Simulation shapes real-life sustainability for urban living
When Jiarui Li, an international student from China, enrolled at Montreal’s Concordia University to learn how to design video games, he didn’t expect to also find himself immersed in the world of urban planning.
That’s been the case this past year, which saw Li create virtual buildings, roads and green spaces, with sustainability in mind throughout – all while working on an exciting new project at Concordia’s Next-Generation Cities Institute (NGCI).
The project, CityPlayer, uses the elements of video-game-playing – or gamification – to make urban planning interactive and accessible. Li acted as lead programmer in the development of a prototype game, My Perfect Neighbourhood, which allows players to find the ideal balance between a livable and sustainable environment.
Li, 22, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in August, was contracted to work on the game by NGCI senior advisor Chris Gibbs, who runs the institute’s gamified urban simulation platform. The platform is funded partly through a $120,000, three-year partnership with Behaviour Interactive, Canada’s major independent video-game studio, as well as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Communities and Cities, held by NGCI’s founding co-director, Ursula Eicker.
It was an opportunity for Li – who also goes by Ray – to get the kind of experiential learning that Concordia prides itself on. “I’ve learned quite a few things,” he says, laughing as he attempts to list them. “I don’t know where to start!”
He says designing My Perfect Neighbourhood, which takes place in a virtual replica of Montreal’s Ville-Marie borough, helped him gain proficiency in developing large-scale systems with Unity, the software widely used in the video-game industry. For its sustainability component, he learned how to distill complex information from a group of experts – the NGCI’s researchers – into a user-friendly game.
“That’s a very useful skill for a professional game programmer to have,” says Gibbs, who brings to Concordia a 35-year background in the commercial video-game industry. “Part of your job is to learn what data you need for your game and the right questions to ask the experts in a given field. Ray and his colleagues had several opportunities to do that in the context of this game.”
Li found the end result gratifying. “It was great to be able to spread the knowledge of these wonderful science folks in a way the rest of the population can understand easily,” he says.
Li’s hands-on experience is something Concordia firmly believes in. The university recently committed to offering at least one experiential learning opportunity to every incoming undergraduate student. That will increase to at least two by 2025.
“The more we can offer, the better prepared our students will be post-graduation,” says Nadia Bhuiyan, Concordia’s vice-provost of Partnerships and Experiential Learning.
The commitment builds on Concordia’s already extensive opportunities for students to learn by doing. They range from internships with industry partners, to international field work, to on-campus activities such as the engineering program’s final-year capstone project and exhibitions and performances in the Faculty of Fine Arts.
The university has now formalized that by ensuring that there are experiential learning opportunities in some of the core courses students are required to take.
There are multiple benefits to hands-on learning beyond the opportunity to put theory into practice.
“Research has shown that it provides a higher capacity for critical thinking and retaining knowledge,” Bhuiyan says. “Students will retain knowledge for longer because they’ve actually applied the theory they learned in a practical setting so they understand it – particularly in complex situations.”
Internships also help students develop the so-called soft skills – “They really are hard skills,” Bhuiyan notes – such as communication and collaboration: “These are the skills, beyond just the technical ones, that our industry partners say they are equally interested in.”
Bhuiyan’s role at Concordia includes seeking partnerships with industry, government and communities to provide experiential learning opportunities for students.
Increasingly, however, the university is being approached by employers as well. “There’s been a lot of interest in partnering with us in the past few years, in part because of the labour shortage,” she says.
The federal government is among those eager to find ways of giving students work experience. “They want [students] to understand that there are great opportunities” in the public sector, she explains.
Li was able to practice the soft skills Bhuiyan refers to as the lead programmer on My Perfect Neighbourhood, where he oversaw a team of three fellow interns.
“Since Chris trusted me as the leader, I had to learn how to assign tasks according to each member’s strength,” he says. “And how to get them to cooperate as a team to work most efficiently.”
Li’s immediate goal is to get a job in the industry and his experience with the CityPlayer project will be a definite asset. Beyond that, it’s made him appreciate the serious, real-world application of gamification. The game he’s helped create will ultimately serve as a tool to help municipalities find ways of being more sustainable and erase their carbon footprint.
“We had the planet in mind the whole time we were designing it,” Li says.
How My Perfect Neighbourhood works
Kate, a student, emerges from Montreal’s Guy-Concordia metro station and has four minutes to make it to her first class at the university’s Hall Building. Along the way, she sees trees on the boulevard, which makes her happy and overflowing garbage receptacles, which dampens her mood. She then takes a risk crossing against a red light in busy traffic.
Kate is one of the characters that populate My Perfect Neighbourhood, a game created for the CityPlayer project, which is designed to help urban dwellers shape a more livable and sustainable environment.
“One of the least-looked-at areas of urban planning is the feedback of the citizens who actually have a vested interest in a neighbourhood,” says Chris Gibbs, video-game expert and senior advisor with Concordia’s Next-Generation Cities Institute. “CityPlayer is designed to help plug that gap.”
Players of My Perfect Neighbourhood are able to take Kate and six other characters – including a parent, an immigrant and a retiree – on various “missions” in the area. The happier they are with their surroundings the more eco-credits are earned. Those can then be spent by the player in the game’s “city planner” mode to improve the neighbourhood further. The challenge is to find a way of meeting sustainability goals without compromising the quality of life.
The prototype game is part of the NGCI’s strategy to use gamification to promote greener urban development in the battle against climate change. Gibbs believes the fun, interactive experience of game-playing can help take the institute’s scientific research off the campus and into the real world.
“This could be a powerful tool to wake people up and get them thinking about sustainability,” he says.
Learn more abut Concordia’s commitment to experiential learning and about the Next-Generation Cities Institute.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Concordia University. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.