COMPUTER games have been blamed for everything from teenage violence to increasing obesity, but one academic thinks they may be key to designing sustainable cities of the future.

John Isaacs, an IT expert working at Abertay University in Dundee, last week unveiled the prototype of a video game-based system he hopes will be used to avoid the planning mistakes of the last century.

With an aesthetic style resembling the smash-hit Sim City, the Sustainable City Visualisation Tool enables planners and the public to map out future developments, using architectural models to create an accurate simulation.

Data on traffic, pollution or the carbon output of buildings can be then displayed visually, with inefficient structures glowing red or emitting smoke and streets snarling up with traffic. Eventually the program will even incorporate simulated crowds, who will nod with pleasure at architecture they like, or shake their heads when entering an ugly, busy or polluted area.

Isaacs, who started the project at the university's cutting-edge White Space, said: "The big problem with the planning system is that the public aren't introduced to the process at all. It's only architects and town planners that currently have any say at all in how a city is developed. Our idea is that we create a program that makes planning processes more open to the public as well as people further up the chain, so they can best see what decisions need to be made."

Once set up, the user is free to wander through the environment or zoom out for a birds-eye view. They are then able to move buildings around and input their own data, which can be saved for planners to view later. It will help democratise the whole process of building a city, Isaacs claimed.

Town planners are held in contempt, due to their mistakes throughout the 20th century, said Nick Barley, director of The Lighthouse, Scotland's centre for design and architecture.

He said: "I would welcome anything that will bring brighter people into the industry. The most important thing about town planning is that it's about people. As long as this tool enables people to have an honest say in the process, then it will work. If not, then it will fail. If it provides a framework for discussion and for experts to put out their ideas, and get feedback from user, then it can only be a good thing."

The Scottish CBI estimated that planning delays cost the Scottish economy £600 million a year. David Lonsdale, CBI Scotland's assistant director, welcomed any system that would enable "early public participation" in the process and speed up decisions.

"New technology like this may prove a useful tool. Ultimately though, sufficient resources and political will at both national and local level is needed if we are to see demonstrable improvements to Scotland's planning system," he said.