Teaching kids about Chicago’s Deep Tunnel project

Kids should know about one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: the Deep Tunnel project in and around Chicago.

DeepTunnelNotebaertNatureMuseum

This is from the Riverworks exhibit at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. While some of the pieces of the exhibit failed to work the day we visited, I think I could see the purpose of the The Deep Tunnel exhibit: the floodwaters would be diverted away from the city.

The concept may appear simple and explainable to kids but the execution in real life is not. The exhibit suggests the flooding the past is now alleviated by Deep Tunnel. Yet, the problems are likely to go on in a region that continues to expand and change. Remediating water and flooding issues is a very difficult task compared to altering development at the beginning.

It is interesting to think how else this engineering feat could be presented to children. I could imagine a scaled model that kids could walk through to help give them a sense of the size of the sewers needed as well as the size of some of the water reservoirs. Deep Tunnel is not intended for minor amounts of water; this is supposed to help protect millions of people on a fairly regular basis. Communicating the sheer size could fascinate kids. Or, perhaps some sort of computer game where kids play the role of an engineer or expert as they make choices about where to divert water. Come to think of it, where is this version of Simcity or Roller Coaster Tycoon – “Infrastructure Builder” or “Sewer Wars” or something catchier.

Argument: regionalism = “play[ing] Sim City with residents’ lives”

One critic charges new regional plans in Minneapolis-St. Paul threatens a democratic way of life:

Here in the Twin Cities, a handful of unelected bureaucrats are gearing up to impose their vision of the ideal society on the nearly three million residents of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region. According to the urban planners on the city’s Metropolitan Council, far too many people live in single family homes, have neighbors with similar incomes and skin color, and contribute to climate change by driving to work. They intend to change all that with a 30-year master plan called “Thrive MSP 2040.”…

While minority residents have been streaming into the Twin Cities’ suburbs for the past 15 years, the Met Council wants to make sure there is a proper race-and-income mix in each. Thus it recently mapped every census tract in the 2,800 square-mile, seven-county region by race, ethnicity and income. The purpose was to identify “racially concentrated areas of poverty” and “high opportunity clusters.” The next step is for the council to lay out what the region’s 186 municipalities must do to disperse poverty throughout the metro area…

The Thrive plan’s most radical element may be to evaluate all future development policies through the “lens” of climate change. Over time, this could give the council a license to dramatically remake the entire metro area…

Once implementation begins, however, Twin Cities residents will likely realize that Thrive MSP 2040’s centralized decision-making and Orwellian appeals to “equity” and “sustainability” are a serious threat to their democratic traditions of individual liberty and self-government. Let’s hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.

This is an argument several conservatives (another example here involving the UN) have made in recent years: the government wants to use urban planning as a means to control people’s lives, forcing them to live in denser areas with people they would not choose to live near. It violates property rights, individual liberty, local government, etc.

Here is an issue with these arguments: they tend to ignore the real issues present in metropolitan areas that involve both cities and suburbs. Adopting a free-market approach to planning, growth, and mobility leads to the outcomes we have today: ongoing residential segregation (both by race and class, affecting everything from school districts to health outcomes to location mismatches between employees and jobs), a lack of affordable housing, local governments that are numerous (and possibly inefficient), often can’t agree with each other and thereby hold up helpful projects or promote unhelpful competition (like a race for the bottom in tax breaks), transportation options that are expensive (whether maintaining a car or trying to make mass transit work in the suburbs), and a general defensive crouch of not wanting to deal with any problems outside of one’s immediate community. All of this reinforces existing inequalities in society: those with resources can afford nicer communities while those with less live in places where it is more difficult to move up.

Is there some middle ground here? To be honest, government is already heavily involved in local and regional decisions and conservatives probably like some of this (such as zoning). And some of the regional options allow for higher levels of efficiency by leveraging certain resources in effective ways. Maybe the real issue is that few residents of urban areas – whether conservative or liberal – want to live near public housing or affordable housing and/or want to retain the right to use their money to move to a more advantageous location should something not work out (like the neighbors).

As a final note, earlier versions of SimCity didn’t allow much control over the lives of individual residents. Similarly, the game was geared toward more urban environments as sprawling communities were more costly and didn’t provide the kind of density that would lead to better things.

SimCity set path for games about systems, not about characters

In contrast to video games about characters, SimCity made the gameplay about the complex system at work in cities:

Such was the payload of SimCity: not a game about people, even though its residents, the Sims, would later get their own spin-off. Nor is it a game about particular cities, for it is difficult to recreate one with the game’s brittle, indirect tools. Rather, SimCity is a game about urban societies, about the relationship between land value, pollution, industry, taxation, growth, and other factors. It’s not really a simulation, despite its name, nor is it an educational game. Nobody would want a SimCity expert running their town’s urban planning office. But the game got us all to think about the relationships that make a city run, succeed, and decay, and in so doing to rise above our individual interests, even if only for a moment…

The best games model the systems in our world—or the ones of imagination—by means of systems running in software. Just as photography offers a way of seeing aspects of the world we often look past, game design becomes an exercise in operating that world, of manipulating the weird mechanisms that turn its gears when we’re not looking. The amplifying effect of natural disaster and global unrest on oil futures. The relationship between serving size consistency and profitability in an ice cream parlor. The relative unlikelihood of global influenza pandemic absent a perfect storm of rapid, transcontinental transmission.

And system dynamics are not just a feature of non-fictional games or serious games. The most popular abstract games seem to have much in common with titles like SimCity than they do with Super Mario. Tetris is a game about manipulating the mathematical abstractions of four orthogonally connected squares, known as tetrominoes, when subjected to gravity and time. Words With Friends is a game about arranging letters into valid words, given one’s own knowledge merged with the availability and willingness of one’s stable of friends. A game, it turns out, is a lens onto the sublime in the ordinary. An emulsion that captured behavior rather than light…

There’s another way to think about games. What if games’ role in representation and identity lies not in offering familiar characters for us to embody, but in helping wrest us from the temptation of personal identification entirely? What if the real fight against monocultural bias and blinkeredness does not involve the accelerated indulgence of identification, but the abdication of our own selfish, individual desires in the interest of participating in systems larger than ourselves? What if the thing games most have to show us is the higher-order domains to which we might belong, including families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, social systems, and even formal structures and patterns? What if replacing militarized male brutes with everyone’s favorite alternative identity just results in Balkanization rather than inclusion?

Fascinating argument. Could video games truly be a tool that help players move beyond individualism? At the same time, even a game about systems still can provide an individualized experience: SimCity players could spend hours by themselves crafting a city in their own image (and the game even provided some space for this with honorary statues and the like). Such games could be social – you could have various players interacting with each other either as leaders of different cities or even as leaders within the same city – but they generally were not.

This doesn’t have to stay at the level of argument. Why not run some tests or experiments to see how players of character-driven versus system-driven games compare on certain outcomes?

“Using a Real Life SimCity to Design a Massive Development”

As a massive SimCity fan, I find this use of predictive urban models intriguing:

596 acres, 50,000 residents, $4 billion dollars and even a 1,500-boat marina: Everything about the proposed Chicago Lakeside Development, developer Dan McCaffery’s massive micro-city being built at the former site of the U.S. Steel Southworks Plant, is on a different scale. It follows that the design process for this mixed-use project requires a different set of tools, in this case, LakeSim, an advanced computer modeling program. Developed as part of a collaboration between the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and McCaffery Interests, this program functions like a customized SimCity, analyzing and simulating weather, traffic patterns and energy usage to help architects and designers plan for a site that may eventually contain more than 500 buildings.

“A lot of the Big Data approaches tend to be statistical in nature, looking at past data,” says Argonne scientist Jonathan Ozik. “We’re modeling a complex system of interactive components, running the data forward, so what we end up having is your SimCity analogy, energy systems interacting, vehicles and people moving. What we’re doing here is using a complex systems approach to tackle the problem.”…

The challenge for planners is predicting how so many different systems and variables will interact. LakeSim gives them a framework to analyze these systems over long timelines and run millions of scenarios much quicker than past models — hours as opposed to days — asking “hundreds of questions at once,” according to Ozik. The program is a step forward from similar modeling software, especially valuable at a site that in most respects is being built from scratch.

This seems quite useful at this point but it will be necessary to look at this down the road once the site is developed. How much time did the model save? How accurate was the model? Did relying on such a model lead to negative outcomes? If this is a predictive model, it may be only as good as the outcome.

Interesting to note that the commenters at the bottom are wondering where all the people to live in this development are going to come from. I assume that demand is appropriately accounted for in the model?

Google wants to build cities and airports?

Google has its hands in many things but now it is planning to build cities?

Google’s seemingly limitless ambition has seen the company take on drones, self-driving cars and even the problem of aging, but the company’s founders have even grander plans – to build cities and airports.

A report from The Information (paywall) says the co-founder Larry Page has set up a ‘company within a company’ dubbed ‘Google 2.0’ that will look at the tech giant’s long-term future – presumably for when advertising revenue from search traffic (inevitably) dries up.

