Card Games for Smart Cities

How a simple game can help change the way we apply technology to cities.

Marc De Pape

Animated card sorting game

As Anthony Townsend details in his book Smart Cities, the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to urban digitization has a spotty and often costly track record. The solutions offered to governments are frequently technologies in search of a problem rather than well-defined problems that might benefit from a technological solution. Owing to restrictive procurement processes that predetermine product specifications, there’s often a fit on paper. But that rarely translates to the built and lived environment.

To challenge this way of doing things, Civic Tech communities have sprung up across the world. These communities apply existing and emerging technologies to the real problems and unmet needs of citizens as defined by those citizens themselves.

Enter Wild Combination. Wild Combination is a simple ideation card game where participants apply technologies to real-life scenarios resulting in novel and often unlikely outcomes. Developed by the digital product development firm Connected (where, for full disclosure, I am a Product Strategist, in addition to being a co-founder of Civic Tech Toronto), Wild Combination is the kind of collaborative activity that lends itself well to the open, community-driven mindset at the foundation of Civic Tech.

Over the course of several months, the Civic Tech Toronto community and Connected Lab collaborated on a special edition deck designed specifically with the smart city in mind. A small team (consisting of myself, Tim BettridgeThomas AstonEmily Soo, and Eli Burnstein from Connected, with Alexander ChenIrene Anowa QuarcooSharly Chan, and Andrew Do from Civic Tech Toronto) prototyped (over multiple hack nights) and beta-tested a prototype deck to great effect at the Code For America Brigades Conference in Philadelphia in October. (Incidentally, Alex Chen wrote an article about Civic Tech Toronto’s trip to Code for America and their success with the game.)

The most recent version was debuted at the 2017 YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) event held at Toronto’s Metro Hall in December, and has since made its way to LA’s Civic Tech community. We’re announcing it here in the hope of encouraging more people to contribute their ideas, share their solutions online using #wildcombo, and spread the tool to more and more cities.

Wild Combination was initially created to help Connected better understand the breadth of what’s possible within a specific client’s domain. Yet the rapid ideation card game turned out to be effective at flattening the hierarchy of participants as well, thanks to the randomness of the sets and outrageous solutions they inspire. It also encourages everyone to understand that there are a wide variety of solutions to any given problem. If you happen to be an expert hammerer, well, try a Global Positioning System for your nail instead.

Connected has made Wild Combination decks for the auto industry, a sports league, and a consumer electronics company. With the arrival of Sidewalk Labs to our city, the timing of an edition dedicated to smart cities couldn’t be better.

As with every other deck of Wild Combination, the goal of this edition is not to generate the perfect solution but to break down biases and explore new possibilities. The themes that emerge from clustering are far more useful than any one idea on it’s own. Who knows what your combination will inspire.

How It Works

Wild Combination was inspired by a workshop put on by the Situation Lab (Stuart Candy and Jeff Watson) at OCADU called The Thing From the Future. In it, participants explore possible futures and ultimately create the ephemera that might populate their vending machines. It was a card-based game where card combinations acted as starting points for new ideas. Our game, named after an Arthur Russell song, takes this card-based approach and applies it to stimulating innovation on a shorter horizon.

There are three kinds of cards: Scenario cards, Technology cards, and User cards. Participants pull one card from each pile and try to generate a solution that satisfies the combination, writing it down on the response form. If a participant gets stuck, they can swap out cards until they find a combination that works for them. Once the combination has been satisfied, the set should be discarded and a new set drawn. Repeat until you have enough responses to generate a conversation around the emergent themes that tie the solutions together. Cluster responses based on their affinity to one another and label the groups. Discuss how to take these insights forward into new projects.

At YIMBY, we focused on introducing the community to the game by asking attendees to flip over a combination and give us their best response. Here are a few examples:

USER: Florist
TECHNOLOGY: GPS
SCENARIO: Brownouts due to heatwave
RESPONSE: Find nearby partners who are willing to share their AC

USER: A bike courier
TECHNOLOGY: Data Visualization
SCENARIO: A municipal playground has fallen into disrepair
RESPONSE: Bike courier puts a data collecting thing on her bike that collects info on moisture and temp. Then they use data visualization to interpret the data collected by the bike courier. This leads to more trees planted in nearby parks.

USER: A whistleblower
TECHNOLOGY: Near field communication (NFC)
SCENARIO: Sexual harassment in the workplace
RESPONSE: NFC readers are all over the office. Each employee gets a special whistleblower card to discreetly tap any NFC in the office to report an incident of harassment.

These responses reflect the challenge of resolving each combination and the provocative suggestions that result. Though it is the conversations that the activity spurs and not the solutions themselves that are most valuable, a prototype of any given solution is not inconceivable!

In addition to the responses, we also received suggestions for new technologies to add to the deck, such as ranked ballots and green roofs. Since this deck represents the first iteration, we share it while inviting you, your Civic Tech organization, or your project team, 
We believe there is a lot of untapped potential here and need your help to realize it. Today, this deck is being used in Civic Tech 101 sessions at Civic Tech Toronto’s weekly meet-up. We want to hear how you use it. So please, share your learnings using #wildcombo and tag us too! Remember: there are no bad ideas, only wild combinations!

#wildcombo

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