The Bartlett Development Planning Unit
  • Follow our posts

  • A A A

    Playing with goldfish: Engaging people through games in the age of the falling attention span

    By Nausica Castanas, on 11 November 2016

    Research in the age of the falling attention span

    There is undeniably a great amount of social science research produced around the world. In the field of development, much of it aims to inform the public, perhaps even with the expressive aim of changing behaviours. Yet how can one produce engaging content when it is well documented that the general public cannot focus for more than seconds at a time? There has been substantial research on people’s decreasing attention span. In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman advanced his thesis that television and the emphasis placed on entertainment has altered the way people consume information, and decreased their ability to concentrate on issues they do not find pleasurable[i]. Nicholas Carr focused his study on the advent of the Internet, arguing that our use of the Internet not only makes absorption harder, it actually impacts our ability to be engrossed in written material both online and offline[ii][iii]. Statistics seem to concur with this thesis. A 2008 study found that Internet users spent 10 seconds or less on any given page over 50% of the time, while the average time for a stay on a page was placed between 2-3 seconds[iv]. A 2015 study by Microsoft found that overstimulation through the Internet and smartphones has decreased our attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, jokingly compared to the attention span of a goldfish[v].

     

    The evidence is all around us: news videos online last on average under 3 minutes. In development, the trend is very much the same. Most organisations – including DFID, WaterAid and ODI to name a few – now produce a mix of short videos and infographics to present their material. Information is distilled in bite size pieces which audiences can easily digest.

     

    Conversely, when people are engaged, they can focus for longer. And this is where things get interesting. Coming up with engaging ways to communicate information can make all the difference. And what better way to engage someone’s attention than turning the subject into a game? Playing games de facto retains the player’s attention, and, for that reason, they have long been used in education. Whether it was through educational board games or through the use of computer games in school for math or physics modules, most of us were exposed to learning in game format.

     

    Games can therefore be a great communicative tool, especially for complex information. Openspace, the organisation I am currently working with in Bangkok, has teamed with Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome from the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Thammasat University, to translate the results of a 5-year international research project of the Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR) on urban resilience into a game.

    The Urban Resilience Board Game

    The Urban Resilience Board Game

     

    Urban Resilience and the CCaR research

    Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR): Building Adaptive Capacity for Managing Climate Change in Coastal Megacities is a research project financed by Canada, looking at climate change and urban resilience, with respect to flooding in Vancouver, Lagos, Manila and Bangkok. CCaR uses modelling through the VENSIM program, using data derived from City System Dynamic model, to input known variables and produce future scenarios for these cities. Interestingly, the causes of flooding are different in each city, which allows for a broad field of study.

     

    Urban Resilience refers to the capacity of a city to bounce back after a shock. The most widespread definition, coined by the Community and Regional Research Initiative on Resilient Communities (CARRI), defines resilience as the “capability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy, and national security”[vi]. As evidenced by this definition, urban resilience has adaptability and complexity at heart. It views cities as adaptive systems, where the interactions of a wide set of factors need to be taken into consideration. Moreover, preparedness is key to achieving urban resilience, as anticipating potential future threats to urban settings allows for greater adaptability. This becomes ever more significant given the looming threat of climate change, which already brings an increase in the occurrence and severity of extreme weather phenomena around the world. While urban resilience involves more than natural disasters, these are considered a central aspect of the threats that need to be countered.

     

    In Bangkok, it is very intuitive to focus on flooding. Bangkok floods severely every couple of years, and, with climate change, the intensity is worsening. 2011 witnessed the worst flooding in decades; the year remains engraved in people’s minds and imagination, and routinely comes up in conversation as the benchmark for all subsequent flooding. The numbers are staggering: 884 people died, while a further 13.6 million were affected. 65 provinces were classified as disaster zones, and the World Bank estimated the total economic losses at $45.7 billion, making it one of the five most costly natural disasters in history[vii][viii].

     

    To a lesser extent, Bangkok floods semi-regularly. For example, it only takes a heavy night’s worth of rain during the rainy season to flood Lat Prao, the area where I live. The CCaR research concludes that flooding in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) will intensify as both the intensity and frequency of heavy rain will increase.

