One engineer and urban designer has introduced a sense of play to urban planning by using board games based on real-life environments to bring the process to life.
Since childhood, Dr Anthony Duckworth has been fascinated with making models. This interest carried on throughout his career, earning him the nickname “the model man” during his architecture training at the University of Western Australia (UWA).
So when Duckworth was asked by the City of Fremantle in Western Australia to work with local communities to find out what they wanted their future neighbourhoods to look like, he put this passion to work.
“We decided to make a large-scale physical model of the suburbs,” he told create.
Duckworth and his team at the Australian Urban Design Research Centre (AUDRC) decided to develop the model into an interactive ‘serious’ board game to help Fremantle residents understand the trade-offs involved in the planning process, and to give them an avenue to express their vision and needs.
“It just naturally developed into a game format, because that’s how you encourage participation and testing to a specific urban context,” Duckworth explained.
Sense of play
Duckworth said his serious games concept has really taken off, with projects in a number of other local government areas around the state.
“For the last three years I’ve been making models for communities, community groups and local governments to explore the potential of spaces and achieve really effective engagement around urban change,” he said.
Duckworth said the sense of play gives people the ability to experiment with different scenarios without a sense of finality.
“We can do five of six different iterations and discuss the strengths and weaknesses,” he said.
Being able to reset the game without committing to a contract also allows people to open up and “socialise their ideas”.
“There’s a whole range of ideas in any room, in any community, and it’s really important that we allow those ideas to come out, and also for people to know where their ideas and values fit in relation to everyone else’s,” Duckworth explained, adding that serious game models were inclusive for people of different ages, backgrounds and abilities.
Serious games also have the potential to help communities around the globe. In June, Duckworth travelled to the rapidly urbanising city of Gulu in northern Uganda, which is expected to double its population in the next decade and a half. He developed an interactive model that encompassed transport and service infrastructure development to explore strategic growth scenarios.
“We are currently looking to further develop this approach for other urbanising regions in developing countries,” he added.
Duckworth has also received funding to integrate his serious games with digital technology to provide feedback on how people are interacting with the games and their design scenarios.
Engineer to architect
Duckworth started out as a transport engineer working on strategic planning and design for road and rail networks. About 10 years on, he started studying architecture part time to fulfil his personal interest in city design.
After travelling to Ireland to work on infrastructure expansion and light rail projects, Duckworth returned to Australia to study architecture full time. He followed this up with a PhD that explored how to design housing around major transport corridors to make the environment healthy, liveable and safe.
“I was able to integrate knowledge around noise and air quality that I’d learned through my engineering into the design of housing, so that was a way I could combine all of my knowledge and abilities,” he said.
For the past decade, Duckworth has worked at AUDRC, which is based at UWA. He is now an assistant professor researching and teaching urban design, which he describes as an amalgam of engineering, planning and architecture.
Recently, Duckworth has received some interest in his serious games concept from engineers wanting to allow communities to explore their ideas around transport and traffic planning as an alternative to the conventional ‘design and defend’ process.
Using serious games could give communities a sense of ownership over transport infrastructure, Duckworth said. This could not only reduce community resistance to change, but have a whole host of other benefits including caring for assets and commitment to longer-term plans.
He added that engineers should embrace the crucial role they play in city building and urban planning.
“I think there’s a lost opportunity within engineering to be able to realise the potential of infrastructure in terms of having much broader economic and social possibilities and benefits,” he said.
“That’s something I’m really interested in.”