How to make a city sustainable - in a single day?

“It was an exciting day and a great learning experience, especially given the time pressure, the intensity of the challenge and having to work with a new team,” said Apoorva Shankar, looking back on this year's NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition 2020.

"Being 'book smart' is not good enough," commented her fellow student Ines Rodrigues Gonçalves. "This type of simulation game is a great training tool to help us become 'street smart', which is what is most needed."

Apoorva and Ines were among the five Master's students in Public Policy and Human Development who were selected to join the one-day competition hosted by Central European University (CEU) and United Nations University-MERIT at the global site at CEU in Budapest on 29 February 2020.

In total, seven global sites hosted nearly 400 students representing 52 nationalities from 114 universities in 46 countries.

"Each year we pick a topic that is timely, important and something will resonate well with our students,” explained CLSG Director Noah Myung in his audio welcoming statement. “Last year’s simulation was based on the Syrian refugee crisis and the year before it was based on a pandemic outbreak. I don’t think that I have to convince you on the value of the pandemic simulation with the outbreak of the coronavirus that is going on right now. It is our hope that the experience you gain from our simulation will help you make solid decisions when you are faced with these crises in the future.”

Built specifically for students of public policy, the 'Metropolitan: A SustainableTransit Simulation' game challenged participants to develop a sustainable public transit infrastructure in their assigned city.

Noah Myung challenged the students to think about three key questions during the game: “First, what goal are you trying to achieve? Second, how are you going to allocate your scare resources to achieve those goals? And third, how are you going to build a consensus and divide up the tasks within your group as well as communicate with your stakeholders about your decisions?"

As he officially opened the competition, he wished good luck to all competing students and reminded them: "Don't forget to have fun!"

How did James, Apoorva, Agustina, Sofia and Ines find this year's simulation?

James Glover, UK

The NASPAA-Batten simulation competition in Budapest was a truly incredible experience. In groups of five, we assumed the role of ministers for a fictional city, from Minister for Health to City Treasurer. Our objectives were to make collective policy choices to ensure a sustainable future for our city. We had to make sure the decisions we were taking not only allowed us to reduce our carbon emissions across the city but also improved the well-being of our citizens, without negatively affecting our budget.

In the early stages of the simulation, we attempted to make changes that we thought may contribute to a more sustainable city. We extended bike lanes, invested in public transport, and took measures to discourage the use of cars. Importantly, we recognised that it was vital to provide alternative measures to help our citizens make the switch to public transport or take up cycling.

The impetus on making quick decisions whilst taking into consideration several different factors, and with a limited budget, were challenging to say the least. Another immense challenge was to coordinate with a team with which we had no prior contact. Having to operate under strict time constraints gave a glimpse into the difficulties in developing effective public policy.

The simulation competition provided me with an incredible insight into the life of public policymakers and the importance of data and data analysis in ensuring long lasting and successful policy.

To those contemplating an application for the programme in 2021 or beyond, go for it. This unforgettable experience has changed my perspective on public policy making.

Apoorva Shankar, India

Reflecting back on the simulation, I would say that the three critical skills needed to succeed in the NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation were teamwork, connecting the dots and swift decision making.

The simulation competition enabled us to apply our knowledge of public policy into practice and to visualise the interconnectedness between different policies. It also gave a glimpse into the delicate balance of the three critical aspects of policy making: economic, environmental and social. One way in which the simulation was very different from reality was in the time element. In reality, policy decisions are based on evidence, careful consideration and detailed deliberation. However, in the NASPAA simulation, the severe time crunch meant that we could not spend much time debating and weighing policy decisions.

After the simulation rounds, every team had to submit a policy memo and prepare a presentation. The top three teams presented their policies to the panel of judges. It was interesting to see how the budding policymakers among us tactfully responded to the judges' questions and worked hard in convincing them. Finally, policies based on strong key principles were the winners.

To prepare for the simulation, I would recommend future participants to go through the user manual in detail to understand how the simulation works and to read through the resources shared by NASPAA. In addition, keeping abreast of latest developments in the field will definitely give participants an edge, especially during the presentations and questions rounds.

My key takeaway lesson (which also reflects the recent situation due to the developments of Covid-19) is based on the three Ps: Policies, Principles and Priorities. Ideally, policies are formulated based on strong principles. In tough times, policies may reflect changing priorities, but we shouldn’t forget the founding principles on which they are based. ​

Agustina Pérez Mirianco, Uruguay

The competition gave us the opportunity to test the skills learned in our MPP programme with real world data. It was a great complement to our education, enabling us to push our abilities to the fullest.

Every round of the simulation was a challenging task that demanded both long term vision and quick decisions, as well as communication and executive choices. The software allowed us to make data driven policy decisions and to truly grasp the multi-dimensionality of urban planning.  

From an academic standpoint, it was a great practice to experiment hands-on the level of balance and compromise that urban sustainability requires, while meeting different stakeholders' interests as well as a shared goal.

