Utopia 2.0

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

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
(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

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

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.