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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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 . 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
[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