This could even include building “a model airport and city.” Page has argued that although rival billionaire Elon Musk might be in favour of a ‘hyperloop’ (a train concept that could travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes), the problem with long-range transport is not that planes are slow, but that airports are inefficient.

It might sound far-fetched, but Google’s executives are already building their own private air terminal at San Jose International Airport for $82 million to handle the eight private jets owned by Page and fellow co-founders Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt.

It would be fascinating to know how exactly Google would go about planning and building a city. What urban planning techniques would they adopt? Is building a city primarily a way to get more people to see their ads and use their products? At this point, if you Google “what is the best way to build a city,” the top search results focus on SimCity.

I’m sure this doesn’t ease the minds of those worried about the reach of tech companies – they don’t only want your devices and money, they think they have answers for everything…

A video tutorial on how to build a McMansion in The Sims

Two players put together a McMansion in The Sims and you can see the process here.

A few thoughts:

1. If I heard correctly on the video, this originally took 3 hours to build.

2. The builders note that this is a modern home yet the headline says it is a McMansion. While it is a large home and clearly has some wealth (located on a canal), the design does not necessarily make it s stereotypically American McMansion.

3. This has over 21,000 views in 2+ days.

4. The designers intended to have a fountain outside the house but alas, it was never constructed. That fountain would have contributed to a McMansion style.

5. Interesting that this features two Aussies. If there is one country in the world that can rival the United States in McMansions, Australia is it.

6. I get the impulse to design things in games like this. While I have never done much with The Sims, I’ve spent a lot of time doing similar things with urban planning in SimCity. Yet, I’m curious to know how much homes like these enhance the gameplay. How much better is it to have a family of Sims living in a custom-designed home like this compared to the average home?

Wherever you go, you just can’t escape those pesky McMansions…

New SimCity expansion pack moves toward dystopian cities

I still haven’t played the latest version of SimCity but there is now an expansion pack that portrays a bleaker urban future:

If this sounds like the setup for a disturbing science fiction novel, you’re not far off: This is actually the premise for SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow, a deeply cynical expansion pack for the SimCity game, set to be released November 12. The original SimCity game, of course (along with its most recent fifth edition), allowed players to act as mayors and design the ideal modern city. But the evil genius behind the game play was always that sustainability was illusory: even the most well-designed cities eventually imploded. Players thought they were all-powerful mayors, but they were merely delayers of the inevitable. The best they could do was stave off their city’s collapse…

It’s impossible to miss the socioeconomic and political commentary embedded within Cities of Tomorrow. That the affluent live in the epicenter and the poor are relegated to the suburban fringes feels like a direct commentary on the demographic inversion cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco are currently experiencing. The concentration of wealth calls to mind what’s left of the Occupy movement. The Sims’ addiction to Omega despite its negative effects on the environment mirrors the developed world’s dependence on oil. Even the MagLev is nearly identical to Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop (especially since it only seems plausible within the construct of a video game)…

Whether inspired by real or fictional events, the expansion pack has an inescapable, soul-crushing pessimism. Any idealists who try to a construct a pollution or poverty free utopia are engaging in a Sisyphean task. And this is out of necessity, Librande explains.

“Utopia, in general, is boring for game play. So if we set up a utopian city there’d be nothing for the player to do,” he says…

Librande doesn’t worry about the game’s bleak view of the future turning off any prospective gamers. If anything, they’ll be attracted to the challenge. SimCity has a notoriously die-hard fan base, and what he thinks will make the expansion pack so alluring is not what the game play says about society, but what it says about each player. Players must divide their faith and resources between two purposefully ambiguous entities: OmegaCo and The Academy. OmegaCo’s goal is profit, and The Academy’s motive is to make its technology ubiquitous. What players choose will reveal their attitudes toward capitalism, class, and the balance between privacy and utility.

Utopia is boring! Well-being is overrated! Bring on the morally impossible choices and decaying cities! SimCity has always had a little of this built-in into its gameplay. I clearly remember the scenarios in the original that asked the player to rebuild a city after some sort of disaster, whether an earthquake or Godzilla. I didn’t take much joy in this but other players did; it can be fun to destroy a city with no real consequences.

Perhaps this says more about our current mindset: we’d prefer to deal with decay than positive construction. Cities aren’t “real” until they are clearly gritty and suffering is around the corner. (I’ve heard presentations from urban sociologists on this: there are some gentrifiers who want to “live on the edge” and have to keep moving to find that line between nice neighborhoods and neighborhoods with problems.) Again, there are no consequences for the player for having a dark city where either capitalism or the NSA has run amok. Compare this to the real problems faced in poor neighborhoods in the United States or in the slums in Third World cities where real lives are affected and life chances are severely diminished.