Simulation: A Lens For Exploring Alternate Futures

Posted on February 16, 2021
ARSASUbackgroundBangkokBeirutHanoiHarareKhartoumMexico CitySynthesisYerevan

Amidst the biggest economic downtown in nearly a century, 2020 has been a year that has revealed the inadequacy of our current institutions and systems to engage with uncertainty. Against that background of unpredictability, it would be rash to make any firm projections for what 2021 will bring.


Covid 19 has only exacerbated an uncomfortable truth: while governments are trying to read tea leaves, they are finding out that they have more questions than answers. The World Uncertainty Index is now at an all-time high, and the consequences of this are particularly felt at policy level: policymakers simply do not have enough information to foresee the consequences of their actions or rather, they are having to take responsibility for decisions for which they have very little information to make in the first place. 

The challenges faced by a policy-maker 50 years ago, in a time characterised by linear planning, forecastable outputs and quick fixes, strikingly contrasts with today’s volatility, risk and paradoxes, which has caused to question the role that institutions play in the world. 

The realization of the huge challenges and contradictions we are witnessing has pushed us to rethink the very approaches to how we make decisions in contexts of radical uncertainty. The need to make sense of highly complex systems has called for new testing grounds for setting up future viable options and, at the same time, inspire change in the real world. 

By bringing together a whole range of different stakeholders, social simulations offer safe spaces to explore various solutions and test their viability in an environment that reflects key aspects of the real world. In this reality, stakeholders have a chance to find solutions to real problems, solve conflicts and experiment by instantly facing the outcomes of their decisions.

It is for this reason that, as a part of the Istanbul Innovation Days 2021, Synthesis@ASU and UNDP will road-test complex-systems alternate reality simulation (ARS) in seven cities as an alternative way of stress-testing the institutional fabric of societies to withstand unforeseen events and emergencies.  The ARS sessions offer an opportunity for institutions, organizations and individuals to engage with uncertain and unexpected events in an experiential context.  

Alternate Reality Simulations are a means of collectively living different futures as well as inferring implications for a society’s well-being and development, its socio-economic ecosystems and overall resilience.  They enable deep learning through interaction that closely follows feedback mechanisms developed based on scientific and relational problem solving. 

Simulations use game-like elements to engage participants in situations where they have to make decisions  about the unpredictable problems they face. They are played in ordinary spaces, like the streets, homes, work sites or public spaces of a local city, using media and internet, and all that  is already found in the players’ ordinary lives.  ARS can rely on high end use of technology or can be really low tech. 

A classic example of alternate realities is Majestic, a game launched in 2001, when internet games were still the nascent form of what we have today. Majestic players faced challenges that continued to unravel a plot of conspiracy theory through their interaction not only with the web, but also via phone, email and instant messagings.  

Beast was a major internet puzzle based on a murder mystery played across 40 different websites by 3 million participants. In untangling the mystery, players engaged via their regular communications channels such as phones or emails. Beast was used for the promotion of a major sci-fi movie, and Alternate Realities soon became a commercial means of promoting products and engaging users.

Later Alternate Realities Simulations were used to inform decision making in simulated crisis and social situations. ARS have brought together participants in scenarios of escalating crises such as the World Without Oil, which challenged a massive community to imagine and report how they would live their everyday lives if   there were a sudden stop to the world’s supply of oil. In the corporate world, simulations are increasingly used to help businesses prepare for possible eventualities ranging from banking system stress tests and cybersecurity attacks to a social media crisis of reputation .

Simulations with game-based approaches continue to get more and more interest, particularly so among institutions looking for inclusive and collaborative decision making, who use simulations to have participants test and verify their solutions to problems. Sustain participants, for example, were engaged in an imaginary mission of creating sustainable cities while solving puzzles on multiple urban challenges ranging from energy, to economy and environment. Save the Future sought policy solutions for more sustainable financial markets. Participants could experiment and experiment with alternative currencies, as well as a long term perspective on economic and monetary policy. 

With the intent of showcasing a different approach to testing and informing institutional decision making, the 7 UNDP offices with their partners will test what’s it like to run a city under ‘what-if’ conditions – Mexico City, Harare, Yerevan, Bangkok, Hanoi, Khartoum, and Beirut (with a simulation run in Phoenix, Arizona by the Synthesis team).   This is the first time we’re doing this, so presumably we’ll be on a steep learning curve.  Our hope is that this type of simulation might provide a different way of not just imagining but putting to a practical test our current ways of working and thinking against the probabilities of emergencies and events we haven’t faced before.  Our Synthesis@ASU  team is going to prototype a template in these seven cities with an eye to discovering what sorts of complex alternative situations and practices can be explored powerfully using alternate reality simulation.

Governments are also increasingly using simulations to prototype their future decision making, and UNDP is gearing up to be the reliable partner in the process. The UNDP simulation will serve as a stepping stone for a future of development which navigates complex systems that understand the human dynamics of collaboration in decision making. 

This post was contributed by Enisa Serhati (@EnisaSerhati), Project Coordinator for Istanbul Innovation Days, and Gaia Bellavista (@GaiaBellavista), Strategic Innovation Unit UNDP. It is a reflection on the ongoing collaboration between ASU’s Synthesis Center and UNDP Offices in Mexico, Zimbabwe, Armenia, Sudan, Lebanon, Vietnam and UNDP’s Regional Innovation Center in Bangkok


New Dates Announced (10/03/21)

  • Bangkok: 10.30 CET / 04.30 EST – 17 March
  • Beirut: 13.00 CET / 08.00 EST – 17 March
  • Hanoi: 10.30 CET / 04:30 EST – 17 March
  • Harare 13.00 CET / 08.00 EST – 16 March
  • Khartoum: 13.00 CET / 08.00 EST – 15 March
  • Mexico City: 17.00 CET / 12.00 EST – 18 March
  • Yerevan: 13.00 CET / 08.00 EST – 18 March


(Image used under license from Envato)


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