Online Game for City Planners Addresses Real-World Problems

IBM’s free CityOne online game helps governments tackle real-world challenges.

by / February 4, 2011
Illustration by Tom McKeith

City planners now have another tool at their disposal for optimizing management strategies with IBM’s free-to-use CityOne game simulation.

The online game, introduced in 2010, was designed to explain how complex systems can evolve industries in such areas as water management, energy, banking and retail. The game represents an initial effort by IBM in what are called “city sims.”

The game is intended to help users address current and future challenges, said Phaedra Boinodiris, IBM Serious Games program manager and the game’s lead designer. Users are challenged to enhance the game’s urban environment by meeting profitability and revenue goals, increasing customer and citizen satisfaction, and improving the city’s environment — all with a limited budget. For example, one challenge is to deliver high-quality water in the most cost-efficient way in a world where water usage has increased at twice the rate of population growth.

A major objective of the game is inducing users to harness new technologies — like cloud computing and online collaborative technologies — to drive innovation in city management. Ultimately the game affords users the opportunity to prepare for future urban problems by making smart investment decisions.

CityOne is part of a broader serious games initiative at IBM, Boinodiris said. Future versions of the game may enable users to select cities at different maturity levels, she said. The game will also be expanded to better demonstrate how investments in some systems affect investments in others. Plans are under way for future versions of the game that allow users to propose solutions to challenges presented in the game. 

Currently game users can explore solutions geared to their specific needs through Blueworks Live, an IBM cloud community with business processing integrated into CityOne, Boinodiris said. For example, users can utilize the application to convene a group of experts to devise “localized water management solutions” for their municipalities, she said.

IBM partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop the game. The agency was responsible for providing much of the game’s content, including raw data, white papers and other research, Boinodiris said.

So far, she said the game has been well received, with a wide range of city, state, national and international organizations, and industries using the game.

The game is being used by governments in China, France and South America. Tens of thousands of users globally have played the game, according to Boinodiris. Numerous governments have expressed an interest in customized versions of the game, including some U.S. states.

Players have shown interest in the game’s ability to address “bottom-line” business issues, said Boinodiris. For some players, the game has also highlighted real-life shortcomings in infrastructure support for new technologies. For example, certain players expressed concern that their cities haven’t adequately supported the development of electric vehicles — an opinion amplified by their experiences with the game.

Chris Moore, CIO of Edmonton, Ontario, said it makes sense to develop a game like CityOne that helps users engage in the process and problems of city government, and taps into the collective thinking of the community. But Moore said he’s unsure when such a game will go mainstream and believes that serious games like city simulations need to be consumerized. Moore has briefly explored the game, but said his agency doesn’t use the game, as it already has sufficient modeling and planning tools.

Michael Mascioni is a market research consultant in digital media and freelance writer.

Michael Mascioni Contributing Writer

Michael Mascioni is a writer and market research consultant in digital media.