Six hundred years ago, one of the world’s worst floods in history threatens the existence of the Dutch city Dordrecht and its inhabitants. 2021 is the year to commemorate this event. The city uses an escape room-like gaming app called SavetheCity! to teach young people about this event. The start-up Interactive City Discovery, co-founded by EIT Digital Master School student Stanley Kelder, is the brain behind this app that is launched in March 2021.
Kelder says the app is innovative. “It brings together the physical and the digital world. Users get a quest to solve in the app while wandering through the streets of Dordrecht. In so doing, they learn to discover the city based on its historical narrative. You cannot solve the game on your sofa: you have to go to the city in real life.”
The origin of the idea arose just before Kelder started his studies at the double degreed EIT Digital Master School programme Human Computer Interaction and Design. He and his friend were touring across another Dutch city, Maastricht. “We like to explore cities. Therefore, we bought a city puzzle at the tourist office. We got an envelope with paper cards in it. We enjoyed doing it: you are outside, and it is a fun way of getting to know a city. We learned more about the city than we would otherwise. We wanted to do this in Amsterdam as well. We thought there should be an app for this. To our surprise, there was none. Then we thought: let’s build one ourselves.”
First design, then code
It did not surprise Kelder to come up with an idea like this. After all, he was going to study digital innovation anyway at the two-year EIT Digital Master School. “I choose this school because of the entrepreneurship minor and the focus on innovation. With this programme, you can combine the start-up world with learning high technical skills. This combination is special and really interesting. There is not a single moment where you can be confident in what comes next. There is always something new happening.”
After 1.5 years of studying, things with his start-up to be got more concrete. “First, we were only talking about it, until the moment I felt convinced that I indeed could create it. I had learned about starting a business at the EIT Digital Master School. “One of my first lessons was: first design then code. You should always think about the end-user first.”
With the user in mind, Kelder started coding the app and sharing design ideas with his friend. “My friend helped to think about the puzzles we wanted to embed in the app. We went back and forth with our ideas. We made progress with baby steps. In Finland, I was eligible for studying a class in gaming. I learned that the story behind a game is one of the most important success factories. If the story is not convincing, then the game is poor. To create a convincing story, we decided to a third friend to join our fellowship: he loves creating stories. These insights led to the creation of the escape room as we have developed it now.”
Saint Elizabeth flood
It is hard to stop talking about a topic that one feels so passionately about. That passion is infectious. One day, in December 2019, he was talking to a family member about his game. This person happens to work at the city of Dordrecht and got enthusiastic. “We could show already a prototype with a quest for Amsterdam. It was not so good looking yet. But Dordrecht liked it and indicated to want the app tailormade for Dordrecht.”
As it happens, Dordrecht is commemorating one of the worst floods in history. On 19 November 1421, a flood of unprecedented magnitude, caused by a storm, broke through the seawalls. Thousands of people drowned in the salty seawater in the Dordrecht area. Dordrecht lost because of this, its strategic trading position. The name of the flood, the Saint Elisabeth flood, refers to the feast day of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary on 19 November.
Starting a BUSINESS
With the promise of Dordrecht as the first customer, the entrepreneurs went to the Chamber of Commerce in January 2020 to register their start-up Interactive City Discovery. In the early months, they regularly met the people of the Dordrecht council to shape the story. The young men spend three months full time developing the app. After his graduation in July 2020, Kelder even postponed the start of his job he obtained at KPN with a month to get the app to work. In his job, he acts as a bridge between the technical KPN developers and the business people. He and his two other founders all have full-time jobs and dedicate at least 4 hours per week to the start-up. “I love to spend more time on it. Now I am committed to my job for the coming 2,5 years. I hope that slowly I can degree the hours spent on the office to my start-up.”
Save the City
During the process, the idea of the app had shifted from a puzzle app to explore new cities, to an exciting escape room like game based on a true historical story to not just learn about the city but also relive the becoming of cities. In the app, the user is tasked to save the city. Even though this Saint Elizabeth flood happened 600 years ago, it wasn’t the latest and will not be the last; the Dutch cities in these areas are built below the water level. Water safety is still high on the cities agenda. The gamer in the escape room needs to help Saint Elizabeth to prevent a new flood. Because in the escape room assignments are made to find certain emblems on buildings, users need to wander through the town. In the future, Kelder says, this might be extended with augmented reality, but for the moment this is too difficult and too expensive to develop, he says. “Pokémon Go is an inspiration for the success the app can be”, Kelder says.
The app went live in mid-March of 2021. Dordrecht embeds the app in promotion and feast activities to tell the history of the flood and the role of water then, now and in the future. The goal is to mobilise the Delta with inhabitants, companies, cultural institutions and associations. From October to March 2020, the Dordrecht museum has an exposition dedicated to the flood, the natural shaped area called Biesbosch is dedicated to this memory, and festivals and contests to build rafts are on the programme. “With the app, the city hopes to reach a younger audience.”
Telling the narrative of cities is part of the go-to-market strategy that the three founders use to sell the app to multiple cities. Dordrecht is a good success story to convince other cities to have a tailor-made escape room game as well. In the business model, the municipalities pay for the app development of their story. Local stores and restaurant can pay to promote their business. “That is interesting because our players walk across the cities of these ads.” Cities may sponsor their local entrepreneurs for free for the first year. After this year, we get their contacts to ask if they want to continue on a paid basis.”
The plan is to involve at least three cities in 2021 and five more in 2022. Currently, Kelder and his companions are trying to find contacts in the city of Rotterdam. The nice part is, says Kelder, the more we develop for cities, the larger the database becomes and the more we can reuse attributes which will make the games better and richer.” To grow the company, Kelder foresees hiring a salesperson this year and multiple developers when more cities get involved. My dream for this company is to grow it and then to sell it. My big dream for the future is to be an entrepreneur that starts off new companies.”
But first, SavetheCity! in Dordrecht.