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IBM's CityOne Is Like Sim City, Except the Solutions Are Real

A "serious game" that lays out the problems facing modern cities—and the solutions required to solve them.

Tomorrow, at the IMPACT conference, IBM plans to unveil CityOne, a video game that plops you into the role of being a city planner, trying to solve the sorts of business and environmental problems that grip today's modern cities. The ultimate aim for this so-called "serious game" is to teach laypeople how to better cope with complex modern problems by showing them the forest of solutions that have to be brought to bear, ranging from technological wizardry like smart grids, to better IT, to smart environmental policy. (Presumably, the aide of IBM will come in handy somewhere down the road, given the company's investments in many of these technologies.)

The game's premise is based on the real world: Cities already consume 75% of the world's energy and cause 80% of its carbon emissions. And they're growing at a blistering pace: The world's urban population is expected to double by 2050. So cities have to grow smarter if they're to support the massive population migrations that are happening worldwide.

CityOne is much like Sim City, only the problems are scarily real, ranging among energy, water, banking, and retail. So, for example, one day you might get hit by a rapid increase in water usage due to population growth—while you're still losing 40% of your water supply to leaky pipes. (This is actually reality, in decrepit megalopolises such as Mumbai and Mexico City.) To fix that problem, you'll have to carefully install a real-time water management system. Or, to encourage growth in small-businesses, you'll have to set up an infrastructure of mobile payments, dynamic invoicing, and micro-lending.

Clear your Friday night schedule.

Nancy Pearson, an IBM vice president, says that the games let people "inherently comprehend...the potential business outcomes that can result." In other works, the meaning of saving the money (and the earth) through the power of IBM should become a lot clearer to you than it was through all those hazy branding campaigns.

Meanwhile, "serious gaming" is becoming the rage among a certain set of socially minded game designers. For more, check out this nifty TED talk by game designer Jane McGonigal about how to embed real-world problems in video games, so that solution-finding becomes viral.