How to change Cities from behind your screen
Conference paper in collaboration with Ania Molenda and Eva Kekou – Hybrid City Conference, Athens, 2013
In recent decades urban planning processes seem unable to keep up with the pace of city development. The extended use of online media in order to make urban planning more open, transparent and dynamic could push urban planning practices a step forward. Games in the form of rule–based, quantitative urban simulation models are well capable of describing, simulating and predicting urban scenarios as well as offering the possibility to pro-actively test out new urban landscapes. In the recent years, a big amount of initiatives has appeared that use game-like structures, often combined with other online media that allow people to develop an engaged attitude towards their cities. In this paper, we will go through several examples of online platforms and examine how the form of interaction they offer among users or between users and platform providers, influences their potential impact on the physical world.
I. The Trouble with Planning
Contemporary cities are economic centers and engines of innovation but they are also generators of poverty, pollution and homes to plenty of social problems. Administrating a city is balancing out all these factors, admitting that many are just impenetrable. The above-mentioned parameters, reflected in the lifestyles of each one of its inhabitants interrelate to produce the complexities and contradictions that shape the cities today, making them the spatial representation of the bewildering relations between their inhabitants.
Societal changes have been so dynamic recently that urban planning processes have not been able to keep up with the pace of city development. Post World War II state control over urban planning has given way to big commercial real estate development which don’t take into account neither the location they are on nor the future inhabitants but focus on maximizing profit with fast, cheap, standardized and massively produced plans. Planners are never able to fully achieve solutions in areas of cooperation and trust with the local community . It becomes more clear that involving relevant non-experts can be a valuable supplement to the planning process, [2, 25] offering insights about the environmental context and providing solutions that adapt better in local conditions and are often more cost effective that traditional planning methods. Collaborative planning processes can lead to better understanding of involved stakeholders’ reciprocal interests, create new relationships among participants, stimulate mutual learning that can lead to reframing of problem statements and adaptation of participants behavior as perceptions and practices change and new partnerships and institutions arise . Brabham  suggests that following the success of open source model on the Web (that allows to design superior software products through an open, collaborative method) crowdsourcing may prove itself a superior method for designing real spaces and planning the built environment.
II. Can Planning be fun?
Already in 1967, Buckminster Fuller designed the World Game, a game aiming to “help the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone” . Even though the US Information Agency considered Fuller’s game “too revolutionary” to be presented in Montreal World Expo, it became a forerunner of games dealing with issues of urban development that ever since kept re-emerging, updated with newer technologies and current topics. SimCity appeared for the first time in 1989 and since then it has had multiple versions. The aim of the well-known game is to found and develop a city and to maintain the happiness of its inhabitants, by wisely using the available resources. Despite the multiple conventions used by the game, we can claim that its long and continuous presence has made many generations of players familiar with some of the complex processes of contemporary city making.
Games in the form of rule–based, quantitative urban simulation models are capable of describing, simulating and predicting urban scenarios but also to pro-actively create new urban landscapes. Urban-gaming-simulation cannot only function as an educational tool. It can be used to study conditions, outcomes or contradictions that could manifest themselves in a given plan over time, which could eventually lead to effective policy changes . It is a tool able to combine social science with quantitative (financial, demographic etc.) data . Furthermore it is accessible and understandable, which allows non-experts to participate in procedures that normally take place behind closed doors. Institute for the Future , revealed that 3 billion hours a week are spent on online games. That gives access to an incredibly big audience, which could potentially be engaged in offline issues through online gaming.
In the recent years, the amount of initiatives that use game-like structures and social media to engage urban activism has risen. Social networks cannot only help to better deploy social capital on the small scale but also improve overall public participation and realise collective actions and governance . Τhe internet is not simply a new medium of information exchange but also a tool instigating original ways to co-creation and navigation within knowledge and the emerging social relations . Effectively social media and mobile devices became two major enablers that allow their users to map problems, propose solutions or express desires about their neighborhoods, and then come together in action to realise them.