     

    Perhaps surprisingly, the prevalence of flooding has not been linked to climate change or urban resilience, be it at policy level or in people’s minds. It is also telling that there is no government agency responsible for dealing with it. “It ranks low on the scale of political priorities, far behind questions of economic and social development” remarks Dr Marome, the leader of the CCaR team for Bangkok.

     

    Dr Marome stresses the importance of preparing society. “While investing in infrastructure can be very useful, it can only ever represent 70% of dealing with climate change. The remaining 30% needs to be done by people themselves, through preparedness. Japan is a great example of that. The state provides different measures to mitigate earthquakes, from law and regulations to earthquake resistant structures, but society has also adapted. Children are being taught from a very young age how to prepare for earthquakes”.

     

    Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Thammasat University

    Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Thammasat University

     

    In Bangkok, there is clearly a gap between the people who have the relevant information on the one side, and the wider public and government agencies on the other. The Urban Resilience Board Game tries to bridge this gap, by making information easily accessible to a wider public, beyond the scope of academics and people in the field.

     

    The Urban Resilience Board Game

    The game is played by 4 or 6 players, each the mayor of a Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) – Bangkok Metropolis, Nakhon Pathom, Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan, and Samut Sakhon – and a facilitator. Each region has distinct characteristics and conditions, all based on the CCaR research findings: some are more developed, some have issues with waste management, some have issues with social cohesion, or environmental protection. Overall, there are six different urban futures, each affected by four different drivers: socio-economic factors, housing and land use, environment and health, and flood management.

     

    All players are allocated an initial budget, to be used for future investments. The players roll the dice to advance on the board and get handed an event that they need to deal with. Events range from anything between a drug problem among the area’s youth to the construction of a fast train linking this area to its neighbours. The player needs to identify the risk, the opportunity, and, where necessary, invest to deal with the event. Points are allocated for correctly identifying each, and all need to be relevant to the specific area’s profile. This urges players to link different issues and eventually identify necessary investments in the short or long term.

     

    In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

    In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

    Rolling a six or completing two rounds triggers a flood round. Flood intensity varies each time, and affects each region differently. An area’s resilience ultimately depends on preparedness stemming from investments in the previous rounds. For example, should an area have a serious garbage problem, investment in clean up prior to the flood round would increase resilience, as refuse not only obstructs drainage, thus worsening the flood, but also spreads diseases. During the flood round, all investment proposals need to be voted on by the mayors of the other regions: players need to argue their case to seek approval. The game ends when any participant reaches the end of the board; the player with the most points wins.

     

    In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

    In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

    The Urban Resilience Board Game thus has a double role: first, it raises awareness about flooding and resilience, allowing people to think about urban resilience and find linkages between different issues. Second, it brings people from different backgrounds together and opens a dialogue that would not otherwise be happening, and certainly not under these conditions. In June 2016, Thammasat University and Openspace organised a workshop with academics, policy makers and representatives from the local government, specifically from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Many participants had no experience with these issues but all played the board game for two hours. The feedback was extremely positive, as they found the game both informative and entertaining. Interestingly, the game seemed to transcend political red tape, allowing people to consider flooding and urban resilience without the backdrop of the sometimes charged political considerations that happen in Thailand.

    In action: The Urban Resilience workshop, June 2016

    In action: The Urban Resilience workshop, June 2016

    The appeal for planners is evident. The game opens a platform for people to discuss complex issues in an informal way. Instead of being confined by the structure and convention of a meeting or conference, participants can let their guard down and engage with the material in a new way. More importantly, the subject matter becomes accessible to people with no prior experience. In the guise of explaining the rules and aim of the game, facilitators are actually presenting the basic information for people to understand the core ideas of urban resilience. Yet all of this remains unthreatening; at the end of the day, it is only a game. The players are then pushed to really think about the issues, and see the connection between investments in infrastructure and cooperation with other regions, and achieving urban resilience. Their output is then fed back to the CCaR team and Openspace, who collect the documented actions that players took during the flood round. This is crucial, as it allows for a feedback loop into the research in a very direct way.

