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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.