Social simulation: (just) a game to explore possible futures?
To address manifold challenges posed by unprecedented urbanization, municipalities and rural areas across the globe are looking for effective ways of navigating their complex circumstances to attract people, jobs and development opportunities. For many, the answer lies in their cultural and natural heritage.
How regions use their heritage depends on what’s present. Iceland turned to its magnificent natural heritage as a pillar of its recovery following the 2008-2011 economic collapse. Cities such as New York or Bangkok use both tangible and intangible heritage to attract development.
As local governments begin taking advantage of their heritage, however, they often find themselves faced with unexpected challenges: inadequate infrastructure, a lack of a qualified workforce, and insufficient contingency plans. In Iceland, as the number of tourists doubled from 2 million to 4 million in just 6 years, residents began to complain of poor behavior in nature reserves, road closures from inexperienced drivers, and a lack of awareness of severe weather. From Amsterdam to Phnom Penh, city planners are implementing tourist caps and other strategies for limiting the negative effects.
Increasingly, local authorities are looking for better ways of seeing into the future to avoid such outcomes. Although there are many benefits to summits and conferences, one innovative way of involving local governments, organizations, and citizens into designing a fair and sustainable strategy for their city or region is to give them a set of possible solutions and let them play it out in a safe environment. This is where the concept of social simulation can be useful.
Social simulations bring together stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and values. For a couple of hours, they interact with each other in a shared environment, which reflects the key aspects of the real world. During this collaborative experience, they test in practice new ideas and solutions by instantly facing the outcomes of their decisions. Sometimes, players see that their preferred strategy has positive outcomes; sometimes, they see a need to reevaluate their approach.
As part of the RURITAGE Heritage 2020 project, the Centre for Systems Solutions created a social simulation (serious game) that presented Ruritania, a fictitious rural area that is famous for its cultural heritage, found in a pilgrimage route and famous vineyards, as well as its outstanding natural heritage. Meanwhile, it faces twin problems of depopulation and migration. Located in a river valley, it’s also prone to flooding.
Members of the RURITAGE consortium became leaders of the region and had to figure out how to use these heritage objects to develop the area in a sustainable way. Participants were split into groups representing various stakeholders, with each group receiving a number of possible development projects to do, based on the best practices gathered in the RURITAGE project.
Players decided which projects to implement, dealt with the consequences of both their actions and external events, and tried to figure out the best approach in an uncertain and changing environment. We played three simultaneous games, giving us the opportunity to compare strategies. In one, players prioritized tourism, but frequently struggled with its negative effects; in another, they focused primarily on social inclusion and citizen satisfaction; in the third, balanced workforce development took center stage.
Each game allowed participants to look into one of the possible futures and see what would happen as a result of their decisions. For the indecisive among us, being able to time travel is a gift; for the decisive, it can be a confirmation or a wake-up call.
In the case of Ruritania, the game will be personalized and used further with stakeholders at individual RURITAGE sites, from Norway to Turkey. The idea is to immerse these stakeholders in a creativity-inspiring environment, co-create with them new ideas of how to develop their area, and enable them to see their region in the future, facing the consequences of implementation and the possible side effects.
Ruritania is not the only social simulation the Centre for Systems Solutions has created to focus on sustainable development. We have simulations that address it on an international level, like The World’s Future; national, as in the Energy Transition Game; and on a city level, as in the Bengaluru Quest, Sustainable Urban Heating Simulation, or the SUSTAIN game.
Our goal is that social simulation and serious gaming become a mainstream way of engaging decision-makers into the planning process. By distancing them strategically from their everyday reality and putting them in Ruritania (or another in-game country or region), social simulation gives players space to explore their values and assumptions. In the end, it provides a structured way of connecting the past to their desired future.
Centre for Systems Solutions