SAGTA presentation: The metaverse, gaming and the metabolism of cities; Building connection across boundaries


This talk was given at the South African Geography Teachers Conference (SAGTA) in Pretoria on 21 June 2019. The talk was well received and I found useful resources related to GIS. I hope to pilot a version of the game, or at least the data gathering and interpretation in a school project which would help update the geography curriculum too.

The presentation is in html and can be found here (link to follow) or downloaded in pdf here (link to follow).

slide 1: This is a talk about the recent/current extreme drought in Cape Town.

It’s about what I am doing next when the experience of how professionals, politicians and the public interacted saddened me so much that I left research, and the water industry.

slide 2: In the beginning I learnt about a concept called ‘Water Sensitive Cities’. I thought this was a fabulous concept, I still do, but when I tried to explain it to people it was hard to get the idea across and even harder to help people who wanted to get involved, take the next step to a water resilient future.

slide 3: I was on radio (RSG), and after the interview Martelise said, you’re great, why don’t you come back and chat again, and I told her about this initiative AquaSavvy and showed her the website, and she bluntly said to me, this makes no sense. It’s kak.

This was somewhere between November 2017 and April 2018, which brought this to a bit of a grinding halt.

slides 4,5: Water Sensitive Design talks about urban planning, and catchments – big big concepts that takes long long times, which in a country where we have very real challenges that need addressing a long time ago already, just isn’t good enough. How do we build and implement that connection across boundaries of, let’s be honest, developed world dreams, with developing world challenges, in a world in late-stage capitalism and severe Antropocenic issues? How do we do it together?

slide 6: In the midst of #dayzero, it was harrowing, exhausting, stressful. It was politically loaded and people were genuinely terrified. The City didn’t want to share data or contingency plans, the young professionals were fighting with the older professionals… It was just such a frustrating experience. I thought it was just me being impatient (I have a reputation in the water industry for being a bit of a loose cannon, bull in a china shop, a maverick (actual quotes)) but then (older, more diplomatic) people published blogs and short reports, and it was clear this was a real problem.

Expertise discovers its limits when the predictables are no longer predictable.
Expertise that is based on the patriarchal and militaristic “command and control”, is based on the idea that expertise has no limits.

Lesley Green, Environmental Humanities South

slides 7,8: This is where we are right now. With climate change, and the Anthropocene more generally, things are changing really fast, in very unpredictable ways. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen and how best to respond to it.

Cause and effect is unknown and unknowable in advance.
[The unintended consequences of experting:]
1. By imagining that we and our peers have the necessary expertise to solve problems we limit the experience, wisdom and insights that we draw on in finding solutions, thus hampering the innovation that the IWA Principles rightly identify as essential. We in fact become less expert by being ‘the expert’.

The Source Magazine

To me this is also really related to the Fake News phenomenon, and why people like Trump get elected. As experts, we leave the everyday people behind and the only way they can react, often fuelled by fear, is through anger.

2. It breaks the all-important connections and relationships that integrated, systemic planning is built on. The more we imagine that we have things under control, the less we value the input of others. We might talk about working collaboratively, but if we feel that we are the experts why would we collaborate? From this mindset we constrain the collaboration and undermine the very relationships that ‘integration’ requires.

The Source Magazine

slide 9: So I’ve been thinking, how can I help make this better? And for a long time, the answer kept coming back to ‘build a game’. A game that is so beautiful, and so much fun, that the gamers don’t realise, or care, about the connections they’re building. Of course, gamers know this already.
Who of you play games?
(if lots- see? You know what I mean! (this was the result 🙂 )
If not lots – this is the other problem. The people who know the most, who have the most to contribute, shut themselves off. To you I say, jouissance. Have some fun.)

I’m thinking a city building game like SimCity, Township, with some augmented things like Pokemon Go or Ingress to get people outside, to help generate the granular data we need for this to work.

slide 10 and subslides: Graham, my partner’s son James likes playing Fortnite. I don’t like it because the killing people thing doesn’t appeal to me. But during the evening debriefings I’ve gained insider knowledge of what a big deal Fortnite is. So when I saw this article, I read it. And wow, I saw some good ideas.

Then a colleague and friend of mine shared this link with me about the Magicverse.

So my mission is to get in there, and by end next year have some sort of prototype to explain better what I mean by this game.

slide 11: Now the data that underpins all of this needs to be rigorous, and that is where the Metabolism of Cities comes in. How does the data link together? How do we connect water and energy and nutrients and emissions across boundaries?

For me, this is quite personal for two related reasons. One, I don’t think we quite get in how much shit we’re in. No, really. I don’t think we understand what a huge, huge problem our sanitation is. How much nutrients we are losing, and how much damage we are causing downstream.

slide 11.2: This is a Shit Flow Diagram. Some people struggle with saying shit so they say Sanitation Flow Diagram.

It’s good, it’s a good start to visualising how well or not our shit is making its way to getting treated, or not. But it’s not dynamic. It’s not really grabbing attention. It’s an example of data visualisation, and I thought that’s what I want, and I thought that this is the data visualisation and the game is the data generation, but actually, just this week I realised what I actually want is perhaps closer to information design. It needs to move, to plop, to scatter, to explode.

… OK, sorry, I was thinking of fireworks. Perhaps a poor choice of words there. But a good parallel. People like looking at animations of fireworks. So use that to talk about shit. Look, this is still a work in progress, OK.

sldie 11.3 and 11.4: The second reason is that I used to live at the bottom of the Zandvlei catchment, near the Zandvlei estuary.

Estuaries are the toilets of the catchment, whatever happens upstream affects them. In this catchment we have affluent hobbyist wine farms, we have backyard dwellers with inadequate service delivery, we have old, crumbling sewer infrastructure. We have lots of little problems too. It’s really difficult to contextualise how all of these challenges interact, when they compete for budget and are stuck in their administrative silo’s. It’s hard to keep people in the meetings awake, it’s hard to counter entitlement. It’s hard to empower everyday people who want to do something, when they feel isolated and alone. But games allow for community, games allow building connection across all sorts of boundaries.

slide 13: So, let’s summarise, fitting the metaverse, games and the metabolism of cities together.

Combining the joy of gaming, the beauty of information visualisation and the rigour of urban metabolism studies to better understand urban resource flows at an everyday level.

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