MetroQuest: Sim City for the Real World

This summer, residents in Chicago and the surrounding region will be asked to plan for their own future, thanks to a collaboration between the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and a real-life version of SimCity, known as MetroQuest.

From the University of British Columbia Public Affairs:

How do you want your city to look in 100 years? A technology created at the University of British Columbia [based on models developed by the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES)] is giving communities around the globe a peek at how today’s decisions can rewrite tomorrow’s cities. Like a Web 2.0 crystal ball, the software dramatically illustrates the future impacts of city planning proposals, helping to steer stakeholders away from pitfalls such as urban sprawl, gridlock and decay.

Inspired by the game SimCity, which allows players to imagine different scenarios for fictional cities, the tool is called MetroQuest, a computer software that allows various stakeholders in the urban planning process to simulate the consequences of different policy choices 40 years into the future. For example, how will expanding mass transit affect commute times? If regional policies favor car drivers, how will that impact local air quality?

There are two different versions of MetroQuest: 1) the online edition, which displays maps and graphs of outputs resulting from different planning scenarios, and 2) the full-version software used in public meetings, where MetroQuest-trained staff facilitate a discussion and presentation of how the future of a particular region would look like based on real-time input from participants, who are asked to vote on certain urban planning policy choices.

Almost all of the data that feeds into the software (like census numbers, emissions levels, and transportation figures) is publicly available. The rest of the information is provided through interviews with city officials and other community members.

From the UBC press release:

Once a city is “digitized,” citizens can alter key aspects of their city, including population, housing, transportation, density and amenities. With a click of the mouse, participants can see the effects of their decisions decades into the future, both on a satellite-view map and in a graphical display.

MetroQuest was originally developed by a Vancouver-based technology company known as Envision Sustainability Tools (now called MetroQuest), co-founded by environmentalist and urban policy expert David Biggs. In an interview with Sierra Club magazine, he said, “People are used to making short-term choices — what kind of car should I drive? What kind of house do I want to live in next? But they’re not thinking, ‘If 6 million other people did this, what would be the cost to the things that I care about?'”

That type of consensus-building is at the heart of MetroQuest’s work. Though based on computer modeling and university research, which can seem far-removed from the everyday needs of regular citizens, the full version of the scenario development process actively engages the local community to understand the priorities of the city.

Take the example of the City of Lethbridge in Canada, which is seeking public feedback for its new municipal development plan, which hasn’t been revised since 1995:

One of the ways local residents can share their ideas is by attending one of four public workshops in late April. The interactive workshops, or visioning sessions, will use a unique system called Metroquest, which will allow attendees to see the effects of their ideas in real time: each participant will be given a handheld keypad they can use to respond to a series of questions, and the audience’s answers will be instantly tabulated and used to create a model of Lethbridge’s future development. The city model, along with accompanying taxation, policing and other figures, will be projected onto a screen at the front of the room.

“You’ll walk into a session here and have an idea of what you want, and when you see the results, you might change your mind,” said Ald. Jeff Carlson. “It’s an amazing tool, it gives people something to think about. Through the visioning sessions, I hope people can get some common theme, some common vision.”

Those who can’t attend the workshops will still be able to provide feedback. An online tool, available at, will allow residents to create and submit their own ideal future scenario and fill out a feedback sheet and survey that will reflect their ideas.

So far, MetroQuest has been used in more than 70 municipalities, from Beijing to Denver. Last September, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) contracted the company to help inform the regional plan, known as GO TO 2040,for northeastern Illinois, which anticipates an influx of 2.8 million residents over the next 30 years. (Check out GOTO2040’s blog here.)

Chicago will be the first U.S. city to use MetroQuest, which is expected to roll out to the public in early June, according to Bob Dean, regional planner for CMAP. The agency put out a request-for-proposals for scenario development planning tools, and MetroQuest came out on top.

“There was nothing else that worked like MetroQuest,” Dean says. “It’s easy and simple to use. Everything else looked like a GIS program. MetroQuest seemed to be as interactive as we wanted, and also intuitive.”

CMAP has already scheduled more than 20 public meetings, held almost every night Tuesday through Thursday this summer, to get feedback on the regional plan using MetroQuest. As a way to get more people involved, MetroQuest and CMAP will place “interactive kiosks” across Chicago, including Millennium Park and the Sears Tower, where passers-by can click through an abbreviated version of the software, which will ask two major questions related to land use and transportation. Once users submit their answer, a short video will play, revealing what the region would look like if planners followed their preferences.

The kiosks largely serve as a marketing “teaser” to get people to participate in public meetings or use MetroQuest online, Dean says. As a happy coincidence, the timing of the kiosk launch overlaps with Chicago’s 100th anniversary of the iconic Burnham Plan, commemorated in July.

MetroQuest is not without its limitations.

First of all, people who participate in the public workshops, use the online edition, or stop off at the kiosks represent only a tiny fraction of the sample population. “We can’t assume that the entire region has the same perspective as people who come to the meetings,” Dean says. “Their input must be weighed against our general knowledge, as well as what technical people want and what politicians want.”

Second, MetroQuest can only drill down so far. It covers broad issues like land use, transportation and environmental policy, revealing outputs like mode choice, commute times, greenhouse gas emissions and household costs. But that’s about all it can handle without getting bogged down.

“For anything to be simple, you can’t possibly have all the details of every policy that you want it to,” Dean says. “But that’s not a fault of the tool. You have to narrow it down to some broad policy choices, or else it would get so complicated that an average person might get turned off.”

Third, MetroQuest is open to the public in participating cities, but it’s not open source (as far as we know…leave comments below if you hear otherwise.) A few years ago, Jamais Cascio from WorldChanging says that this is a major disadvantage:

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….

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.

Watch a video about MetroQuest on YouTube:

There are a bunch of similar modeling tools out there, according to Laurence Aurbach on WorldChanging.

Here are a few examples:


CommunityViz is advanced yet easy-to-use GIS software designed to help people
visualize, analyze, and communicate about important community planning decisions.

INDEX software

INDEX is an integrated suite of interactive GIS planning support tools for:
· Assessing community conditions.
· Designing future scenarios in real-time.
· Measuring scenarios with performance indicators.
· Ranking scenarios by goal achievement.
· Monitoring implementation of adopted plans.


PLACE3S, an acronym for PLAnning for Community Energy, Economic and Environmental Sustainability, is an innovative planning method that fully integrates focused public participation, community development and design, and computer-assisted quantification tools (GIS) to help communities produce plans that retain dollars in the local economy, save energy, attract jobs and development, reduce pollution and traffic congestion and conserve open space.


The suite of tools that are available to create visual representation of growth or development alternatives have revolutionized decision-making. They allow citizens to “see” what various scenarios will look like and help decision-makers and stakeholders to identify and understand impacts on their communities.

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