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    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

    CAN Co-Creation: Reflection

    By Luisa Miranda Morel, on 5 September 2016

    In July 2016, the 4th Community Architects Network (CAN) Regional Workshop brought together community action practitioners from countries all over South East Asia. The first day was spent in Bangkok, Thailand, introducing the participants to the work done and challenges faced by CAN members in Thailand, China and India. The following five days were spent in groups – each focusing on a different sector of city development, for example the transport group, which I was part of – doing fieldwork alongside local communities in Chumsang City of Nakornsawan Province, Thailand.

     

    Today is just about listening

     

    “Today is just about listening,” we were told. That was how we started our fieldwork on the 16th of July. Focusing our attention on understanding the local communities of Chumsang, listening to their ideas, concerns and how they wished their city to be in the future. This was a challenge, particularly as most of us had spent the first two days of the workshop meeting and exchanging with many different people from Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. So by the time we arrived in Chumsang, my mind was already full of questions and ideas. I was excited and a little rushed to quickly understand the context of Chumsang, considering we had very few days to do so and then to, somehow, ‘co-create’ something.

     

    Co-Creation was the theme of the workshop. It was described in the introductory programme as the “co-creation and design between man and nature through a process of understanding and respect”. Understood in this way, co-creation was very representative of the dynamics and needs of Chumsang. Like other similarly sized cities in Thailand, Chumsang faces many concerns related to its natural resources and landscapes, the loss of its cultural traditions, the changing dynamics of migration in its young and old populations and as a result the increasing day to day challenges in making the city livable, sustainable and lively.

    Mapping people’s routes to the community hall

    Mapping people’s routes to the community hall

    Following this theme, the workshop in general had a loose structure that allowed space for conversations to evolve, take different directions and reveal those elements that were not immediately obvious about the city and its people. At first this way of working felt uncertain, unfamiliar and risky but as we were immersed in to the fieldwork, the friendly people and the excitement of it all, it became easier to go with the flow and allow our ideas and projects to develop in a very organic way.

     

    Our behinds were burning but our faces were bright

     

    As the transport and cycling group, we happily spent a lot of time on our bicycles, visiting the city and using any excuse to get on the saddle. By the end of the first day, it was harder to walk straight and our faces were quite pink from the sun, but it was through these rides around the city that we found inspiration to work. We even wrote a song!

    One of the cycling groups meet at 6 a.m. every morning to ride around the city

    One of the cycling groups meet at 6 a.m. every morning to ride around the city

    Within the transport group, I felt very connected to my colleagues, not only by being part of CAN, which encouraged us to work together but also through our other interests, in my case cycling. In other cases, photography, culture, music, heritage and ecology brought people together to share ideas on making the city. These elements, represented through our different interests and hobbies, are also an important part of what makes cities vibrant and CAN Co-Create seemed to build on this synergy very well. It took a wholesome perspective toward community architecture and in this case, for the first time, at the scale of the city. I think this was one of its greatest strengths.

    Gathering the cycling groups at the community hall

    Gathering the cycling groups at the community hall

    In this way, the opportunity that CAN workshops bring about by generating attention, bringing in professionals and practitioners from many contexts to work with local communities and catalyze change not only focused on one arm of city development but many. We established groups that addressed housing, mobility, politics, environment, culture, health and one that emphasized the connectivity and cohesion between these different elements at the level of the city. The workshop also became an opportunity for the mayor to come face to face with the energy of the city’s people, their desires and motivations and to engage in direct conversation with them about their different ideas for the future of Chumsang.

     

    At the same time, this transversal approach also brought many communities to work together. We worked with two cycling groups, a group of elderly, the old market community, young school children, communities that were to be relocated and communities that had already been housed. Initially, it seemed that these different groups had their own motivations for participating in the workshop. However, at the end of each day, as we reviewed our progress and our findings, the work gradually demonstrated how intricately connected these different motivations and processes really were.

    Policies group presenting outcomes: Chumsang’s journey

    Policies group presenting outcomes: Chumsang’s journey

     

    Although some groups progressed quicker than others during the five days of fieldwork, reviewing, changing and even starting over a couple of times; the level of involvement from community groups in the presentation of the outcomes, on the last day, was moving. It showed that these processes of participation intrigued people and invited them to feel part of something greater.

     

    So although lengthy and sometimes frustrating, the time it took to build, validate and present ideas with communities, seemed to generate a collective sense of a ‘Community of Chumsang’. In a way, the notion of ‘co-creation’ really materialized through this challenging and timely process. Toward the end of the workshop, I increasingly noticed that people built on these connections and worked with them, moving around the room, between different groups, sharing information and presenting ideas in sync with each other.

    Combining activities, processes and project ideas on the same ‘master plan’ for Chumsang

    Combining activities, processes and project ideas on the same ‘master plan’ for Chumsang

    Sharing is where everything starts

     

    There were many things about the CAN workshop that motivated me but it is what happens after the workshops, which I find the most significant. How the transformative process that CAN workshops initiate, by bringing so many minds together in one place, can ripple out into a series of waves of transformation in other places; How those of us who attend the CAN workshop can carry our experiences and through them, diffuse the energy of CAN into existing and new networks. After the workshop I was left with this intrigue, excited to see what happens next.

     

    The workshop produced Facebook groups [CAN Co-Create Chumsaeng City & Unsung Stories of Chumsaeng); brought cycling movements together to carry out a collective ride throughout the city with the support of the police; created brochures to promote tourism, made a song and proposed many other small achievable projects that the local communities could carry on after the workshop. I see these outcomes as small actions and tools that are practical and achievable in the short term but which have the potential to keep co-creation running by “people’s process”, as we like to say, in the long-run. If people follow up and use them.

     

    Leader of ‘The Old Tigers’ cycles with other groups, as we invite people to join and advocate for cycle lane markings, cycle routes for tourists and greater safety for children and elderly who use bycicles

    Leader of ‘The Old Tigers’ cycles with other groups, as we invite people to join and advocate for cycle lane markings, cycle routes for tourists and greater safety for children and elderly who use bycicles

    A month later, I am visiting some of the CAN members in Vietnam. They have been great hosts, showing me around and teaching me about the beautiful city of Hanoi.

     

    “Sharing is where everything starts” says Houng, one of my hosts and also a CAN member. Being back in conversations about community practices reminds me of my intrigue, what happens after the workshop? How does the transformative process of CAN Co-Create continue?

     

    Still excited from the experience, I’ve noticed some signs that suggest the transformative process is still running. The actions that we took and the ‘web’ of tools that we began to create seem to have given the ‘network’ a potential to catalyze this process. Believing it all the more as I listen, discuss and exchange with people who, despite having returned to their busy lives, are still talking about visiting Chumsang again, strengthening the CAN network in Vietnam and even about extending the scope of the existing one.

     

     

    [Video]

    CAN Co-Create Workshop Teaser Video – Final Video will be published in October

     


    Luisa is an alumni of the MSc in Building and Urban Design in Development at the DPU. Currently she is working in Manila, Philippines as a beneficiary of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme.