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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 June 2006, 00:24 GMT 01:24 UK
The Real Sim City
By Ben Sutherland
BBC News, Vancouver

The legendary computer game Sim City has been used as the basis for a new programme which is being used to project what the world's cities will look like in the future.

Screen shot of Sim City game
Gaming technology is being used by urban planners globally

MetroQuest, a piece of software put together by Canadian developers Envision, allows the users to input the decisions that are being made by city planners and see how these areas will change over the next 40 years.

They can also manipulate various factors and explore "what if" future scenarios for their community.

Envision's co-founder Dave Biggs told BBC News that Sim City was very much the inspiration for the software, which has been in development for 15 years - virtually since the release of the original game.

"We thought if we can just get a fraction of the excitement that people have playing Sim City - but use real information, with real data, from real cities - then we could actually mobilise a huge amount of people," he said.

"We used the idea of Sim City to develop a process where the community can play games with their own future and see the consequences."

Manchester's 'doughnut'

The software works by allowing the user to alter certain aspects of their city, such as poplulation location, urban density, and transport - much as the original game did.

Users can then see the effect of their decisions 40 years down the line, both on a satellite-view map and in a graphical display.

One of the places to put it to practical use has been Manchester, in the north of England.

Population location
Job location
Housing density
Roads v transit
Transport policy
Energy and air quality
Water conservation
Reduce and recycle
Population and economy

Metro Quest worked in partnership with Manchester University's Urban Planning Department to study the whole of the north-west, looking at alternative scenarios for the region.

Mr Biggs said a conversation had been developed with people in the area about the evolution of the region, after the software showed the "doughnut-like" effect of cities emptying out as more people move to surburbs.

"They're now looking for ways to re-invigorate the downtown areas to try to curb some of this sprawl that's happening," he added.

The software has also been used with planners in Bali, Indonesia - where it showed the island was heading for serious trouble.

The island's tourism-based economy is so linked to its environment "that they're inseperable" - but the environment was under serious strain, the programme showed.

"When we went there, we discovered that they were reaching their carrying capacity on so many sustainability issues - overcrowded streets, congested arteries, brownouts for electricity on a regular basis, and at their capacity for water supply," Mr Biggs said.

"Their plans were as simplistic as trying to increase the economic growth by expanding the airport.

"So by running some scenarios with them, they really woke up to the fact that their entire economy was being compromised, because tourists were having an unpleasant experience because of the rapid growth."

Unlimited cash

Similarly, the Canadian ski resort of Whistler switched its tourism strategy after using the tool.

Planners had been looking at further enhancing winter tourism, until the model showed the potentially devastating effects of "continuing to build up the hillside".

Now the resort is focusing instead on attracting more visitors during the quieter summer months.

"Their plans changed right where we got involved," Mr Biggs added.

However, a demonstration of the tool at the World Urban Forum showed one of the limitations of the tool, which is that, unlike in the real world - and, indeed, unlike in Sim City - money is unlimited.

Given the options, the sustainability experts using MetroQuest invariably selected to go for the expensive "best practices" - which made the city much more sound, but are options perhaps beyond the budget of the average city mayor.

However, Mr Biggs explained that when the tool is used by people other than the gathered for the demonstraton, people are much more cautious.

"Sustainable development cannot be defined academically - it is defined by the people living in the community," he said.

The other drawback of MetroQuest, of course, is that when you get bored of it, there is no option of unleashing a giant green monster across your city.

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