From fake news to flash floods, simulations help cities cope with crises

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 March 2021 09:13 GMT

View of River Seine's flooded banks and the Eiffel Tower after days of rainy weather in Paris, France February 7, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

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Alternate reality simulations can predict a variety of complex situations, with insights from people who are not always heard

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Simulations of events ranging from climate disasters to misinformation campaigns on social media can help cities tackle problems that are both complex and hard to predict as they recover from the coronavirus pandemic, urban experts said.

Alternate Reality Simulations use game-like elements and role-playing, with the United Nations' development unit (UNDP), public and private sectors, and the Arizona State University (ASU) testing them last week in six major cities.

The simulations in Hanoi, Bangkok, Harare and other cities were set in 2022, with the coronavirus still lurking, and the added threats of fake news about insurgents, the failure of the telecom network, or violence and looting after a flash flood.

"Events of the past year have shown that whilst we can foresee a range of potential crises, it is impossible to predict with any certainty their timing or scale," said Milica Begovic, an innovation specialist at UNDP in Istanbul.

"Simulations provide a safe, yet powerfully experiential and real space for participants to generate models about implications of, and response to various events," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased pressure on lawmakers and urban planners to build back better, and create more liveable and equitable cities with open spaces, bicycle lanes, clean energy sources and affordable housing.

Simulations such as those by the UNDP as part of its ongoing Istanbul Innovation Days programme have previously been used to imagine a world without oil, and for companies to prepare for cyberattacks or reputational damage on social media.

The simulations can be in homes, offices and public places, and can be high-tech or low-tech, allowing participants to imagine sustainable financial markets, alternative currencies, or different economic and monetary policies, Begovic said.

Elsewhere, virtual reality that was initially tied to video gaming when it first became popular in the 1990s, has found many more uses as the technology advanced, from fighting human trafficking to curbing dementia.

Alternate reality simulations can include obtaining insights from a range of people - including those often excluded from the decision-making process, said Sha Xin Wei, who directs the Synthesis Center for responsive environments at ASU.

"You can speak to power, or speak as power more easily in this what-if setting," he said, adding that the simulations have roles for a member of the press, and for a member of civil society like a working mother, or a young female activist.

"Even though they do not control resources, they can comment on, endorse or disapprove of what the institutional leads are proposing as what-ifs," he said.

Post-COVID-19, policymakers will need to make "sea-changes to how we organise our economies, and how we navigate our mixture of nature and people and infrastructure," Sha said.

"Magic-bullet solutions to wicked problems may become other wicked problems. If anything, the pandemic showed how important it is to model differently," he added.

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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