3 Cities Gaming Climate Change

Gaming climate change is valuable for teaching transportation agencies and other public decision makers about overcoming the barriers to resilience.


When public policymakers from Boston, Singapore and Rotterdam participated in half-day workshops gaming climate change, the tests showed that multi-stakeholder negotiation role-playing simulations can teach government agencies about what it takes to make a city more resilient.

The gaming exercise helped the more than 75 public decision-makers and stakeholders not only improve their understanding of climate change, but how transportation agencies and other departments can respond to uncertainty. The Virginia Tech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Utah researchers that developed and studied use of Harbouring Uncertainty under the Institutionalizing Uncertainty Project recently published its findings. They found that gaming climate change gives participants a crucial sense of “being there” that is crucial for emergency preparedness and training:

They push participants to walk in someone elses shoes and to interact openly with different viewpoints, fostering what is called perspective taking, or empathy for (and understanding of) different perspectives and interests,” said authors Danya Rumore, Todd Schenk and Lawrence Susskind.
Harbouring Uncertainty is set in fictional Westerberg, Palgrond, a vast port city. It features engineers, flood specialists, various department directors and project and community relations managers that must make a decision on a new road development. The game presents them with four traffic and climate change scenarios, according to the materials from the Rotterdam gaming climate change workshop.

Faced with potential climate change risks like sea-level rise and extreme weather events, decision-makers and stakeholders must work collaboratively to assess the risks they face in the game, consider their options and agree on how to proceed. They discussed how they might alter transportation infrastructure investment decisions in response to climate change risks, according to Virginia Tech News.

The real government officials role-played similar counterparts in Westerberg as they explored the hypothetical adaptation strategies. Researchers gave each participant general instructions and role-specific confidential instructions, according to the Institutionalizing Uncertainty Project. The deliberation and learning came from discussing whether a new highway proposed to reduce congestion problems may be vulnerable to uncertain climate impacts. The participants discuss pervasive uncertainty, and how as a city they view and plan for climate change adaptation. They found maintaining flexibility is key to making a decision, but that there are substantial barriers in doing so.

According to the project, the results of gaming climate change varied from city to city. However, 97 percent of participants reported learning something about the process of climate change adaptation, particularly they learned about:

  • The importance of resilience tactics and strategies
  • The value that chairs and facilitators can play in negotiations
  • The barriers to and value in getting information “on the table”
  • The institutional barriers to climate adaptation in general

One particpant said:

I think scenario planning inevitably engages people in the discussion, and gives people a concrete understanding, whereas the risk assessment is kind of abstract numbers that you have to take at face value, or you dispute, but the scenarios really change how people think and get them talking to each other about it. So it’s more time consuming, but there is a lot more benefit that comes out of it.”

The researchers concluded that while it can be difficult to get stakeholders to participate, they find it valuable, perhaps more so than a public meeting. “Busy public officials may not want to ‘waste time playing a game’ and the general public may be sceptical...many participants find the prospects of engaging in an experiential learning exercise more attractive than simply attending a town hall,” they wrote in their recent published findings.

To get decision maker to participate, it may help to call it a simulation, rather than a game, they added.

Learn more about role-play simulations and managing climate change risks on the Consensus Building Institute website.

Andrea Fox is Editor of Gov1.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.

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