• Simulations provide a safe space to experience and plan for a range of events, from climate disasters to misinformation campaigns, say experts.
  • These simulations can take place in homes, offices and public places, and can be high-tech or low-tech.
  • The versatility of this technology allows for a range of insights from people who may not otherwise have been heard.
  • Virtual simulations could be an important part of the near future, particularly as the world emerges from COVID-19.

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.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

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.