Better than reality? Synthetic environments for real world people

Can policymakers learn from games? I think so – or, to be more formal, they can certainly learn from synthetic environments.

Programmes like Sim City seem more grounded in the real world at times than actual urban and rural decision-making. At least in Sim City you can’t build new housing without investing first in other necessary infrastructure such as power stations, roads, public transport, parks and other recreational facilities, hospitals, schools and so on.

If only the same were true in real life – instead of which we seem to be the subjects of ongoing experiments with time horizons that at best look 3 years hence. Not good in an era of so-called “brownfield” development – when thousands of new homes get squeezed into a handkerchief-sized plot of land freed up by the closure of old light industry. And then, once built – shock! horror! All these additional people need to travel, so the roads get packed with hundreds more cars, public transport bursts at the seams, carbon emissions increase, water supplies and the water table run low, schools are under capacity, electricity demand soars, hospitals don’t have enough beds, there’s no new recreational facilities etc, etc, etc.

No-one under-estimates the complex nature of modern planning and the high expectations of communities. But we should be able to capture and learn from these issues. There seems to me to be a clear need for better use of synthetic environments and synthetic modeling in policymaking. Software tools that model the real world and enable rich what/if analyses – rather than putting us all through the mill of experimental policymaking time and again.

At least if we had reasonable synthetic environments, it would help us plan in more sustainable ways – and when things do go wrong with real developments, the lessons learned could be used to update and improve the software. Lessons from what did and didn’t work. What people liked – and disliked. It’s the same type of approach taken in software simulation for example in the automotive, aeronautical and defence industries. We now need to see such tools applied more universally to assist with better-informed and more effective policymaking.

Until recently the only way to test new models and policy ideas was to use us as real life guinea pigs. We should be a little more ambitious, a little more sophisticated – and take better advantage of what software makes possible.

Technology has reached the stage where I believe it could be having major, beneficial impacts on policymaking at all levels and across many disciplines. And if we need to call in and learn from some of the game developers, so be it. What’s important is that we reach a much better understanding of the way in which technology can improve policymaking at the time of policy inception itself – rather than being used purely as an operational or administrative tool.

Software may not be exactly “magic” – but it can certainly improve the way in which we run and plan our society.


This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content, date and time shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

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