What Happens When 250 Million Children Grow Up With Urban Planning?

Chris Steins's picture

XO-1 computerHere at Planetizen and Urban Insight, many of our efforts to serve the planning community take place on Windows and Mac computers that would, much like your own computers at your home and office (or even your sparkly new iPhone), dwarf even the most powerful machines of a generation ago. We use these computers to build websites, create maps, share data, explore 3D environments, design, organize databases, and lots of other tasks that can bring new worlds to life without shoveling an ounce of dirt.

Yet, there are still entire communities in America, and countries throughout the world, that don't collectively have the computing power of an average office in the United States. The nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is trying to change that. And, in the process, it may change how the world views urban planning.

Early Monday morning OLPC launched its Give One, Get One offer. I was one of those West-Coasters who got up at 3 a.m. PST to purchase two XO laptops – one that will be sent to empower a child to learn in a developing nation, and one that will be sent to my own home for my children. The project is sometimes popularly called the $100 laptop project, since the innovative "One Laptop Per Child" effort, led by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte, seeks to build a unique laptop computer with features for children of the emerging world at an eventual price point of $100 per laptop. The laptops will be sold to governments, to be distributed through the ministries of education willing to adopt the policy of "one laptop per child."

The XO-1 is designed to be low-cost, small (the LCD screen is only 7.5"), durable, and require very little power to run (2 W of power during normal use, far less than the 10 to 45 W of conventional laptops). The signature bright green computer runs on a version of the Linux operating system that is intended to help young children collaborate. All software installed on the machine is open source and free of cost. The XO-1 (first version) includes a video camera, a microphone, long-range Wi-Fi, a style touch pad, and smaller keyboards designed for young fingers.

SimCity ScreenshotEach XO that is shipped will include a copy of the original SimCity (you can play online for free) -- the blockbuster 1989 game credited with giving rise to the genre of the city-building game and to a wholesale revival of interest in urban planning. The story of SimCity is well known: amid an ocean of early sports, adventure, and strategy games, it emerged as the preeminent "realistic" game, perhaps the only one to legitimately fulfill the promise that video games could be both fun and educational. Not long after its 1989 release, SimCity became a phenomenon, winning more than 24 domestic and international awards.

SimCity gave players the chance not only to manipulate bits of code or finally write that manuscript, but rather to give solidity to their dreams and a semblance, if only virtual, of control over and interest in the world around them. The game soon made its way into more than 10,000 classrooms as an educational tool and became part of the annual Future\City Competition, a contest that still runs in seventh and eighth grade classrooms today. This is the exciting prospect that the recipients of the XO now face.

The idea to connect SimCity with OLPC came from internet pioneer, activist and OLPC advisor, John Gilmore, who knew the game's history and recognized its relevance to the not-for-profit project. Gilmore convinced Electronic Arts to donate the game because he realized what planners already know: As much as we may enjoy pulverizing zombies and calling plays on 4th and inches, cities too are inherently fun. They're fun because they're complex, inscrutable, and, above all else, familiar.

OLPC will begin distributing laptops in countries such as Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Haiti, Cambodia and India by the end of 2007. Close to 10 million XO laptops will be shipped by the end of 2008. Some estimate that within five years over 250 million XO laptops will be in the hands of children across the globe. Certainly a computer in the hands of every child will not solve the world's ills, but they will likely be revelatory for those children lucky enough to receive them and to tap into their potential.

You may have shared my experience in encountering plenty of people who don't recognize the term "urban planner", let alone recognize it as a field of study or a possible profession. Doctors, firemen/women, teachers, lawyers, architects -- these are professions that we're introduced to early in life. But Urban Planners? I myself didn't even know about the field until I was midway through my undergraduate degree. What if I had been introduced to it when I was six?

Obviously not every child who receives an XO laptop will become a planner. But the exposure to SimCity has the potential to get a new generation thinking about the places where they live and introducing the mind-expanding concept that a person can design and build a city. Begin to imagine how the field of planning will evolve when 250 million children start noodling around with urban planning on a daily basis.
Chris Steins is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.



Mike Lydon's picture

Great Idea!

..But I certainly would hate to see yet another generation of Sim City players raised on the Single Use pods and districts Sim City's gameplay creates. It was not until I read Kunstler and Suburban Nation that I realized the problem with the game that first got me so fired up about planning.

This is a call for a mixed-use zone feature as well as important urban design features such as varying street widths and performance enhancements through TOD and the like!

Thanks for the post Chris.

- M i k e


That game fueled my interest in planning. I recall being frustrated by the game's limitations. It certainly made me more interested in my world.

Though I didn't understand that I could play SimCity in real life until midway through undergrad as well. There is a great disconnect between gaming and reality.

Andrew Bermond

Judy Chang's picture

"What if I had been introduced to it when I was six?"

Great question--it's something I'd never thought about for myself. Thanks for tuning me into this program; it sounds wonderful.

Oddly, however, one of my first reactions had to do with the original SimCity, and I was pleased that someone else had mentioned it.

Over the summer I began playing the original SimCity and tried mixing some residentials with commercials in a block, enclosed by rails (of course). It didn't develop, so I told myself that maybe when the residentials-only blocks developed into high-rises, there would be retail on the bottom. Good enough for me! Oh, and let's not forget Dr. Wright's crime warning that pops up when you've built too densely with not enough police stations, which is just not (always) true.

Kind of silly, and I don't doubt that many kids are more sophisticated thinkers than we sometimes want to believe they are, but I'm hoping that the game's inclusion works as a gateway into planning, despite my reservations that it may not due to its almost algorithm-like simplicity.

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