“Are We There Yet?” Residents of Central Arkansas use online game to create roadmap for the future.

This article first appeared on EngagingCities but we’d like to share it here with the NCDD community.

How do you get citizens to give feedback about their ideas for the community, while also educating them on the inherent repercussions of their preferences? How do you involve the public in your 30-year plan, while instilling an appreciation for how every decision affects the overall timeline and outcome?

You get them to play a game.

Playing a game – planning a future

The residents of Central Arkansas have been helping to shape their region’s future through a FlipSides game – an online interactive activity – that allows them to give feedback on topics such as transportation infrastructure, emerging trends, walkability, and funding decisions. Responsive infographics help players envision the effects their ideas would have on the completion timeline for each topic. Appropriately named “Are we there yet?”, this playful tool has provided valuable feedback to the decision-makers for the region’s planning effort, Imagine Central Arkansas.

Since it’s mid-June launch, hundreds of Arkansas residents have played “Are we there yet?”, both online and at events throughout the area. People were encouraged to access the game to let their voice be heard while learning more about the factors that influence the final plan. As an extra incentive, each player was registered in an iPad mini giveaway. The iPad was won by a Searcy resident, but the whole community will benefit from increased understanding of the give-and-take type of decision-making that is native to complex projects.

Real-time results

One of the most valuable features of the game is the immediate visual feedback players receive as they answer questions and define priorities. Not only do citizens get to choose how to achieve the regional vision, they get to experience in real-time the trade-offs that come with any decision or development.

As you proceed through the steps of the game, you move a slider or checkbox to indicate your opinion about a specific topic – for example, your level of support for policies that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. If you indicate strong support, the timelines on the right will immediately show that based on your response, the completion of “Local Transit Goals” would be accomplished by the year 2046. If you had not supported the pedestrian policies, but instead supported investing in current transportation systems before creating new ones, the “Local Transit Goals” would not be accomplished until 2050. Each step of the game contains multiple options and layers of effects, all depending on one another, that demonstrate the complicated nature of a regional plan.

Distinguishing it from other popular engagement methods, the game’s focus goes beyond mere opinion-gathering. It requires players to think through the “flip sides” of each decision and to realize that every action will have impact on all other parts of the project. It puts the citizen briefly in the driver’s seat, making the decisions that planners must deal with every day. In short, “Are we there yet?” is more about HOW we get there than WHERE we are trying to go.

The next 30 years

Imagine Central Arkansas has provided “Are We There Yet?” as one of the last phases in their outreach strategy before drafting the final plan for the region. This means the choices and information in the game are more refined than during previous engagement efforts. Prior campaigns have included “Treasured Places”, where residents were encouraged to photograph, map, and digitally explore their favorite local places; and “Choose Your Future”, another digital activity that allowed people to prioritize about everything in their future, from parks to mobility to economy and beyond. In this latest outreach, residents are finally asked to try to balance their opinions with realities and challenges.

“Are we there yet?” is powered by FlipSides, an online platform that allows decision-makers to engage the public about specific trade-offs inherent to planning projects. While Imagine Central Arkansas has used the platform to focus on goals and timelines, FlipSides can be tailored to fit any project and provides planners with valuable feedback about public opinion and priorities.

As urban planners look for more relevant ways to engage their audience, many are turning to online tools, and games in particular. Arkansas has joined other cities in the experiment of playful public outreach, and the results have been positive. Perhaps the greatest benefit will be to the citizens who, in taking a moment to stop and think about the future of their community, will leave with a greater appreciation for the complexities of public planning.

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