Gaming the Future and Getting It Right: an interview with Dr. John Robinson

[This piece is also running over at]
Dr. John Robinson,
one of the world's leading urban and regional sustainability experts, gave a great keynote address at a public policy conference hosted by the Trudeau Foundation in Ottawa last week (The Trudeau Foundation, which funds my research, is similar to the American Fullbright Program).

Dr. Robinson was part of the team that developed the interactive urban sustainability platform Metroquest (profiled earlier on WC ). He is also heading up the construction of UBC's Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) and has been a Lead Author on the past three IPCC reports. I caught up with him after his talk for an interview on how to foster a shift to a sustainable urban society.

--"We have the Next Fifty Years to Build it Right."--

Alex Aylett: What is it about our current situation that makes smart sustainable urbanization so important?

John Robinson: Roughly speaking, the urban population of the planet will double in the next fifty years. This amounts to about a trillion dollars a year of infrastructure investment over the next decade or so (it is hard to project investment further into the future). After 2065 or so, global population growth (and thus the build-out of cities) is expected to level off.

This means we have the next fifty years to build it right, after that point it will all be about retrofitting – not building – our cities.. Retrofit is much more expensive and much less effective than building things right in the first place.

Every unsustainable piece of infrastructure we build is a 50-100 year mistake and makes it much harder to act sustainably. I think we should be focusing a lot of our attention on making sure that the annual trillion dollars of infrastructure investment is being spent on sustainable infrastructure.

AA: Polls in Canada and the US show that people care about climate change. But turning that concern into productive action hasn't been successful so far. How are efforts to get people to take action on climate change missing the mark?

JR: At the level of individual behaviour, much of the efforts to date have been based on the so-called 'information deficit' model of behaviour change. We assume that providing people with more information will change their behaviour.

But a lot of research in social psychology, social marketing, and what might be called applied cultural anthropology shows that this model is simply ineffective. At the collective level of policy change, a similar approach is often taken, and it is assumed that the provision of more and better science on, say, climate change impacts or the costs of mitigation, will lead decision-makers to change policy and investment decisions. That's also quite unsuccessful.

We need much more behaviourally nuanced and sophisticated approaches.

AA: So what's the alternative, if focusing on education and individual responsibility are more or less dead ends?

JR: The approach I'm interested in focuses on collective decision-making. I believe that the decisions that are really crucial have to do with collective decisions on issues like land use, urban form, density, transportation infrastructure and energy and water systems. These decisions are key because they have huge direct sustainability implications, and they also strongly constrain individual choices.

If we focus on these collective choices rather than changing individual behavior, the emphasis is on social mobilization processes intended to inform stakeholders about the trade-offs and consequences associated with different collective decisions. That approach both gets at the root of many sustainability problems, and gives policy makers a political constituency that supports changes to existing policy.

AA: Facilitating that kind of engagement with large scale policy choices (as opposed to changing light bulbs) is where your work on MetroQuest fits in. Tell us a bit about gaming the future... [check out Chicago's use of the MetroQuest platform for yourself.]

JR: At it's most basic, MetroQuest is an interactive gaming tool that allows people to create and explore scenarios of the future of their cities. It's a powerful way for them to to engage in discussion about the future and learn about the impacts of different choices on issues like landuse or transportation. It's also a way to collect views about the futures that people prefer -- information about preferences and choices that is much more useful than what can be provided by polls and surveys.

People react very positively – and very strongly – when they see detailed visualizations of the dramatic impacts of their choices on areas that they know and care about.

AA: What role does political leadership play in all of this?

JR: Simply holding MetroQuest workshops of course does not mean that the results will have any effect on real-world decisions, no matter how engaged people get. What is needed is processes that connect to actual decision-making processes.

This is quite tricky as few politicians or policy-makers will commit, in an open-ended way, to act on the results of processes they do not control and can’t predict, and which may or may not be representative of their constituents’ views.

There are two possible routes: first, engaging policy-makers actively in the design and development of such processes so they feel some ownership from the beginning (this has been done in projects in Europe); two, engaging a large enough fraction of the population in a given jurisdiction that they view as politically significant. This is the route we intend to pursue in the next few years.

AA: What other changes do we need to see to make a strong shift towards sustainability possible?

Linked to getting people to engage with collective decision making, there are also many many changes that can have powerful effects on the achievement of sustainability that don’t require changes in policy. Institutional rules, including codes, standards, job descriptions, performance evaluation criteria, assessment metrics, for example have a large effect on what decisions get made by organizations. Changing these rules can make an important contributing to really transformative social change.

As well – for better or worse – the private sector is also the locus of much of the behaviour that transforms our world. The focus here is on processes of commercialization and market transformation (not just government policy and regulation). The argument is that if it is in the economic interest of private sector organizations to invest in, produce, and market more sustainable products and services, then the market itself can become an engine of change in the direction of greater sustainability.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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