A Game Changing Approach to Help African Cities Better Manage Their Natural Assets

While cities in sub-Saharan Africa are striving to protect and revitalize urban natural assets, such as river systems and coastal zones, capacity and resource constraints tend to hamper innovation and proactive planning. When implementing solutions to overcome the array of challenges that local governments face in managing their natural resources, a focus on human resources is important.

Jessica Kavonic, a climate change and urban biodiversity officer with ICLEI Africa, who helps city and national government officials collaborate and find ways to better manage various sustainability initiatives, says that through learning from the ongoing work being implemented in Africa, they came to the realization that traditional workshops and PowerPoint presentations simply weren’t yielding as much change as they were hoping.

“We started to look for ways to move away from normal workshops and came up with the idea of using games as a way to present management concepts to people in a way that would make it more interesting… and in doing so, help to break down barriers between the various officials working on sustainability,” Kavonic recalls.

While the idea of getting senior public officials such as city mayors to engage in games and role playing to help them better connect and problem solve may seem unlikely, there’s a growing body of evidence that traditional classroom settings and formal presentations just aren’t effective. Reinforcing this observation, an article in Science Magazine a few years back entitled “Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective”, cites a study that formal lectures or presentations are 1.5 times more likely to fail than the use of more stimulating active learning methods.

ICLEI Africa’s innovative response to this ‘classroom’ challenge, has been to adapt and design fun, innovative games tied to capacity building with the end goal of improving good governance, knowledge and skills acquisition and management processes.

One of the most engaging games ICLEI Africa has introduced is Spilling the Beans, “a game exploring resilience in the real world.” After an initial discussion tied to what it takes to be a good climate leader, the game’s facilitator produces a bowl of beans that represents the local water supply. Each participating official or ‘player’, is then told they represent a particular local group and is provided with a cup marked with a line that represents the total amount of water each user needs to perform their daily functions. Within each brief, 45 second round, the players must then ‘negotiate’ how the water resources should be allocated. Players are also encouraged to make changes or adjustments, based on what they learned in previous rounds.

Kavonic says this particular game not only helps people to better appreciate the concepts of resilience and adaptation “but also how people can work together to manage their natural assets. It’s about making sure that everyone has enough water to deliver their services with each having a different role… whether national governments, or city officials or community members.”

Over the course of playing one game, Kavonic says “the players who represented the national government level actually started delegating in the game… and played to their role. And then some people started talking about why national government is doing that… so we had a whole conversation on mandates.”

This in turn led to a discussion on the role of national government on paper versus actual practice. “It was a complete spin-off of the game that wasn’t intended,” Kavonic recalls “but then people started to understand what the national government’s role in natural asset management was in building resilience.”

Kavonic says that over the course of playing the game dozens of times, the facilitators learned to introduce different correlations between the allocation of the beans, and specific themes tied to sustainability. “In the beginning, when they first introduced the game, it was just about resilience and what does resilience mean. But then we said let’s talk about natural asset management as well as resilience. So the approach of the game is the same, but the focus varies depending on the objective of a particular workshop.”

Another game adapted by ICLEI Africa is called ‘Coordination is a Maze’. The game uses a fabric ‘maze’ that players hold with the maze lines drawn out in black. A group of balls is then placed on this maze and players must find a way to move the balls without handling them directly, while doing their best to ensure the balls don’t touch the black lines. The black lines of the maze represent a project lifeline and each type of ball is tied to a particular element within a sustainability initiative. The larger ball represents funding, three small balls signify program activities and other unusually shaped balls stand for program partnerships.

Having introduced these and other games over the course of several months and numerous workshops, Kavonic says “you see relationships being built so much more than in just normal workshop settings.” And while participants are still tackling real life challenging issues through these games “they’re using humor, because (as in the case of the Spilling the Beans game), they’re using beans in a fun, interactive way. But at the same time they’re actually addressing some tension areas that arise in everyday life.”

Kavonic’s observations are confirmed by some of the participants who have taken part in these games. Annah Takaendesa with Zimbabwe’s Ministry for Local Government, Public Works and National Housing says when she first participated in the games “it was about winning. But as we continued playing, we developed new skills like adapting to each other’s needs.” Takaendesa says it made her realize “we can’t talk about collaboration if we forget the needs of our citizens because we are in it together.”

Heidi Braun, program officer for the Climate Change program at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) participated in one of the “games” sessions and described it as “a brilliant session that got us engaged and sparked important insights about why and how we can better work together to increase urban resilience… as well as to talk about possible failures in order to succeed.”

In terms of the types or mix of groups that have benefited the most from ICLEI Africa’s interactive games thus far, Kavonic says it has been the sessions when they have hosted participants from varying backgrounds and levels of seniority.  When there is a mix of city officials alongside peers from the national level and representatives from a multiplicity of departments ranging from the environment to finance to communications, she says they’ve found having such disparate groups “can be really successful because people bring different context with them to a game. And then they start to learn from other people’s perspectives.”