Navigating Uncertainty ARS

Why: Deciding how we decide in context of uncertainty

Mainstream policy practice characterized by stability, linear and siloed planning, predominantly quantitative analysis, the over reliance on quick fixes and single point solutions is mismatched with the emerging reality that is characterized by the scale and speed of changes that the world hasn’t faced before.  The Global Uncertainty Index has reached unprecedented highs in 2020, and increasingly we hear from decision makers that they have to take 100% responsibility for decisions based on 50% of information.  This calls for a new set of policy capabilities that acknowledge uncertainty as a feature, not as a bug and that rethinks the very approaches to how we make decisions in contexts of radical uncertainty.  The intent behind the UNDP-ASU collaboration on the ARS is to prototype a complementary model that can support decision making in contexts of extreme uncertainty.


The Synthesis@ASU and United Nations Development Program’s Strategic Innovation Unit have prototyped a complex-systems alternate reality role-playing simulation (ARS / RPG) — named Navigating Uncertainty and Crisis — premiered as part of the Istanbul Innovation Days 2021. This simulation is designed for UNDP staff and individuals from the public sector, NGO’s, nonprofits, and corporations with a stake in addressing wicked problems underlying the Sustainable Development Goals.   These simulations are played via the internet and in parallel in cities around the world.  The pilot cities for this alpha version include Hanoi, Bangkok, Mexico City, Harare, Beirut, Yerevan, Khartoum. The participants will play their own values and interests in a fictive setting, adopting alternate roles in the fictitious scenario as for example a working mother, a deputy mayor, a leader of an energy company, a member of the press.  During a structured period, participants work as a group of decision-makers to manage and govern their city through the fictive days or months of chronic and surprise challenges.  The objective is to practice working as a group to keep their city going in an as resilient and anticipatory way as they can.

ARG/RPG’s & Anticipatory Governance: deciding how we decide in context of radical uncertainty

The point of the simulation is not to “solve” SDG problems but to experientially meet and collectively enact dealing with complex uncertain worlds using abductive heuristics such as reframing, abductive sense-making, decision-making under uncertainty, anticipatory governance, holding intentions lightly, open-systems thinking, non-modular ecosystems design thinking, adaptive design / designing for change, navigating versus managing crises.  The simulations can prototype the experience of assessing situations and making decisions where there is no script or precedent to follow, and where data and statistics are an insufficient guide to orient oneself in the situation and make ‘informed’ decisions.  The simulation is an effort to exercise a muscle of collectively imagining and ‘living’ alternative worlds, and see implications for society’s (cities’, communities’, countries’) well-being and development, institutional / socio-economic ecosystems, and overall level of preparedness and resilience.

The How

The simulation’s Facilitator (backed by the Synthesis-UNDP team) introduces the events as they unfold in two acts over a 2.5-hour period: (1) organizing the city under chronic conditions, (2) responding to a series of surprise challenges. (See trailer above.)

Under the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic, Synthesis@ASU produced the alpha version of this simulation as a telematic board game played over the network in four continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America.  Considering the varied development contexts in cities around the world and catering to the widest access, players access the alpha version via a web browser.  In spite of the low-tech context for this particular scenario, the simulation is designed to be performatively and experientially effective as conversation, carefully structured to present opportunities for the players to work together using abductive heuristics.

Challenges include indeterminacy of open-ended systems, inextricable entangling of complex biosocial systems and infrastructures, long-duration “emergencies” (e.g. rare events like fire or flood or pandemics becoming perennial conditions), dominance of political / affective interests over planning.  Different city teams may cross-communicate, but under the conditions of the fictive crises and the limits of time zones.

The platform architecture logically can support multiple perspectives, from board games to multimodal presentations of a shared world.  We customize these formats to the technical and personal capabilities of the participants.  But in general they can include: god’s eye views (e.g. diagrams, charts, models), remote first-person points-of-view, life-size video portals, streaming spatial-audio + spatial video (locative media), group-views via shared boundary objects and landscapes.


The intent behind the simulation is to prototype ways to work together that can support decision making in contexts of extreme uncertainty.  Embracing this (among many others) approaches to maintain agility and preparedness in context of both crises and long term climate or infrastructure change may enable practicing alternative institutional structures, and social or inter-organizational relations or tactics that bolster resilience and reduce brittleness in the face of risks.  Following the simulation play-out in 6 cities, the IID will feature a debrief session where we plan to cover some of the implications of this model for decision making.


To inform the design we will ask UNDP and stakeholders to provide local knowledge about key roles, institutions, organizations, companies, social sectors that are most worth varying in the what-if scenarios.   

The point of the Navigating Uncertainty Simulation is not to model the city but to provide players a chance to run the city under alternative, what-if conditions that are different from what is the case, but nonetheless imaginable and uses locally plausible socio-cultural / financial  / infrastructural ingredients.   In this what-if experience, participants will experientially prototype different ways of organizing, relating, acting in light of insights and abductive approaches distilled from systems thinking, climate change and sustainability, and most importantly complexity and indeterminacy.

UNDP Ciudad de México: Introducción de la simulación de realidad alternativa


Alpha Pilot March 2021

Magenta links are public.
Harare (scenario, reflection)
Hanoi (scenario, reflection)
Bangkok (scenario, reflection)
Yerevan (scenario, reflection)
Ciudad de México (introduccion, scenario, reflection)
Beirut (scenario, reflection)

Reflections after Navigating Uncertainty simulation. (Validation @ 5:17 )

Istanbul Innovation Days Session: Experiential Simulations of Uncertainty and Crisis
Facilitator Dmitry Mariyasin (UNECE, UNDP), Sha Xin Wei (ASU), Sander van der Leeuw (ASU), Ida Uusikyla (UNDP Hanoi), 24 March 2021.

UNDP IID Session: Experiential Simulations of Uncertainty and Complexity



Synthesis Team
Lead: Sha Xin Wei
Design: Sha Xin Wei, Vangelis Lympouridis, Wasef El-Khourif
Alpha Implementation: Vangelis Lympouridis, Edwin Sookiassian + team

Milica Begovic, Enisa Serhati, Gaia Bellavista

Thanks to the extraordinary UNDP teams in the country offices of Beirut, Yerevan, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Thailand, and Mexico.


Milica Begovic (UNDP Innovation), “Complexity & deciding how to decide: how can we better prepare for a world of ‘one-offs’?, Medium, 5 July 2022.

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