Center for Environmental Building & Design

Gaming the Sustainable City (and Region)

Energy is the ultimate driver for urban growth and development, providing the engine for all its economic activities and underlying many of the choices that urban designers, city managers, and citizens make every day: where to live, where to work, how far to drive, and how much to buy? Except for a few activities like automobile driving, the connection between energy and everyday life is neither direct nor especially visible. The goal of the project is to model the basic interactions between energy supplies (renewable and non-renewable) and the characteristic activities in a city, using an agent-based simulation to capture the social and economic choices made by the different players.
Urban designers have long recognized the value of simulators and games to help evaluate the tradeoffs that city residents and managers must make to improve the sustainability of cities. These can make more vivid the choices among modes of transportation and settlement patterns, the sizing of city services, and the demands of different energy sources. The prototype simulation is based on classes of households, incorporating the effect of different “values, knowledge, and worldviews” with the dynamics among segments of the population. With the incorporation of critical feedback loops the results becomes non-linear and less intuitive, making a more rewarding game for playing.
The game began with an existing city, loosely based on Philadelphia, so that the choices are constrained by services and infrastructure already in place. For either case – new or existing – the design questions is how a region will respond to changing energy regimes, can it become a more self-sustaining “biosphere” that reduces its carbon footprint while improving quality of life, job opportunities, and income (and hence tax base) for its inhabitants.
This report explains the results of a seed grant from the Kleinman Center to investigate the development of a game about energy sustainability for a city or region. There were 2 prior game prototypes that were taken as points of departure—Dr. Braham's emergy balance in the New Chautauqua Game ( and Dr. Silverman's students' agent based model (ABM) of transportation mode choice. With this grant, we merged ideas from both games, and considered what would be needed to make the game more engaging and realistic. We developed and tested a sequence of ABMs that allow players to explore the kinds of unexpected consequences that occur in the real world from the choices made by individual households about their spending and adoption of technologies. This pre-prototype is described in this report. We halted progress when time and budget were used up, but reached two useful conclusions: first, that a realistic experience could be achieved with a simplified number of “zones,” e.g central business district, urban residential, suburban commercial, etc., and second that a simple model of “awareness” was not sufficient to capture the dynamics of choice among households of different income, occupation, and location.