Games like SimCity are helping us build the cities of the future. Here's how

A visitor plays SimCity 2000 in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Image: Getty.

By 2050, the United Nations predicts that around 66 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, with the greatest expansion happening in developing regions such as Africa and Asia. Cities in these parts will be challenged to meet the needs of their residents, and provide sufficient housing, energy, waste disposal, healthcare, transportation, education and employment.

So, understanding how cities will grow – and how we can make them smarter and more sustainable along the way – is a high priority among researchers and governments the world over. We need to get to grips with the inner mechanisms of cities, if we’re to engineer them for the future.

Fortunately, there are tools to help us do this. And even better, using them is a bit like playing SimCity.


A whole new (simulated) world

Cities are complex systems. Increasingly, scientists studying cities have gone from thinking about “cities as machines”, to approaching “cities as organisms”. Viewing cities as complex, adaptive organisms – similar to natural systems like termite mounds or slime mould colonies – allows us to gain unique insights into their inner workings. Here’s how.

Complex organisms are characterised by individual units that can be driven by a small number of simple rules. As these relatively simple things live and behave, the culmination of all their individual interactions and behaviours generate more widespread aggregate phenomena.

For example, the beautiful and complex patterns made by flocking birds are not organised by a leader. They come about because each bird follows some very simple rules about how close to get to each other, which direction to fly in, and how to avoid predators.

Similarly, ant colonies can exhibit very sophisticated and seemingly intelligent behaviour – but this sophistication doesn’t come about as a result of a good leader. It is the result of lots of ants following relatively simple rules, without any regard for the bigger picture. It is easy to see how this perspective could be applied to human systems to explain phenomena like traffic jams.

So, if cities are like organisms, it follows that we should examine them from the bottom-up, and seek to understand how unexpected large-scale phenomena emerge from individual-level interactions. Specifically, we can simulate how the behaviour of individual “agents” – whether they are people, households, or organisations – affect the urban environment, using a set of techniques known as “agent-based modelling”.

Using The Sims to build your own city. Image: haljackey/Flickr, CC BY.

This is where it gets a bit like SimCity. It’s apt that the computer game was originally based on the work of Jay Forrester, a world-renown system scientist with an interest in urban dynamics. In the game, individual agents are given their own characteristics and rules, and allowed to interact with other agents and the environment. Different behaviour emerges through these interactions and drives the next set of interactions.

But while computer games can use generalisations about how people and organisations behave, researchers have to mine available data sets to construct realistic and robust rule sets, which can be rigorously tested and evaluated. To do this effectively, we need lots of data at the individual level.


Modelling from big data

These days, increases in computing power and the proliferation of big data give agent-based modelling unprecedented power and scope.

One of the most exciting developments is the potential to incorporate people’s thoughts and behaviours. In doing so, we can begin to model the impacts of people’s choices on present circumstances, and the future.

For example, we might want to know how changes to the road layout might affect crime rates in certain areas. By modelling the activities of individuals who might try to commit a crime, we can see how altering the urban environment influences how people move around the city, the types of houses that they become aware of, and consequently which places have the greatest risk of becoming the targets of burglary.

To fully realise the goal of simulating cities in this way, models need a huge amount of data. For example, to model the daily flow of people around a city, we need to know what kinds of things people spend their time doing, where they do them, who they do them with, and what drives their behaviour.

Without good-quality, high-resolution data, we have no way of knowing whether our models are producing realistic results. Big data could offer researchers a wealth of information to meet these twin needs. The kinds of data that are exciting urban modellers include:

  • Electronic travel cards that tell us how people move around a city.
  • Twitter messages that provide insight into what people are doing and thinking.
  • The density of mobile telephones that hint at the presence of crowds.
  • Loyalty and credit-card transactions to understand consumer behaviour.
  • Participatory mapping of hitherto unknown urban spaces, such as Open Street Map.

These data can often be refined to the level of a single person. As a result, models of urban phenomena no longer need to rely on assumptions about the population as a whole – they can be tailored to capture the diversity of a city full of individuals, who often think and behave differently from one another.

Missing people

There are, of course, serious practical and ethical considerations to take into account when integrating big data into urban models. The volume of background noise in new data sources can make it difficult to extract useful and reliable information. For example, it can often be difficult to distinguish Twitter messages posted by bots from those by real people.


We must also make sure that we understand who is well-represented in our data, and who is not. The digital divide is alive and well, and research suggests a class divide separating those who do and do not produce digital content. This means that there are probably large sections of the population missing from data sets.

We also need to find new ways of making these methods ethical. Traditionally, consumer and research ethics have been structured around informed consent: before taking part in interviews or surveys, participants need to sign consent forms that give the researchers permission to use their data. But now, individuals are digitising aspects of their lives such as moods, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that have historically gone undocumented. And, importantly, these are often released publicly on the internet.

What's more, while an individual might have ticked a box that gives permission for their data to be used, that’s no guarantee that they’ve read and understood the terms. iTunes' June 2015 terms and conditions, for example, are more than 20,000 words long (20 times the length of this article). Researchers and service providers need to ask themselves how many people really get to grips with these documents, and whether their agreement fulfils our idea of consent.

We may never be able to simulate every individual in a city, and we’ll probably never want to. But we are getting closer to being able to simulate the richness of the fabric that weaves together to shape our cities. If we can do this, then we will be able to provide useful input on how best to shape cities in the future – perhaps even down to the last street light, bus and block of flats.The Conversation

Alison Heppenstall is an associate professor in geocomputation, and Nick Malleson a lecturer in geographical information systems, at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.