GAME | Games for Engagement = Engamement

Posted on 05/11/2009


On several occasions, I have commented that there isn’t a significant citizen planning or planning education network in Australia. The same might be said about design. Both arenas have produced rather significant bodies of research about collaborative and co-creation, so it’s intriguing to find that there is still no significant grassroots approach whether in the form of facilities, resources, networks and learning. That said, it’s important to acknowledge the work of those groups that are directed at community development and improved urban environments e.g. Living Communities, Healthy Cities etc. Two things have spurred my thinking about this. First, I am reading around ideas of games and urban planning/design and discovered a variety of games that are enhancing community engagement and urban thinking. I’m asking is there a model of engagement that might be put forward as ‘engamement’. Second, I received an email from a city Councillor today stating that Council has instigated a program urging community members to engage in the city planning process including neighbourhood planning. As Council says on its website, “Council has today launched an unprecedented call to action to get residents involved in planning for the future of their suburb and city.” It made me wonder whether there is a ‘crisis’ in civic participation and performance of civic duty in the planning arena.

So I participated in the survey and made my plea for concerted citizen planning, participatory design and planning education initiatives that offer opportunities for co-creation and go beyond the type of sterile and ‘box ticking’ engagements that mostly seem to emanate from development and planning processes (recalling my earlier enthusiasm about the Eden Project engagement, there are exceptions where passionate and creative Council staff are pursuing innovation). If Council is struggling to engagement people, then perhaps that’s indication that efforts for building social capital or civic identity need to be stepped up. An article by David Villano makes this point eloquently. For me, the challenge is to build capacity in urban thinking at a community level. There can be no urban planning without a conversation or deliberative process across the three main parties involved in planning processes: communities, local authority and developers. Having considered the USA’s Equitable or Responsible Development movement, then it seems important for communities and community groups to come to the conversation with improved urban thinking capacity. If the objective of a conversation is to win rather than negotiate, then it’s not a conversation – it’s an argument or a fight. Can we afford a zero sum approach to development and planning in our cities?

I seem to keep saying this … I live in what feels like a planning and development interzone surrounded by suburbs that have completed neighbourhood plans; a suburb that is in need of significant rethinking, potentially of the sort that provides incentives to large landholders to do more with their land to promote local economic development and community development. I have no real sense of strong social capital or civic engagement in the area. A recent development – the HQ of McDonalds – seems to have resulted in some improvements in the area including wayfinding signage, (ugly) public seating, new rubbish bins, street tree planting and the like. However, to the best of my knowledge the community wasn’t consulted about what it wanted to see or could use in the area. Without a doubt the local centre needed some improvements but these seem like such slight cosmetic interventions it left me cold, given that they don’t really have that much impact. What might have had more impact is the redesign of the strip of plantings along the street edge in a way that incorporated shade and seating. Such gestures do little to regenerate a degenerating suburban centre surrounded by private affluence.  They demonstrate the local authority’s lack of attention to these kinds of areas (or their lack of ability to address their needs). Instead of action learning, the Council has chosen to offer arm’s length experiences like publishing brochures about the planning system. This merely iterates the problems we already face in fostering urban thinking at a community or civic level. The Council needs to consider a parallel program of learning and engagement.

So that’s where I became interested in the way games have been used in planning and design processes – as a way of expanding and equalising engagement through an action learning process. Even though I’ve not found any Australian initiatives in this field yet, there are initiatives that explore virtual environments and neogeography for community engagement, e.g. Second Life as an engagement space, and some participatory processes seem to be either modelled on games or reminiscent of games. It seemed worthwhile to begin to think about the relationship between gaming and urban planning, given that there are many locative media experiments that are about engaging the mixed realities of urban life. Game theory can be mapped to urban planning and development given its social and economic complexity – a search of academic journals reveals that there is a growing body of research about this. In terms of game initiatives, a few are standing out as genuinely addressing the stakeholder needs in planning and development processes.

Future Cities – The Future City Game is a team-based process designed to create new thinking and actions to improve quality of life in cities. It enables people to find solutions to the long-term challenges facing cities. It is played during a two-day event by city inhabitants from diverse backgrounds, representing various disciplines and led by a trained games-master. The aim of the game is to generate the best idea on how to improve the quality of life either in a specific area within a city, the city as a whole, or in response to the common challenges facing cities around the world. The unique and innovative methodology for the Future City game was developed by the British Council and UK partners (CLES – Centre for Local Economic Strategies; URBIS – Manchester’s Centre of Urban Life).

Building Futures – The Building Futures Game is the outcome of 3 years research and development work carried out by the Building Futures team, CABE and architectural practice AOC. The toolkit emerged through a shared desire as to how one might enable communities to think about the future of their neighbourhood, while providing stakeholders with an interactive and alternative way of consulting with a wide variety of groups on their concerns and aspirations. The Building Futures Game is a participation tool for visioning and exploring different possible futures for a local area. It is a form of scenario planning, helping groups ‘play out’ a range of possible futures with participants – a mix of policy-makers, service-providers and ‘community members’ – drawing out a set of concerns and aspirations and considering the impacts and implications of their choices.

The Harbour Game – A mixed reality game for urban planning that challenges the municipality’s approach to planning for the Aarhus harbour area by actively engaging a wider range of participants. The Harbour Game is a debating game that employs a large game board, simple rules of play, visual tracking and pattern recognition to superimpose information – e.g. three-dimensional models, text and photos – on physical artefacts. It aims to facilitate the understanding of complex relations in urban planning. The overall goal of the project is to challenge existing approaches to urban planning in which citizens typically are invited to join the process only after the plan has already been formulated, leaving no room for constructive and proactive participation. In the process of creating the game, the limitations of the deliberative planning process focused on expert opinion where challenged and the game was developed as a communication space where qualified professionalism meets the knowledge and interests of citizens and create a basis for mutual understanding. The deliberative process involved experience, learning and contribution. (mostly in Danish – some downloadable publications in English)

The game experience as an action learning experience, then, seems to facilitate a rich and mediated experience of crowd sourcing in relation to urban planning, design and development. It provides communities with an alternative form of engagement that, with reference to the IAP2 spectrum, moves beyond the usually inform and consult into the spaces of involvement and empowerment. We need more of that in our cities and we need it done in a way that mixes up and values a range of knowledges and experiences. In so doing, the capacity for urban thinking, which was mentioned earlier, is dramatically enhanced. More importantly, what processes like this do is bring people together to collaborate in composing new stories for the city while also impacting on planning decision making. That seems to be foundational in establishing the types of citizen planning, participatory design and planning education initiatives that are so necessary in charting our urban future.

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