     

    In the next months, more workshops will be organised. Moreover, Dr Marome and Thammasat University plan to train members of the public to be facilitators, allowing for greater exposure, perhaps even spilling to other Thai cities in the North. They are also working on having a workshop with urban policy planners from across Asia to play the game. The possibilities are endless, because who would not like to come play with us?

     

    [i] Postman, N. 2005 [1985]. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. London: 2005 Penguin Books

    [ii] Carr, N. 2008. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”. The Atlantic. July-August 2008

    [iii] Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. London: W. W. Norton & Company

    [iv] Weinreich, H., Obendorf, H., Herder, E. and Mayer, M. 2008. “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use”. ACM Transactions on the Web, Vol. 2, No. 1

    [v] Mcspadden, K. 2015. “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish”. The Times, May 2015. Retrieved in September 2016 from http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

    [vi] Wilbanks, T. 2007. The Research Component of the Community and Regional Resilience Initiative (CARRI). Presentation at the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado- Boulder; as quoted in C. E. Colten, R. W. Kates, and S. B. Laska. 2008. Community Resilience: Lessons from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Retrieved in September 2015 from http://www.resilientus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/FINAL_COLTEN_9-25-08_1223482263.pdf

    [vii] Emergency Operation Center for Flood, Storm and Landslide. 2012. Flood, Storm and Landslide Situation Report. Retrieved in October 2016 from http://disaster.go.th/dpm/flood/flood54/news/news_thai/EOCReport17JAN.pdf [in Thai]

    [viii] Impact Forecasting LLC. 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods: Event Recap Report. Retrieved in September 2016 from http://thoughtleadership.aonbenfield.com/Documents/20120314_impact_forecasting_thailand_flood_event_recap.pdf

     


    Nausica is a DPU MSc Environment and Sustainable Development alumna. She is currently completing the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme in Bangkok, Thailand. All images taken by Nausica Castanas

    Meeting the Change Maker Painters: Street Messages in Accra, Ghana

    By Claire Tunnacliffe, on 20 April 2016

    The first experience of a city is a disorientating introduction of smells, sound, temperature and touch. It is primarily sensorial. Before you can get your bearings, your body reacts, attunes, listens, smells, and looks.

    I’ve been fascinated about the use of the wall as a tool for communication and transformation, and while I’ve known from previous visits to Accra that there were messages inscribed on the walls, I had never paid close enough attention to them, the walls passing by in a whir of taxi windows, going from place A to B. This time it would be about following the surfaces, not about the destination but the in between.

    Accra’s visual landscape is dominated by signage; Ghanaians express and shape their culture through this, as common as the informal flows that dominate the city. Signs stating ‘Do Not Urinate Here’, ‘Post No Bills’ sit alongside adverts for Indomie, Glo and Juvita. School walls are decorated with children playing and learning. Billboards advertise religious services, skin care and weight loss. In and amongst this, businesses paint the front of their shop with illustrations of their services and products.

    Figure 1: Signage, Hospital Road

    Figure 1: Signage, Hospital Road

     

    Hash-Tags

    On Accra’s main roads in and around the city, messages become slightly more political, more patriotic. On November 7th 2016, Ghana will have another election, and the surfaces along the streets are covered in posters for party leaders and tags. Ghana is a multi-party system but either the National Democratic Congress or the New Patriotic Party largely dominates it, with any other party finding it difficult to achieve electoral success. However, along these main roads is the repetitive scrawl: #GHANAGOESGREEN #TOTALSUPPORT #NEWREGISTERSTOVOTE or SAVE GHANA. A retort to the current election process and another party, the Convention People’s Party, a socialist political party based on the ideas of the first President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah. After a bit of digging online, I learn that #ghanagoesgreen isn’t based on green party politics, but rather for Ivor Greenstreet, a candidate standing for Presidential Election in 2016.

