Ekos: A game to explore the complexity of urban systems

By Zef Egan, Claudia Tomateo and Chris Kennedy

Urban Systems Lab
Resilience Quarterly


Ekos, is the name of an imaginary city set in the not too distant future, yet eerily reminiscent of urban areas many of us know all too well. It is the setting for a new board game developed by the Urban Systems Lab (USL), exploring the complexity of urban systems, asking players to alternate between building Social, Ecological, and Technological Systems (SETS), and responding to extreme events, ranging from floods and heat waves, to development of urban forests or green infrastructure. Your mission? Use resources wisely, collaborate with the other community members, balance the needs of the city with your personal vision, and improve the adaptive capacity of your systems.

An Inside Look: Playing the Game of Ekos

In the late autumn of 2021, USL members Claudia Tomateo, Jiray Avedisian, Ryann Abunuwara and Zef Egan gathered around a table in the Lab to play Ekos. Before playing, Zef and Jiray had only met each other on zoom. Claudia and Ryann had spent months during the pandemic designing the board game.

Ryann unfolded the board at which we marveled. Would the hexagons on the game board become the sturdy schist bedrock below Manhattan or the shifty Mississippi River silt below New Orleans where even the tombs must be built above ground?

Pretty soon we too were transformed, Claudia into the Ecologist, Jiray into the Community Organizer, Ryann into the City Council Speak, and Zef into the City Planner. We shared a passion for the city. We all wanted our city to be prosperous and resilient. And we knew that as hazards mounted the best way to accomplish our agendas while serving the people (and wildlife) of Ekos was through collaboration. Our priorities, however, differed.

Claudia studied and advocated for the ecology of Ekos. Her passion was for conserving and creating healthy ecological systems. Wherever possible Claudia wanted to integrate ecological systems into the urban fabric of the Ekos so that they may help multispecies communities thrive.

Jiray, the Community Organizer, was all about mobilizing the people around mutual aid, and direct action. Jiray knew that for Ekos to bounce back from disaster, social systems were a must. And without organized people power special interests and technocrats often tried to solve problems by displacing people or exposing certain communities to pollutants for the benefit of others. Jiray wanted to create social systems everywhere, parks, factories, offices, colleges, you name it.

Ryann was a City Council Speaker with a love of collaboration. Fluent in the parlance of civil engineers, community activists, and urban ecologists, Ryann quickly began collaborating to create systems, both technical and social. At the beginning of the game, Ryann was at the forefront, bringing a diversity of parties to the table, and filling the board with systems.

Zef, the City Planner, was more single-minded. There were technological systems that had to be built. His nightmares were full of delayed trains and dilapidated sewage treatment plants. Zef began the game by constructing technical systems in enclaves and on the periphery of the Ekos. Eventually, however, the City Council Speaker, Community Organizer and Ecologists began developing systems in the campuses and transit hubs Zef planned. For most of the game, Zef, wary of collaboration, was not particularly influential.

As Ekos grew and adapted to challenges, our lives and careers became more entangled. During the course of the game, every community member collaborated to build systems. Ryann and Jiray made a big impact quickly. The community organizer and council speaker were driven to build systems to respond to crises and opportunities, often creating systems that were outside of their core mission, but served the citizens of the rapidly urbanizing Ekos.

Claudia established pocket prairies in the urban core, fields of native grasses where people could congregate along with the birds and the bees. She also consulted with local tribal communities to grow coastal gardens according to traditional lifeways. The gardens provided storm buffers from rising seas in a warming world. When a wastewater system failed damaging systems in the large parks, these micro green spaces were especially valuable. The social and ecological systems that Claudia instituted allowed her to institute a Heat Relief Program.

When rolling brownouts devastated the city of Ekos, Ryann partnered with Jiray to construct technological systems to restore power. Jiray used his prowess as a community organizer to create solar microgrid cooperatives in the urban core. Whereas Ryann and Jiray served the Ekos well by constructing the technological systems, ultimately the infrastructure benefited the city planner who prioritized technological systems above all else. Zef co-opted much of the energy and infrastructure to push forward a coastal tramway that mostly served tourists.

Ekos grew in scope and complexity. Entangled systems covered the board. There was less open space and the community members adapted by intersecting systems. The citizens of Ekos met the challenges of a warming world through continual adaptation.

Responding to the “Congestion Pricing” event card, Jiray collaborated with Ryann to build a website to map participation in bike lanes and suggest routes, and added ferry lines from Ekos Heights to Ekopolis. By the time a destructive fire came to Ekos, Jiray and Claudia had already pushed forward adaptations like green roofs and community land trusts with robust emergency planning. This made the systems they helped create more resilient.

In the end, however, the person least responsible for the early adaptations, became the most renowned for engineering a sustainable city. Zef, the Urban Planner, won by completing his mission before the other players. Zef constructed almost exclusively technological systems, and in this one iteration of the game that served him well.

That was not the whole story though. Claudia, the Ecologist, also accomplished her mission by responding to the same crises that secured victory for Zef. Actually Claudia had advanced further than the Urban Planner, having created five ecological systems and many more technological and social systems. It was, however, not her turn. The full impact of her work, and the work of Ryann and Jiray, would only be appreciated years later.

Ryann, Zef, Jiray and Claudia play Ekos

You too can play Ekos: The Path to Resilience. To learn more and to purchase a copy, you can visit http://urbansystemslab.com/ekos

Ekos: The Path to Resilience was developed by the Urban Systems Lab. The goal of Ekos is to create a playful platform to discuss and learn about issues of urban resilience, climate governance and community-based codesign. Through game play and conversation, Ekos provides a unique forum for individuals and communities to better understand the complexity of city planning and decision making in a time of climate crisis. The event cards featured in the game draw from real-world occurrences and extreme events experienced by frontline communities and urban dwellers around the world. Similarly, the adaptations and social-ecological-technological systems (SETS) conceptual framework used to address these events and challenges are increasingly approaches used by decision makers in cities globally. We hope that Ekos will offer a starting point for continued conversation and discussion on how urban resilience can be used as a lens to inform the future of cities, especially in ways that benefit those most at risk.

Game concept developed by Ryann Abunuwara, Claudia Tomateo and Chris Kennedy. Graphic design by Claudia Tomateo. Content for the game informed by the Urban Resilience to Extreme-related Weather Events Sustainability Research Network (URExSRN) and the Converging Social, Ecological, and Technological Infrastructure Systems (SETS) for Urban Resilience project with support provided by the National Science Foundation (Grants №1934933 and 1444755).

Zef Egan is a teacher and writer, and the managing editor of Resilience Quarterly. @EganZef

Claudia Tomateo is a Research Fellow in the Urban Systems Lab. She is an architect, urban designer and researcher with a focus in the intersection between cartography, urban narratives and strategic design.

Christopher Kennedy is the Assistant Director at the Urban Systems Lab and a Lecturer in the Parsons School of Design. His work focuses on understanding the socio-ecological benefits of spontaneous urban plant communities in NYC, and the role of civic engagement in developing new approaches to environmental stewardship and nature-based resilience. @chrisleekennedy