Furthermore, time was short and communication had to flow with my team members from Georgia, Hungary and Romania, whom I had not met before. Thus, my most valuable learning point was related to team work and trust: thinking on our feet, listening, adapting, compromising or confronting when needed.

My advice for future participants is to fully commit to the experience, pretend you are really a minister for a day in your life. This way you won't only make the most of the simulation and learn a lot, but also have fun. 

Sofia af Hällström , Finland

Taking part in the NASPAA-Batten Public Policy Simulation on Sustainable Cities did not disappoint in terms of surprises, challenges and gained perspectives. The simulation was developed in a way that we had to make policy decisions based on real life data despite working on a fictitious city.

The focus of this year’s competition was urban transport, which meant approaching issues largely in the domain of urban planning from a public policy perspective. This in practice meant having to debate, discuss and decide on various trade-offs in regard to social, economic and sustainability priorities, which at times proved quite challenging. We were split into teams composed of students from a variety of international universities and tasked with the goal of transforming a city into the most sustainable version of itself.

Each game involved taking up a role similar to what would actually be the case in a city council and part of the fun was also trying to live into these roles as much as possible. I played the roles of 'Health Commissioner' and 'Transport Commissioner', which made me experience how each role had their own goals and targets to achieve. As Health Commissioner my goal was to get CO2 and pollution levels down, while as Transport Commissioner my goal was to increase public transport usage.

As a participant, this ensured that you got significant insight into how sustainability and low-carbon economy goals can overlap between fields. Cities are the future of globalisation and as the sites of mass habitation, production and consumption they play a significant role in moving towards a low-carbon future.

My personal interest in the importance of transport policy grew exponentially and being able to partake in such a well-developed game was one of the most fun ways of gaining practical experience! ​

Ines Rodrigues Gonçalves, Portugal

One of the complaints that we hear from employers when we start working is that academic education can be so theoretical that it doesn't provide students with the necessary training practice to face real life situations, which require much more than highly developed critical thinking or good analytical skills.

For me, this type of simulation games recreates a pretty similar environment to the one that we are going to face once we go back to work: being "book smart" is not good enough. We need to be "street smart". Knowing how to play as a team or being able to make fast but balanced decisions are key skills that can help us to achieve better political outcomes. In that sense, this kind of simulation tool should definitely be more used for training purposes.

It was a big challenge to make sure that we were playing as a team and that everybody was listened because our team was very diverse. I think we did a great job on that because everybody was equally participating and we were all equally excited to play. 

This simulation game was created by an expert team who invested a lot of efforts in researching the impact of public policy in urban sustainability. The game provided many public policy measures that were not obvious for those of us who were not usually involved in the urban sustainability debate. It was really interesting to discover these options in a simulation setting, because it allowed us to see the impact of those measures in real time. 

The key enjoy the game and win the game is to define a strategy that everyone in the team is committed to. This is also a great recommendation for real life: Unless everyone believes in what they are doing, it will be really hard to succeed. 

My advice to future participants? Make sure you understand the strengths of each member of your team. Managing time will be really stressful and if you make sure each person is doing a task that reflects his or hers best skills and knowledge, the entire team will benefit.

Overheard during the simulation

“Right, we’ve introduced sidewalks in all the neighbourhoods. What about street furniture? Commissioner of Social Services, what would you recommend now? What are your indicators?”

“Property taxes can go higher!”

“If we want people to walk, we need to provide them with walking zones. We can do it on Sundays or once a month.”

“Our community engagement is very low. We need to improve that!”

“Let’s invest in bikes. This will have a positive impact on health.”

“Be careful, any policy change reduces our community engagement level. Let’s do focus groups with face to face interactions combined with surveys. And how about distributing fact sheets? They got to love it!”

“Community engagement is key.”

“Bikes could be really useful downtown. Shall we do 500 sharing bikes?”

“We have bike paths, should we do bike highways?”

This was the sixth year that NASPAA conducted the student competition and the fourth year that it partnered with the Batten School’s CLSG to produce the simulation. “Simulation-based learning is an incredibly valuable tool, offering some of the most exciting, intense, and impactful learning on the planet for public affairs education,” said NASPAA Executive Director Laurel McFarland.

“In the classroom, our graduate students have been trained to be problem solvers, team players, and analysts— these simulations enhance students’ abilities to tackle complex policy problems they may face in the real world. They'll be ready to take the insights from their sustainable cities simulation experience into whatever kind of public service career they embark upon.”

The day ended with the delightful announcement that Sofia af Hällström's team from UNU-MERIT was the winner of the global site in Budapest on 29 February 2020.

Soon, a panel of prominent 'super judges' will determine the global winning team of the entire competition. The winning team will be invited to attend the Global Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. on 7-9 June, 2020 hosted by the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA). Second and third place will receive a generous cash prize.

Fingers crossed!