    Figure 2: #GHANAGOESGREEN, Ring Road Central

    Figure 2: #GHANAGOESGREEN, Ring Road Central

     

    These hash-tags straddle two existences between public space and cyber space, a tactic used by political parties, musicians and other businesses. While many people do have phones, what part of the demographic accesses the Internet? Do these tags predominantly exist online or offline?

     

    Murals

    I met Larry, who co-founded Nima: Muhinmanchi Art (NMA), a grassroots organisation that provides art workshops to youth, beautifying communities through public art and promoting urban renewal through culture. Larry tells me how he sees mural paintings as an opportunity to transform everyday spaces, empowering local communities and how it’s a powerful tool to changing the perception of Nima. Nima, is a dense, vibrant and ethnically diverse residential area in Accra, made popular by a large market. It is a stigmatized area, external perceptions have created prejudice and cultural barriers to the rest of the city, and as a result, it has become a city within a city – with its own authorities, rules and policing, undergoing its own development, driven and enforced by its inhabitants.

     

    Larry is passionate about the power of art as transformative, calling the artists in NMA the Change Maker Painters. I ask him about the mural making process and he explains that it begins with a visibility study, to identify a surface that has the most footfall followed by a conversation with the community; including chiefs, the wall owner and households in the immediate vicinity. He presents what he has noticed about the area or what other people have raised with him – the murals act as a vehicle to talk about issues; child labour, waste, and politics. The murals, are subjects of conversation before, during and after their production, with people stopping to talk and ask questions, and share their own experiences. He tells me about a mural that the NMA did after Accra was devastated by a flood and explosion in 2015 that saw the loss of 150 lives. They decided to paint a mural along Kanda Highway to stress the importance of waste management, one of the main causes found for the flood that had blocked drainage systems. As a result, people clean their drains outside their homes and in their community more frequently than when they are just blocked, creating more preventative methods of avoiding another flood.

     

    I meet with Rufai Zakari, an artist, in his studio in Nima, and I ask him why he has made the transition to murals, “Art contributes to positive change. But also introduces something African into the street art scene. My community, which I promised to help with my profession, needs this. I am a child of that community and I use art to change the perception of it, but also to fight for my country and continent”. In March 2015, he set up with other street artists GrafArt GH, a group of young artists from Ghana with the aim of using art to address issues facing the African continent & also to promote Ghanaian art & culture to the rest of the world. Rufai explains that to him, art is a multidimensional tool, to change peoples view of the area, to beautify, but also as a platform for change and awareness raising.

     

    Art movements in these contexts are therefore less about the individual, about the money, than they are about the collective, the community, so that everyone grows and learns together. These Change Maker Painters, see themselves occupying two roles, one within their own communities, painting the inner bellies of the walls and communal courtyards to address very localised problems, but also more widely in the streets of Accra, drawing attention to who they are, to changing the perception of their community, to showing Ghanaians and the world their art.

     

    Figure 3: Flood & Fire, Kanda Highway

    Figure 3: Flood & Fire, Kanda Highway

    Accra is a creative and dynamic city, its visual landscape a thick tapestry of politics, social, environmental and economic messages. From the religious billboards that dominate much of the main roads, to the upcoming elections, the hash-tags that flicker past moving vehicles, to the Ghanaian flag which is bold and colourful, to the murals in communities and the art festivals in the streets of Accra more widely. There are therefore many ways in which street messages are communicated to the city and its inhabitants, orchestrated by individuals, communities, businesses, artists and politicians. While their intent and agency may vary, the wall is a space for appropriation, discussion and transformation, and as one artist pointed out to me as, “if there are no walls, we will build the wall, to share our message”.

    Figure 4: Bird, Jamestown

    Figure 4: Bird, Jamestown

    Many thanks to NMA for opening up their studios and selves to my questions – and personally to Larry, Musah, Rufai and Kamal. I extend also a big thank you to Samoa, for taking me on a tour of Jamestown, exploring the route of Chale Wote. Thank you to Victoria Okoye from African Urbanism, for the contacts, resources & tilapia.


    Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Alumni. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is a PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture exploring street messages in West African urbanism. However, her interests are interdisciplinary; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city. All images taken by Claire Tunnacliffe.