What is particularly significant is that these internet–based platforms are both initiated by municipalities, as tools to monitor their citizens’ opinions, and by independent bodies who want to look into urban issues from a different perspective. Such set-up offers them to not only be the participation of the bottom tolerated by the top, but the evolutionary collective intelligence of all potential stakeholders, including all possible conflicts, competitions and lobbies. The possibility to affect an actual change and have a positive social impact is often the main motivation for people to participate . Thus by manifesting their online presence and participation, citizens can provoke change in their cities offline.
Apparently, the relationship between the users and the platform provider affects the impact the users can have on the physical world. Commercial or educational games usually simulate real world conditions and even though they can test alternative scenarios, their output will rarely directly influence reality. On the other end, virtual platforms that allow more open-ended interaction between users can stimulate their self-organisation offline, leading to real initiatives.
III. City building goes social
With the rise of Facebook and other social networks, more city-building games went social, allowing for multiplayer interactivity that leads to higher output complexity. About half of the most popular Facebook games in late 2012 were city building or management games . Obviously the SimCity is the first and most well known city building game, even though there have been about 90 other city building games in the last 50 years . In most of them, the user is trying to manage his resources in order to expand and make his city prosper. SimCity has been the solitary pursuit of one single player creating and managing his cities, moving from one to the next, responsible for all the decisions that a mayor, his consultants, private companies, neighborhood organizations and ngo’s would have to negotiate about in real life. That was until March 2013 when SimCity5 was released making the game multiplayer and online.
Even though gamers largely protest against the fact that the game can only be played online , their remarks have more to do with the security of Internet services, inability to play remotely and dependence on the service provider. No one disputes the complexity and richness that is added to it by making cities interdependent. Players are forced to balance their collaborative and competitive behavior against each other in order to make their cities flourish. New game features include agent-based modeling, a simulation technique, which means that everything in the game environment is simulated, not animated. People have personalities and lifestyles and their actions have impact on the way cities work: many people going to work at a certain time create traffic jams. Each item on the screen is its own distinct piece of data in one’s city. Originally each player had infinite land to expand on and infinite resources. Excess goods or services can be bought and sold between cities in the same region. Introducing multiplayer, inter-city interaction also means that resources and space are limited by the expansion of neighboring cities and players need to manage their city more realistically. Agent-based modeling, inter-city interaction, the game’s smooth interface, and its troves of data are the tools very similar to those urbanists would need to devise a “smart city” -a complex city management system where policy is informed by real-time data collection.”
Still in the name of realism and on going engagement, the game lures the players into taking shortsighted, unsustainable decisions. It even seems hard for urban planning professionals to avoid the trap. Co.Exist online Magazine brought together six professional urban planners to test the new version of SimCity by trying to create what they felt was the most well structured urban environment. In the tournament, no matter how skillfully the teams played, their cities were predestined to fall. “As a game designer, a utopia is kind of boring because once you achieve it, there’s no challenge. Once I come up with equilibrium, I have no compulsion to play anymore.” explains Librande, a SimCity game designer .
IV. Report and Repair your neighbourhood
There are a growing number of applications, either developed or employed by municipalities and local authorities, used to monitor small-scale problems and crowdsource ideas on the local level. These applications form part of a wider application of e-government facilities in the effort of local governments to be more citizen-oriented . One can use any of these networks to report a broken street lamp or ask for extra bike stands near by their house. There is a competition developing between the users that report the problems and the municipalities that need to fix them but also between municipalities themselves, since they don’t want to have lots of red spots on the map. According to Seltzer and Mahmoudi  these cases are not about open innovation but mostly about gathering information that can be used by existing city systems and community processes. Cases like SeeClickFix, Neighborland, Verbeter de buurt, Give a minute  enhance public engagement by combining their online tools with existing offline processes. The process of engagement is clearly defined by the structure of the platform. It can take the form of a clear question (Give a minute), monitoring of local conditions (SeeClickFix, Verbeter de Buurt) or petition proposal (Neighborland). Even though they have the potential for a global application, cases like the above mentioned are actually tied to specific locations where a sizeable community has formed to support their activity.
