Empaville at the Festival of Debate

What was it like to take part in the Empaville Participatory Budgeting role play game at the Festival of Debate in Sheffield? Deborah Timoni lets us know in her blog, reflecting on what happened at our interactive workshop in May 2024.

We played the Empaville game at the Festival of Debate

This concept simulates a city council, with one person role-playing the mayor and the rest of the participants acting as citizens from different towns within the council. Each group is provided with a hypothetical budget and is tasked with developing a feasible idea for tackling climate change, within this budget, that can benefit the entire city.

The Empaville Map, showing the three different communities that made up the city

Participants came from various cities including Manchester, Cardiff, and Southampton for this event. In total, there were 25 people in the room, representing a mix of different age ranges, with 22 actively participating in the game. There was one person role-playing the mayor, one note-taker, and one moderator.

We did not separate people into uptown, midtown, or downtown groups; instead, we aimed to develop ideas that could serve all three areas. There were three tables, each surrounded by about eight chairs, and each table was divided into two groups for discussion.

The game was led by Shared Future

Jez Hall, a director of Shared Future, was on hand, welcoming attendees, feeding in his experience of PB in different cities and directing them to the coffee. While Samuel Augustine, also from Shared Future, led the session, acting as the city mayor for the day and running the technical aspects of the Empaville website. We had 30 minutes to deliberate, followed by a few minutes to upload our ideas onto the platform. The platform closed for submissions after 10 minutes.

A notable aspect was that before deliberation, everyone was asked to scan a code on their character card to access the platform, making it easy to upload proposals. Each team was given two minutes to present their idea and then five minutes for the entire room to question it.

Participants present their project ideas before everyone voted for the best ideas.

What stood out for me

The highlight of the Empaville game was interacting with real citizens who expressed genuine concerns. For example, one person mentioned that their children didn’t have access to a park. Although we were role-playing, real-life issues surfaced during our conversations and discussions.

Another standout moment was when citizens questioned each team’s ideas. It was impressive to see their experiences and knowledge shine through as they evaluated the feasibility, practicality, and financial aspects of the proposals. Teams with similar ideas even collaborated, recognizing the potential synergy in their concepts.

Overall, this game was an enlightening experience. It is a participatory exercise that should be institutionalized as a solution to engage citizens in addressing community issues.

Blog by Deborah Timoni, a researcher at the University of Southampton, June 2024.

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Feature Image: Samuel presents the game as participants read their character cards.