Gaming the System: a rude card game’s lessons for cities

How a party game for horrible people inspired a fresh look at creating great cities.

Back in 2014, my colleague Sarah Lewis and I were having a really shitty summer (a tech start-up going nowhere, jobs, kid going to college, ….). Halfway through a beer, I remember saying “Let’s do something fun.” We had a long-simmering idea of doing a Cards Against Humanity (CAH) for cities, an idea that arose during a late night of drinking during an urban planning conference.

With permission from CAH, we created Cards Against Urbanity, hit our funding goals, shipped product to 800 backers and thought that was that. Then something funny happened.

We learned people around the world are using Cards Against Urbanity to teach city planning. Our Twitter feed erupted with game night photos on trains, on boats, during conferences, staff training in architecture firms, and in public meetings. People asked us to hold game nights, and we found ourselves not only explaining why a card was funny, but the underlying lesson of city-building behind the joke.

Game nights — mostly in bars. With Millennials.

I remember one particular “AHA” moment. This guy was flipping through the cards and assembling a special deck. He held up a set of 10 or so cards and said “this is my town right now.”

The Lightbulb

If one can put together a set of cards that describe a city’s dysfunction, is the opposite also true? Can we tell a better story about functional places with deliberate combinations of placemaking cards?

Imagine a deck of dysfunction

So we went back to our backers with a lot of questions about their work in architecture and city design — in particular asking (1) what their biggest pain points are and (2) what was the magic in a rude card game for teaching planning (beyond the joy of professional profanity). Here are some of the things they said:

  • We need to expand beyond the regular voices that dominate public input on decisions;
  • We need to bust the silos that dominate city building — streets over here, land uses over there, economic development somewhere else;
  • Cards (and games) break through the dynamic of the typical lecture + Powerpoint + “Trust me I am the professional;” and
  • We love cards

This led to an epiphany on the power of cards as a medium. To start, we basically dissembled the Urban Planning textbook Table of Contents. What happens when ideas are presented on cards laid out on a table rather than bound in a book?

  • Scanning- Users can scan through a lot of information quickly and grab the ideas they want to explore (a lot like how Pinterest works)
  • Conversation starters — cards are little bursts of information in an accessible, physical format. People love having something to hold onto, especially when it is a solution.
  • Pacing — Creative firms like IDEO use method cards to describe technical aspects of web design to clients. A method card is like a little idea snack to get you started on unfamiliar terms. Some people will be satisfied with the snack, but others will want to take a deeper dive (more on this below).
  • Sorting and Organizing — this is the real power of cards for city design and busting silos. Great places are not “one card at a time,” but combinations of uses, mobility, infrastructure, public arts, redevelopment, and a lot of supporting policy. Some combinations work better than others depending on location, city size, fiscal health, and innovation readiness. Cards let you mess around with different “decks.”
  • Updates — Books take a lot of time and money to republish. Cards let you ship expansion packs.

To quote Billy Mays — “But that’s not all!”

Imagine each city design method card fed into an app. The digital format adds even more power — and more room for expanded images and information (beyond the card snack to the app appetizer).

Beyond the appetizer is a website — and that’s where the tech startup-going-nowhere comes in. The parent site is GreaterPlaces, a resource intended to assemble all aspects of cities and towns under one digital roof. We’ve gotten great feedback on the idea. In fact, we were recently named a Top 10 website by the urban planning authority Planetizen.

But the world doesn’t need a new best practices site or toolkit. It needs something entirely new in a fast-changing world where open, participatory government is a growing movement. Where the economic foundations are shifting. Where technology is reshaping transportation in ways that are scary and promising. Where the impacts of climate change is the planet’s own version of eminent domain.

We have put together a deliberate series of tools to meet everyone where they are on the learning curve and guide them using print, tech, mobile, web — and humor. We want a platform to connect people seeking ideas and inspiration with civic innovators worldwide who are doing the work.

What if you had a deck for density solutions — on an iPad app?

In addition to solving our backers’ problems, startup conventional wisdom is you need to solve a big pain point of your own. As a small business, we know firsthand the challenges of marketing for planning and architecture services in a world of $5000 print/digital packages. And that’s per month. So we are also testing a new kind of marketplace.

Places are really cards across many “decks” — not within silos.

That’s our story so far. We hope our story from here includes you (please back our product and share with the city design mavens in your life).

Cards Against Humanity is best known for its lack of political correctness, but they also back important causes like STEM education and land preservation. That list now includes great city design.

Call to Action

  1. We need 900 backers for the City Design Method Cards Kickstarter (almost same as Cards Against Urbanity). Back us now and spread the word widely so we can get to work.
  2. Yes we have decks of CAU left — message me to order one of the last remaining sets.