As Stone explains  “It’s unlikely in most neighborhoods that residents will walk over, knock on your door, introduce themselves, and ask how they can help. However, “signing in” to your neighborhood and connecting with those who live around you about shared issues—speed bumps, recycling, whatever—that is a more likely and familiar scenario nowadays.” Neighborland  is a New Orleans-based startup that aims to be a social network for neighborhoods across the U.S.A., a platform, combining existing offline processes with online tools, where people can make positive proposals about their neighborhoods, not only about physical aspects to be improved but also event proposals and other communal activities. Neighborland uses its network to put forward issues that concentrate significant support and to fund selected initiatives.
Community PlanIt  also allocates real money to selected projects. By playing a game and completing missions, people are able to collect winning points and then direct to real projects, which will get funded with real money, while at the same time the data generated by players’ behavior within the game inform the plans made by professional planners. According to its official website, Community PlanIt, developed by the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, intents to make planning playful, and gives everyone the power to shape the future of their community.
SeeClickFix  and its Dutch equivalent Verbeter de Buurt (meaning Improve your Neighborhood) allow anyone to report and track non-emergency issues anywhere in the world via the internet to motivate citizens, community groups, and governments to take care of and improve their neighborhoods. The application is hired by local governments, using it as an efficient and cost effective tool for distributed monitoring of issues that fall under their jurisdiction. Verbeterdebuurt  that not only reports complains but also creative proposals, reports that already 70% off all Dutch municipal councils have consented to process the reports filled through its platform.
V. Fill up the voids
Lastly, there are networks of people who use online media in order to coordinate groups and actions to address real issues in their direct environment. Vacancy is a huge problem for contemporary cities. In U.S.A. cities of more than 100,000 people vacancy varies between 19 and 25% of total land area, while for cities with populations greater than 250,000, vacant land makes up between 12.5 and 15% of total land area . Urban vacancy is also an issue that can be tackled on a very small scale, so it offers itself for a collective, bottom up monitoring and re-activation, plot-by-plot or shop-by-shop.
Meanwhilespace, SQFT  and [Im]possible Living  are all platforms that try to tackle the lack of occupancy in existing buildings. In the first two cases they try to connect landlords owning empty or underutilized spaces with potential users that could temporarily activate them. Though San Francisco based SQFT is community oriented its London based counter part is a commercial enterprise acknowledging the potential advantages of reanimating vacant spaces from the side of landlords. In their webpage  they summarize that “Meanwhile Use is a safe and legal way for landlords to reduce the costs of keeping a property empty, such as empty property rates, security and utilities, and benefit the local community and economy at the same time. Having a Meanwhile Use in your property or on your land means that your space is less likely to get vandalized, it draws positive attention to your building and could lead to a permanent commercial tenant. Meanwhile Use often increases footfall to the area and most importantly saves you money.”
Popularize , a platform established by a real estate developer as a community research tool, goes one step further in proactively trying to include community desires on an early design stage. It is a tool intended to cater real estate developers in finding out what’s best for their property. Starting businesses or local developers can start a drawing board about a real project and ask for the community’s opinion. People can make suggestions and vote for good ideas, providing an informal market research to the developer for gathering ideas, learning about local demand, and finding potential local business partners. Popularize does not guarantee the realization of the most voted project, but it does help creating a balance between popularity and financial viability and often leads to unexpected hybrid mixes of program.
Architecture and urban development are inevitably linked to a specific site and the community that develops around it so any online tool that aims at tackling issues of urban development should take this into account. For online networks to lead to real impact, they need to address local issues, which can easily be understood by those affected by them. Information is not to be presented in the form of reports, drawings and official documents but using the more attractive and accessible environments of online games and social media. Already in 1961, Jane Jacobs  noted the influence of urban design in the accumulation of social capital and the development of communities. Apparently, now this can also work vice versa in a self-reinforcing loop. The more people engage in the issues of their neighborhood, the more connected they feel to their place and the more connected they feel, the more they are willing to take a stand. Through these processes, the notion of citizenship is being redefined in the framework of digital democracy that enables participation and direct involvement in decision-making. The development of communities by the use of social media and online gaming is fully capable and should be used to lead to offline initiatives and positive impact on urban environments.
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1 On an official poll for the game only 10% of the players said they would like to have an online only game with more that double (23%) voting for a totally offline version and the rest in between. (http://forum.ea.com/eaforum/posts/list/8576040.page;jsessionid=1ECB48E3D4EF90D58A7B6045A20A812C)