipping containers is that they are too cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. Some critics also suggest that say the current trend for modular housing is a fad.

But Johnson says that residents will need the heating on for only two months a year: the homes are designed using ‘Passivhaus’ principles, which optimises energy efficiency through its design.

“They are light and spacious,” he says. “It’s how we use the offset of parts of the containers. They are like adult Lego. We can use architectural glass and make some fabulous buildings.

“They’re affordable but they will look like architect-designed houses.”

The one, two and three bedroom models will be sold at £35,000, £65,000 and £90,000 respectively. There is already a large waiting list of people ready to move in once they've secured some land.

At present, “I don’t think it’s a trend,” Johnson admits. But “it will take over the market if it's done right. The tech has now caught up and modular housing can be controlled a lot more intelligently in the factory. It cuts down on construction costs, waste and theft of materials from sites. It makes the whole process of housebuilding a lot more efficient.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to get housing moving in the right direction and get sustainability on the agenda,” he concludes. “That’s not going to happen if we leave it to the big builders.”

Thomas Barrett is the editor of New Start magazine, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @tbarrettwrites.

All images courtesy of the author/REACH.