The Shape of Society

A clever (and unintimidating) on-ramp for deep conversations with students (and adults for that matter) about bias, society, and the current state of social contracts —Parable of the Polygons.

Schelling’s model

Parable of the Polygons* is a segregation sim based on the 1971 paper, Dynamic Models of Segregation of American economist and Nobel Prize-winning game theorist, Thomas Schelling. Schelling created an agent-based model of segregation (clustering) that showed that even when individuals (aka agents) didn’t mind living nearby agents of a different race or economic background, over time they would choose to segregate themselves. Fast forward to 2021, fifty years later, researchers continue to be intrigued by Schelling’s model as they investigate the social forces that create and perpetuate the patterns of residential separation.

A system’s structure generates its behaviour.

The Schelling segregation model seeks to explain the emergence of clustering in communities. The end result of separation based on racial identities; or another dimensions of diversity, is inevitable even when clustering is not the desired outcome for those using the sim. But how is this possible? For decades social scientists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, data scientists and more have sought the answer. According to Clark and Fossett (2008) the Schelling model primarily served theoretical interest and was rarely cited until residential clustering in U.S. intensified in the 80’s and 90’s. The answer is beyond the scope of this post, however I encourage you to dig deeper as it is a fascinating history.

This dynamic modelling sim demonstrates how a small demand for diversity can desegregate a neighborhood. Bear in mind, like all scientific models it has its limitations e.g., Hayes, B. in American Scientist suggested that Schelling’s model as being only the genesis of segregation. This limitation works for me, because the beginning is a good entry point for educators to work with students as they surface and test their assumptions, to gain a greater understanding the big picture.

DEaling with Complexity

Questions to ask while playing the sim: What timeframe should be considered as I view the system? How do my past experiences influence the development of my theories and assumptions? How well does my theory match the system under study? How much time do I need to allow for consideration of this issue? How can I manage the tension that exists when issues are not resolved?

As with all equity-related work, you will need to put in the time to gain insights from the simulation. Set aside 30-45 minutes of uninterrupted time for students to surface and test their assumptions. Additional time will be needed to facilitate discussions with students. This can be accomplished as a follow-up session providing students time to reflect on the experience.

If you do decide to engage with the playable post, please circle back to share your thought and experiences.

Parable of the Polygons

Wait there’s more!

The sim is available in other languages: Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian and many more

Try the Sandbox Frame

Roll the Credits

*Developers of A Playable Post on the Shape of Society, Vi Hart and Nicki Case (2014) have designated Parable of the Polygons CC 1.0 Universal Public Domain. Learn what the means here.

Harvard University. 2014. Schelling’s Model of Segregation. Nifty Assignments. No tech required.

Harvard University. 2021. Project Implicit. How do we think about race/ethnicity? Take the online test.

Waters Center Systems Thinking. 2020. Thinking Tools Studio. Habits of a System Thinker.

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