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UC Davis Uses Online Game to Crowdsource Its Future

The university community spent 36 hours generating ideas about where UC Davis should go in the future.

More than 2,000 people can't fit around a conference table, but they can envision their university's future together in an online game. 

For 36 hours last week, members of the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) community built off of each other's ideas and asked questions about what learning, work and public engagement would look like in 2026. The public research university had been working on a strategic planning initiative, but the typical committees, discussions and public comment periods have their limits. UC Davis needed people with more diverse perspectives to infuse fresh ideas on research, curriculum development, classroom instruction and lower-level operational changes. 

This "Envision UC Davis" game engaged students and brought more people into the public idea-generating process. Students played with enthusiasm and thanked university leaders for asking their opinion — a sign that the university may not ask students for their opinion as often as it should, said Gary Sandy, project manager in the Office of Chancellor and Provost.

UC Davis became the second university to play a serious future game on the Foresight Engine, which Jane McGonigal designed for the not-for-profit think tank Institute for the Future. The game asked players to share their ideas in 140 characters or less. Once a gamer played an idea card, others could ask questions, advance the idea and add their perspective. The game rewarded players with points when they collaborated on big ideas.

"The notion of a game being used to gather data and people's opinions has great potential for the future," Sandy said.

In fact, some students who might not talk in real life spent hours together in the game. The two top contributors came from very different backgrounds: One was a genetics graduate student and the other was an entomology undergraduate student. After the first game at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) in 2013, community members there asked the Institute for the Future if they could create a way to connect with fellow players in real life after the game ended because they liked their ideas so much. That hasn't happened yet, but the institute may build this tool at some point.

It's not easy to think about the future because people tend to think about the short term, said Rachel Hatch, project lead for the UCSF and UC Davis games from the Institute for the Future side. To train people's eyes to look long-term, Hatch recommends scanning the world today for signals of change and seeing if a pattern emerges. On university campuses, including UC Davis, researchers are creating inventions that will help shape the world down the road.

"It's just important to realize that people around us are building the future every day, and we have the opportunity to steer toward the more preferred futures," Hatch said, adding that the game gives universities an opportunity to take the pulse of the community and build literacy about the future, which allows them to become more resilient.

In addition to providing long-term ideas, the feedback in the game also includes actionable ideas that can change the way campuses operate now. For example, UCSF started improving employee engagement, promoting health and wellness, increasing sustainability practices, and working on transportation issues as a result of ideas from its game.

UC Davis would like to see a similar mix of action items for the near term, as well as smart ideas for the longer term, Sandy said. Once the institute analyzes the data results, it will provide a report for the university to consider. At first glance, students came up with ideas to deliver living medicine, partner with more companies for internships and offer mental health days off when the sun's shining.

"The pressure will now be on the university to prove that it took this data in and now will act on it," Sandy said.