Water game: playing with urban common pool resources (part 1)

The Hackable City projects consists of multiple parallel tracks. Several of these have been reported on already: self buildingmetrics, (playfulgovernance, an academic track, and public dissemination and events.

In this series of blogposts we document how we are developing and testing a game about water. The aim of this track is to explore, try out, evaluate, and reflect on the potential of games to engage people with a complex and abstract issue like urban water resilience, and allow them to contribute ideas and actions. The overarching question of this track is how play and games can be used to leverage the “smartness” of citizens, in order to address complex issues that our cities are facing. Specifically, how can play and games be used to define new collective values around water as a “common pool resource”?

Defining the problem

For the Water track we are teaming up with Amsterdam Rainproof, a project that aims to make Amsterdam more resilient to increasingly heavy rainfall. This is an issue that spans multiple domains and scales. What spatial adaptations do cities need to become more resilient to flooding? What is the economic potential of (rain) water? How can citizens become active stakeholders when it comes to water as a resource? What changes in institutional governance are need to better cope with this challenge? How can digital media help in these processes?

Together with various other partners we have met a number of occasions, to define the issue and map stakeholders. During these initial sessions we reflected on the question how water in Buiksloterham may be used as a collective resource in hackable city making. We investigated how digital media can be used to engage various stakeholders with this issue of making the city rainproof and provide them with a horizon for action in order to start “hacking” the existing water system and infrastructures.

Initially, our investigations were focussed on the technologies, like for example citizen-operated sensors that measure rainwater in realtime; sharing platforms for storage, exchange and accounting of water flows; public dashboards that visualize the value of rain water in order to make the issue more tangible and debatable; a community platform to exchange ideas and models for hacking water.

Moving on, we concluded that resilience to water itself was a pretty slippery question. For who is this really a problem? Why not just let government take care of this? After all, it’s their job to make sure people are safe. And on what level does this problem exist? Is it an individual issue of not getting your house flooded, and/or a collective question, and if so, on what scale? And then there is a temporal dimension: How can you make people engage today with an abstract future probability? How do you synchronize current developments in the Buiksloterham area, like for example a community water storage tank?

150707_Tijdlijnen water basis-01

Figure: understanding actors and time lines. Credit: Froukje van de Klundert, with help of Lot Locher, Irene Poortinga.

Because of these open questions of engagement and agency, we converged on the idea of developing a game that would allow us to invest age future scenarios around water. As we – with The Mobile City – have been investigating before in various ways, games are increasingly being used to address complex urban issues. Can people play with various options for managing water, and investigate “what if..” scenarios? We started formulating a number of elements that the game could help to resolve. How will the game help us to gain a better understanding of the potential of water as a collective resource? How will a game help us to both design and reflect on new ways of city making? How can the game help to negotiate tensions between individual and collective ? How can the game help to redefine “value” not just as monetary but as cultural, social, environmental, and so on? And perhaps find a method to synchronize actors and their actions in the neighborhood towards a common goal?

Water as ownership issue

We proceeded to define desired outcomes in terms of increasing people’s sense of “ownership” of water resilience. In our earlier research we developed a framework to operationalize this notion of ownership into five elements. Along these lines we then explored what types of games might “fit” well with them:

  1. Defining a shared issue – This involves acquiring knowledge, insights, and valuing its importance. In broad terms, persuasive games, storytelling, and visualizations may be used to help define an issue.
  2. Organizing networked publics around these issues – In order to address complex issues, awareness and action at a collective scale is needed, often transcending local communities and social divisions. Through social games trust can be built up and brokered, which may help to form new collectives.
  3. Pooling resources – As ownership involves a non-exclusive sense of shared responsibility and stewardship, mechanisms are needed for the exchange between individuals and collectives. Via strategy games players may be incentivized to start pooling resources (money, knowledge, networks, materials, and so on).
  4. Fostering engagement – People oftentimes need an initial spark to be able to feel a relationship to an issue. This is not necessarily through rational argumentation and deliberation only. Affect and emotions are of equal importance, if not more so. Ludic events and festivals or playful campaigning may be great to create engagement.
  5. Offering a horizon for action – Ownership arises when people have the feeling that they can act and that their actions matter. Contrary to the issue itself, the scale of actions is often local and situation-specific. Educational games and simulations allow for learning and rapid feedback loops.

screenshot_ 2015-11-16 at 16.40.07 screenshot_ 2015-11-16 at 16.38.33 screenshot_ 2015-11-16 at 16.37.53

We organized an initial testing round, prepared and moderated by Game designer Karel Millenaar, in which we played different roles on a board representing the Buiksloterham area. Roles included the real estate developer, the municipality, the DIY city maker, the dodgy Russian investor,  the water company.


In the following blogpost more about the evaluation of the game, and the next steps >>