What happens when people with different political beliefs are given the chance to shape the future of their communities with a click of a mouse? The answer, surprisingly, is that they seek the same things. They may cheer different candidates in life, but put them in front of a computer simulation and virtually everyone designs a scenario that spares their hometowns from pollution, sprawl, and crime. ?Sustainability,? says Dave Biggs, ?is what people choose when they understand the consequences of their choices.?
Biggs, a systems manager at the University of British Columbia?s Sustainable Development Research Institute, helps people of different philosophical backgrounds forge a common future with an innovative Web-based game called QUEST, which lets tens of thousands of users model and reshape the future of the towns where they live. In the process, writes James Hrynyshyn in New Scientist (July 27, 2002), they may be changing the future of urban planning and democratic decision making.
In the early ?90s, Biggs and his research partner Jim Robinson faced a formidable challenge. They knew that if their hometown of Vancouver didn?t start making some hard choices, environmental problems like smog, sprawl, and water pollution would soon do irreparable harm to the quality of life in the region. They had the data and the models to prove it. The problem was how to sell the idea to politicians and the public in a way that got people thinking long-term and then acting on it.
Then they discovered SimCity, the popular computer game that turns players into urban planners of fictitious cities, advising them: ?As long as your city can provide places for people to live, work, shop, and play, it will attract residents. And as long as traffic, pollution, overcrowding, crime, or taxes don?t drive them away, your city will live.? Following that advice, Robinson and Biggs set about creating a game that would allow players to do the same for real cities.
The first working model of QUEST is based on the Georgia Basin, the region surrounding Vancouver. Since its launch in late 2000, writes Hrynyshyn, more than 30,000 people have played the game on the Web (www.basinfutures.net).
The game lets users tweak dozens of variables, from land use zoning, and tax codes to air and water quality, transportation, and health care spending, then calculates what Vancouver will look like in 2040 based on those choices. Using a process they call backcasting, the game lets the player go back and change their choices over and over until they reach a future they want. Once they settle on a scenario they like, QUEST records the model and passes it on to government officials.
One of the most interesting results of this process, says Biggs, is that the game cuts through the traditional ideological lines that make it so difficult to advance sustainable policies. Conservative players realize the value of pristine forests and clean air, just as most environmentalists acknowledge the importance of public safety and economic development. Invariably, he notes, when players can see the effects of their choices, they opt for a far greener future than anyone would consider politically possible.
Several U.S. cities are interested in creating their own versions of the game, and QUEST has drawn international attention, too. The World Bank recently funded a project in Mexico City, and officials in such far-flung places as Bangalore, India, Curitiba, Brazil, Romania, and Bali are using the game to involve citizens in their planning processes.
The resort town of Whistler, British Columbia, is taking it a step further, using QUEST in a series of townhall meetings to let residents craft the community?s long-range growth plan. If things go as planned, the city council could adopt the public?s recommendations as law.
The only drawback to this kind of direct democracy, Hrynyshyn wryly points out, is that when we are all town planners, ?we will have nobody to blame but ourselves when the buses don?t run on time.?