Among the various "innovators" profiled in the latest Sierra Club magazine, one that leapt out for me was the write-up on Dave Biggs, founder of Envision Sustainability Tools. Envision makes software called MetroQuest, which allows urban planning teams to devise scenarios of how a city could evolve over the coming decades. Operating in a manner similar to SimCity, MetroQuest is used by Envision for urban planning workshops. But like SimCity, the question of how the assumptions shape the model can't be ignored.
MetroQuest enables what consultants often call a "multi-stakeholder" conversation, allowing various groups with differing agendas to work out plausible balances of interests. By visualizing the results of these discussions, and allowing the participants to change the parameters to work out the best (or least-bad) compromises, MetroQuest is intended to help the stakeholders get a more visceral appreciation of differing outcomes.
The surprising result of MetroQuest is that workshop participants of all political stripes end up reaching consensus fairly easily, and that consensus tends to be far greener than many might have predicted. Instead of sprawling, car-oriented suburbs, people opt for dense urban corridors served by public transit — the kinds of places environmentalists are usually told are a political impossibility.
The drawback is that the underlying model remains hidden. As with other simulations, the results you get are highly contingent upon the choices developers make. As an example, another Envision project, the Climate Change Calculator, asks questions about lifestyle and home appliances in order to calculate an overall carbon budget (based on Canadian figures). But while it makes sure to give various options for fueling a water heater, for example, it doesn't ask if the heater has a thermal blanket; similarly, the question about home lighting has nowhere to identify incandescent vs. compact fluorescent. These simple examples (for an admittedly very basic calculator) hint at the larger issue for MetroQuest: what results are unavailable because the underlying choices aren't allowed?
This is not to say that the software is useless; as it's employed in coordination with a consulting engagement, whatever deficiencies are there can be discussed and mitigated over the course of the workshop. But it underscores a point I've made before: simulations of communities and social systems need to open source, so that the underlying assumptions and variables are clear and can be modified. When applied to energy and the environment, the need for open source is multiplied: changes to technology (e.g., the power output of domestic solar panels) and economics (e.g, the cost of domestic solar panels) can lead to radically different results. As MetroQuest is intended to provide scenarios looking out 40 years, the need for modifiability based on technological changes is obvious.
I really want a tool like this to be useful and widely available. I'd love to see MetroQuest in action, and try to find what assumptions underlie the model. (I wrote to Envision earlier this week, asking a few questions about the software, but they did not respond.) This is clearly a step up from SimCity as a tool for planning scenarios, but how much of a step remains to be seen. Envision has used MetroQuest around the world, although most of their engagements have been in Canada, such as with the 2004 "imagineCALGARY" project.
If any of you have worked with MetroQuest (or if someone from Envision reads this), please talk about your experiences in the comments.
MetroQuest is based on research and models developed by the Sustainable Development Research Initiative at the University of British Columbia. Documentation is available for one of their initiatives, the Lower Fraser Basin Quest. A lot of the model's assumptions and variables are input by the users.
Many more tools are listed here.