I Tried to Build a New Capital in SimCity. It Didn't Turn Out Well

No one said it was going to be easy.

Jakarta still has moving on its mind. The capital's elected officials are dreaming of greener pastures and an entirely new capital somewhere in the country's vast middle. The city's residents, all 10 million of us, are fantasizing about streets with less traffic—and less traffic jams caused by politicians' motorcades.

President Joko Widodo wants to move the capital to somewhere new. He hasn't named a city yet, but all the murmurs in the press keep pointing to Palangkaraya, the provincial capital of Central Kalimantan out on the Indonesian half of Borneo.

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Why? Well it's in the middle of the country, but there's also more space. A lot more. Palangkaraya is five times larger than Jakarta (the city itself, not the metro area). But what would our future capital actually look like? And what's it take to build an ideal capital?

I turned to the only place one can answer questions like these: SimCity. The city-building game is the perfect place to test out the advice of urban planners and an abundance of cheats allow you to see how the capital would grow under ideal conditions.

But before hit start on a new city, I needed to figure out what the hell I was going to do. That's where city data analyst Ramda Yanurzha comes in. I explained my project and asked him, what makes a city a capital?

Turns out it needs only one thing: an order by the government declaring it the capital. OK. OK. But what else? Connectivity is important, Ramda told me. But the realities of what it means to be a capital city mean that just existing is sometimes enough. Capitals tend to develop their own kind of gravity. Economic activity quickly builds up around the center of government as manufacturing and white collar jobs move in.

In no time at all the city's output is responsible for an outsized percentage of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And that's usually enough to make people stick around. That's why we all live in Jakarta, a city that can't even provide its citizens with even basic needs like a public sewer system or clean drinking water.

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I know. I know. It's easy to complain right? It's not like I can do any better. Or can I?

I go into SimCity 4's God Mode and make the first version of "the capital" Palangkaraya. This first one is going to be made without cheats, and it will show Palangkaraya as it is today, only with an added government complex. This will (hopefully) allow for the city's natural growth.

I try to make the city look as realistic as possible. I sculpt the landscape so the city is divided in two by a river and the terrain is mostly flat. When I feel satisfied I switch out of God Mode and start building stuff. I'm now the mayor of Palangkaraya and it feels good.

I start with the roads, but I keep messing it up and wasting a lot of "Simoleons" in the process. I push through and eventually the road network looks good enough to start building.

It doesn't take long for me to get a notification from the game's city advisor that I need to cut down on my spending. But to hell with her, she's not the boss of me. I soldier on, dwindling budget or not, and start to build the government complex at the center of the city, just like Ramda advised I do. I then spread the residential and commercial areas around since planned residential complexes aren't really all that common in Palangkaraya.

Things are looking up as the civic and commercial buildings near completion. All the progress bars measuring my success (or failure) turn green, but the city is still hemorrhaging money. It's impossible to make enough money to recoup the losses.

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And that's not even mentioning all the stuff the city's still missing. Today's Palangkaraya doesn't have a city-wide public sanitation system—and my SimCity Palangkaraya isn't dense enough to support one either. There is no public transportation, not taxis, and very few angkot around. It's much easier to get around on a motorbike in a car, so I built a lot of streets and roads, but no bus or train stations.

Ramda tells me that today's real-life Palangkaraya is overbuilt. The main economic hub is Indomaret, but the roads are built to handle the traffic of a million malls. There's no "convenience store" in the menu options, so I zone some commercial areas and hope the game gods will grant me one.

It doesn't take long before I get this notification:

Awkward. Does that mean I need to demolish my new Trans-Kalimantan Highway? Nah. After all, this isn't the only instance of government waste in Indonesia, right? I pretend that everything is fine and continue my duties as mayor: destroying the environment to build even more buildings.

But then reality hits me again, and this time, I give up. I'm out of money. My huge city is overbuilt, just like the real Palangkaraya, but mine doesn't have anyone in it. When I quit there are barely 100 people living in the new capital. I don't need this kind of stress in my life.

I close the first city down and get started on a second one. In this version, I'm using a cheat code that gives me infinite money. This should be easy, I think. Then a coal power plant catches fire almost immediately after its built.

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Thankfully my well-funded city has firefighters. I then start on the industrial zones out on the edge of the city so they aren't too close to the commercial and residential zones. Learning from my mistakes, I add the buildings first, then connect them with roads, streets, and highways.

Following Ramda's advice, I build the residential areas near the commercial areas, then improvise by adding in some green spaces like parks and community centers in the corners. There's even a tiny skate park in my new city, right near the high school.

I put the international airport down near the southern edge of the city, rather than in the east like it is now. My new Palangkaraya is growing so rapidly that the citizens are suddenly clamoring for a house of worship. What have I done? Did I just invent religion?

As the city grows, the demands for city services increases. But that's not a problem when you have unlimited money. I built a large landfill and some recycling centers to keep up with al the garbage.

It's shaping up to be a successful city. The population keeps growing, the citizens seem happy. So I guess my work as mayor is done.

So which scenario works best? And what did I learn? Well the second city, the one with limitless money, was a breeze to build. Of course. But that's not real life. There's no cheat codes for the real word, but I imagine that the central government will set aside trillions of rupiah to move the capital, so maybe that's enough to make things go smooth enough.

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But will people even move there? Indonesians don't move as often as, say, Americans. That probably has something to do with the fact that we only have five big cities and people are reluctant to move outside of them out of fear that their quality of life will drop significantly. So even with all the government money, I doubt people will be running to move to Palangkaraya.

It would probably take as long as 10 years for the city to become as developed as Jakarta. Until then, a move there will look like a drop in your quality of life.

In theory, moving the central government isn't that hard. You only need enough land, buildings, and housing for all the members of the government and its support system. But all the businesses that rely on close access to the government would have to move as well.

Yet even then it wouldn't help with Jakarta's overpopulation issues. It's not like everyone currently living in the capital works for the government. Moving the government alone doesn't mean that the people will follow.

Obviously there are a lot of aspects about life in Palangkaraya that can't be shown in a SimCity simulation. For starters, there's no option to set regular forest fires and cover the city in noxious haze.

So what did I learn? Is it a good idea to make Palangkaraya the new capital? No idea. I was only mayor for a week. And even then, I had the cheat codes. So do I have any advice for the government? Invent cheat codes.