Community Development | A trip to Alabama to play Newtonia
May the odds ever be in your favor.
Newtonia sounds like the name of a town in a Jane Austen novel, but for the 15 community developers from the Southeast it was an opportunity to design a town, but with a little twist. Newtonia was the live simulation game we played while taking the first course in community development with the University of Alabama. To help you better understand the difficulties of applying CD principles to actual problems, we were divided into teams that had certain agendas or issues to deal with when it came to developing our little town. You are given about 10 minutes to read a 15 page notebook on how the game works. There are too many rules to know, understand, and memorize. You quickly find out that no one knows what they are doing, oh, and each team has a secret letter that explains what team they don’t like.
I was paired up with another Jennifer, there were three of us, and we were the Green North team. We were the environmentally conscious team that hated industry and over population. I grew up watching Survivor and so my partner and I strategized that we would try to create an alliance with the White North team, but they didn’t trust us; neither did District 3, I mean Yellow or Red North. The game is designed so that everyone’s worst comes out. You get competitive quickly and assume that an alliance really means manipulation. The fun really began when we had to elect a mayor and city council members. Each round you bid on land, pay your taxes, build on your land, and then annoy the Mayor and City Council with your proposals which are always in your favor for monetary incentives. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, you have no idea how a team actually wins the game, so everyone is just fending for themselves in hopes they are doing the right thing.
Over the course of the week, while learning from Industry leaders and Academic gurus for 8 hours a day, we played Newtonia. After class each night we would go out for dinner and we would talk about Newtonia. We would come in early for breakfast, exhausted from the day before, and talk/argue about Newtonia. As the week progressed, trust fell, tension rose, and southern accents grew stronger. We went from Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama to Colonel Sanders selling deep, southern fried chicken.
Why was it so hard to work together to create a flourishing city? Why couldn’t we practically apply to principles of community development when we were building a community?
Well, the game is designed in a way to enhance pressure and doubt. My favorite moment was when our facilitator, Courtney, shared stories of fights breaking out and a class walk out. When I say this game is intense, I mean it is very I N T E N S E! Mind you, we all do this for a living and it was still a struggle. I am pleased to say that no one was punched, but we did end up judging the money grubbing investor type that “played” the part oh too well. It was fun/frustrating and it helped me cultivate compassion and empathy for my own local government.
At the end of our 3 year course we will have to take a test to complete our certification. Our instructors informed us that most people who fail the test do so because they fail to step back and see what’s best for the city. They explained that most people try to think how they will solve problems instead of developing strategies where the community solves community problems. Instead of looking more like a community, sadly, most towns end up looking like Lord of the Flies. It turns out that “winning” isn’t the same as doing the best thing. Each team was trying to win and in the midst of that we forgot to design a city so that the community wins.
So, how would you build and design a city? How do you work with the lady that is sooooo consumed with saving an old building that is a safety hazard to anyone who enters it? How does local government work with it’s citizens to develop not just a city, but a community?
By the way, if you look at the board, you can quickly see that Green North didn’t win.