Prototyping Resilience: Using Games to Engage Communities in Disaster Response

Thomas Maiorana, University of California, Davis USA

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Read the working paper ⇒  

As climate-related disasters become more common, the need for communities to safely evacuate will increase. (1) While no evacuation event is simple, escape from wildfires has proven to be particularly vexing for emergency personnel and community members. The speed, complexity, and scale of wildfire evacuations make it very difficult to explore these types of events in an iterative and low-risk way. The result is that policymakers are rarely able to test their policies and future evacuees do not have opportunities to experience how they might respond, communicate, and make decisions until they are in the midst of a life-threatening situation.

The paper illustrates how a team of designers, civil engineers, and policy experts used low-resolution prototypes to support policy leaders and community members in a California town at severe risk of wildfires. The project demonstrates the ways that it is possible to create low-resolution prototypes as a way to translate the complexity and abstraction of systemic challenges into visceral, embodied experiences that make it possible to explore systemic challenges in a low-risk, iterative way. In doing so, we enhance learning for policymakers, community members, and outside research teams.

The team engaged with the community’s Fire Board, first responders and community members through analog board games that were designed to surface community knowledge, local context and potential threats. The team used an expanded definition of prototyping that makes the practice far more effective for systemic level challenges and the board game demonstrates the ways this new approach can open up community-based approaches to systemic interventions. (2)

This case study illustrates the ways the prototype translated the complexity of a wildfire evacuation into game mechanics which generated rapid exploration of a wildfire evacuation. In doing so, it acted as a sort of dialogical tool, which enhanced knowledge and activity for community members, researchers, and policymakers. (3)

This is an ongoing project and the final presentation and case study will reflect the full range of outcomes and insights that will be sure to come in the following months.

1. See Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and


3. DiSalvo, Carl. “Critical Making as Materializing the Politics of Design.” The Information Society 30, no. 2 (March 2014): 102.

Additional References

Body, John, and Nina Terrey. Design for a Better Future: A Guide to Designing in Complex Systems. Kindle Edition. New York: Routledge, 2019, xi.

Buchanan, Richard. “Surroundings and Environments in Fourth Order Design.” Design Issues 35, no. 1 (January 2019): 19.

Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues 8, no. 2 (1992): 5.

Gengnagel, Christoph, Emilia Nagy, and Rainer Stark. Rethink! Prototyping: Transdisciplinary Concepts of Prototyping. Cham Heidelberg New York Dordrecht London: Springer, 2016.

Kurtz, C F, and D J Snowden. “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World.” IBM SYSTEMS JOURNAL 42, no. 3 (2003): 466-467, 469

Levin, Kelly, Benjamin Cashore, Steven Bernstein, and Graeme Auld. “Overcoming the Tragedy of Super Wicked Problems: Constraining Our Future Selves to Ameliorate Global Climate Change.” Policy Sciences 45, no. 2 (June 2012): 123–52.

Manzini, Ezio. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Translated by Rachel Coad. Design Thinking, Design Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2015, ix.

Manzini, Ezio. Politics of the Everyday. Translated by Rachel Anne Coad. Kindle Edition. New York: Bloomsbury, 2019, Chapter 1, Section: Fluidity

Martin, Roger L. “Strategy Is Iterative Prototyping.” Harvard Business Review, June 6, 2014, 4.

McElroy, Kathryn. Prototyping for Designers: Developing the Best Digital and Physical Products. First edition. Beijing Boston Farnham: O’Reilly, 2017.

Meadows, Donella. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008, 12

Ricigliano, Robert. Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding. Boulder: Paradigm Publishing, 2012, 23, 65-68

Rittel, Horst W J, and Melvin Webber. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 8-9.

Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Rev. ed. New York, N.Y. London: Crown Business, 2006, 243.

Posted: Oct-2020

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