Regular readers of this blog will now doubtless be aware of this company’s view that the domain of video games is criminally under-utilised – not just for what it offers more generally to our shared broader culture, but in terms of the many brilliant ideas generated within the gaming framework which have clear potential for non-virtual adoption. And it is the Maxis classic Sim City 3000 (‘SC 3000’) – a title that continues to inspire devotion long after its original 1998 iteration – that we wish to presently draw your attention to.
Sim City 3000 is a remarkable piece of software for many reasons, but its Health, Education and Aura (‘HEA’) department – headed up by the inimitable Randall Shoop – is arguably the most brilliant innovation in the entire game; the key lies in the last letter of that acronym. As well as city data maps containing information on everything from schooling provision to traffic density, SC 3000 also has a chart detailing the presence (or otherwise) of ‘aura’, which is defined by the corresponding Electronic Arts game manual as ‘good feelings for the city [as a whole]’: areas of high aura are denoted by (deep) shades of blue, while low-aura neighbourhoods are coloured red; the angrier the shade, the uglier the vibe.
Focusing on something as seemingly touchy-feely and subjective in an era of big data may seem anachronistic. But as any urban dweller knows, different parts of the same city can vary enormously in how they make people feel; these reactions can be predicted with such consistency that they are more or less reflected in concrete indicators such as property prices.
Moreover, it is – at least in large part – no real secret what makes for high-aura areas: beautiful buildings, plentiful green space and easy access to cultural and recreational amenities will all go a long way towards giving residents, workers and tourists alike not just an added spring in their step, but an attachment to a location which goes beyond the merely functional. It would therefore be possible to build up a pretty accurate picture of existing zones of aural import, and then set about exporting replicable elements to the bywords for urban blight.
Municipal authorities around the world should be under no illusions: cities which prioritise the spread of good vibes are not indulging in a trendy fad; they are making their assets more internationally competitive and ensuring that the people who inhabit their urban areas actually want to stay there. Whether directly or indirectly, the time for the aura map to migrate from digital fiction to policy reality has come.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of our CSO’s curious relationship with modern sitcoms; having spent much of the 1990s and 2000s blagging away sketchily on the topic of Friends, he recently dipped his toes back into the waters of industrial laughter with a sampling of brutal NYC depression-com 2 Broke Girls.
But away from post-development America and Europe, the sitcom is still very much a reflection of dreams, and there are arguably none dreamier than iPartment (‘Love Apartment’), a series co-produced by the Shanghai Film Group Corporation and the Shanghai Film Studio and (perhaps predictably) set in China’s largest city by population. iPartment, which charts the adventures of ten (mostly) twentysomethings as they negotiate life in a brand-new apartment block that looks like something out of Sim City 3000. Chinese audiences have been rapt by the blossoming romance between Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate Lu Zhanbo (played by ‘Kingscar’ Jin Shi Jia) and billionaire banker scion Lin Wanyu (the charismatic Evonne Zhao); iPartment fans are presently looking forward to the fourth season since its 2009 launch.
In the West, iPartment has mostly made plagiarism-related headlines for some alleged shared characteristics with hit US sitcoms, with even a series spokesperson riffing on the fine line between copying and ‘homage’. But while it would be unrealistic to deny that there is more than a shot of Central Perk et al in iPartment’s characters, clothing and perhaps even entire scenes, the Jiangxi TV-pioneered show is much more interesting for what it tells us about modern China:
1. McProperty Bubble. The Shanghai apartment block where much of iPartment is set could be almost anywhere in today’s China – and therein lies the problem. Anonymous crash urbanisation has become the norm in the PRC, with Chinese property speculation a probably lead cause of a global recession coming to a country near you at some point in the late 2010s or 2020s.
2. Aspiration or Propaganda? On one level, iPartment reflects a dynamic and immensely confident country which is also drowning in consumerism; in this respect, the corporate sponsorship by Taiwanese computer companies and Italian spirits manufacturers is symbolic. But the sitcom also arguably functions as (indirect) cultural propaganda which has even less to do with the lives of most Chinese people than the equivalent American sitcoms accurately depicted their own populations.
3. Hybrid Westernisation? The iPartment environment is no hutong. But despite the overtly Western veneer, at least some of the content would appear unusual to contemporary audiences outside Asia. The gentle situational humour, strong sense of group solidarity and gradualist love dimension mean that iPartment will probably remain a predominantly local phenomenon.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of our CSO’s fascination with large, significant countries to which nobody seems to be paying much attention, and today he was reminded of yet another such state while going through his increasingly dense in-tray: Kazakhstan. With the most famous fictional Kazakh having long since been retired, the country is now arguably most famous overseas for two things: (i) possessing a national football team that despite Kazakhstan’s ostensibly Asian location plays in UEFA; and (ii) its notable role during the so-called ‘War of the Laws‘ that foreshadowed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet there are solid reasons, particularly for entrepreneurs, to familiarise themselves with one of the world’s most overlooked political entities:
1. Strategic Value. Kazakhstan is not so much a country as a continent. It is the size of Western Europe – a vast land mass that borders both Russia and China – and blessed with plentiful natural resources which are transforming Kazakhstan into an emerging market in its own right: its population of sixteen million people enjoy an average GDP per capita, estimated at nearly US$11,000.00 in 2011, around 1400% higher than the equivalent value for 1991.
2. Economic Prospects. With much of Europe and North America a growth-free zone for the foreseeable future, the contrast with Kazakhstan could not be more stark: this is a country in which nearly 2,500 kilometres of highway are being constructed to link China and Europe via a ‘New Silk Road’, and a spanking new capital at Astana which looks like something out of Sim City 3000, albeit with a Eurasian building set.
3. Investment in Education. The Kazakh government is investing hugely in education in at least two very tangible senses: firstly, through the development of Nazarbayev University, a 2009 establishment which has the stated goals of becoming a world-class research university and making its Astana base into the educational hub of Eurasia; and secondly, through sending thousands of the most promising young Kazakh students abroad for degree programmes on full Bolashak International Scholarships – for which the Kazakhstan government picks up the tab. In the long term, this is likely to have a profound effect on what has been an authoritarian polity.