Similarly, the second lesson was one in resilience—a wildly popular buzzword at the moment. As long as the area relied on mining, a shutdown in the supply chain brought everything to a halt. If storage facilities filled up, or transportation shut down, or a fire broke out, people couldn’t work and the city couldn’t make money. Urban resilience had its big moment in the spotlight after Hurricane Sandy. Flooded subways and busted power grids hobbled New York City for days and caused an estimated $18 billion in damage there. The question then was how to limit the damage from increasingly powerful natural disasters, and that’s still a worthy question to ask. But one thing that’s not as obvious to us, that SimCity demonstrates expertly, is how even small events can have cascading consequences.
Another way SimCity accurately captures in the leading edge of urban planning is through its use of Big Data. Cities around the world are using sensors to measure everything from energy and water usage to pollution levels and crime trends. The game puts the player at the helm of the ultimate smart city as it tracks just about every metric of life in the simulation. At the click of a button, dynamic, colorful maps—inspired by the infographics of data scientist Edward Tufte—present real-time data on traffic, crime, pollution, public health, property values, and much more. (There’s even a map showing human waste as it flows to sewage treatment plants—a gross, mesmerizing way to find the tempo of a city.)
The real problem for the game’s designers: figuring out how to turn massive amounts of data into meaningful information. “We knew from previous SimCitys that there’s this data overload that can happen that turns off a lot of players,” said Stone Librande, SimCity’s lead designer. “[That] game isn’t approachable because it feels like you’re playing a spreadsheet.” That’s a fact that real cities need to realize as they embrace technology and data to help inform their citizens. They can collect and release all kinds of data, but it’s essentially meaningless if it’s not presented in a useful way.
SimCity’s creative director Ocean Quigley, who lives in Oakland, Calif., looked to his own city’s crime map as a starting point, and built on the idea from there. The result is something like an ideal version of Rio de Janeiro’s high-tech command center, which collects data in order to identify trends in the city. IBM’s chief technology officer, told the New York Times that the command center runs on “sense-making software,” and that’s the best description of how SimCity treats data. One map might show a high death rate in a corner of a city. Glancing at a map for crime or illness can shed light on the fact that emergency vehicles can’t get there in time, or pollution is out of control, or those enthralling sewage pipes have backed up and spread disease. Once you know the problem, you can get started on a solution.
After understanding the real-time, on-demand stats in SimCity, you’ll want to know what your city—the one you live in—has to offer. With a few small exceptions, you’ll probably find out how much you don’t know about your area, and how much it doesn’t know about itself. Cities around the world are latching on to the open data movement to fix this. Palo Alto, Calif., recently launched an online dashboard for public data, and groups like Code for America pair local governments with programmers and designers to help open up data to the people. However, turning data into usable forms is still difficult for cash-strapped cities, and even opening up that data to the public can become mired in politics.
Growing up in a household that loved SimCity, my family had a common refrain that anyone holding public office should be able to pass the SimCity Test. The newest game, putting players face-to-face with climate change, resilient systems, and open data, makes that more true now than ever before.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.