Are smart city developers spending too much time optimizing efficiency, and not enough time on fun and citizen participation? Proponents of "playable cities" want to change that.
Ever since the smart city concept was conceived, urban planners focused on using technology to improve city services. Developers went to work improving traffic flow, waste management, medical services, police and fire departments, water maintenance, greener buildings, education, energy creation and delivery, and whatever else they thought would help the city and its residents.
But does any of this sound like fun to residents? Does it encourage active participation in government activities? The playable cities folks believe there's not enough joy, not enough civic engagement in the rush towards increased efficiency.
To be fair, those advocating the playable city concept aren't against smart cities. They just want "smart" to offer more interesting projects.
For example, last year I wrote about the Hello Lamp Post project in Bristol, England. Mary Jander, former Future Cities managing editor, wrote about it too. She thought it was ridiculous. I didn't. The project involved assigning SMS numbers to more than 1,100 common city objects -- buildings, benches, buses, parking meters, mailboxes, etc. -- that enabled them to transmit and respond to messages.
The objects had prerecorded messages, but could also respond with previous messages they had received from passersby. For example, when a reporter sent a message to a parking meter, it responded, "You're new to this, aren't you? Is everyone around you behaving themselves?"
The reporter replied, "Other than a suspicious looking bald man, it seems so."
I wrote that the SMS-enabled devices could not only help get people familiar with "talking" objects -- an increasing feature of smart devices (e.g., Siri) -- but could also be used to impart information. Think of a mailbox noting which mailboxes had later mail pickups, a park bench dispensing information about the park's activities, and a government building describing its offices and closing times.
I didn't note, however, that Hello Lamp Post was the first award given by Watershed, a Bristol-based organization that, among its cultural and civic activities, promotes the playable cities concept. Watershed recently awarded its second grant to two men for Shadowing, which will use infrared cameras to capture and display shadows of people who have previously walked under lamp posts. As a person walks under a lamp, another shadow will follow him or her.
Watershed picked Shadowing from among 78 applicants because:
Shadowings [sic] offers passersby a glimpse of those who have walked the same path moments, days or weeks before, at times like ghostly time travelers, at others more like a playful Peter Pan. As well as peeling back the traces of the city's nooks and crannies, Shadowing offers an exploration of the disconnectedness that technology can create between strangers, the role of light in creating a city's characters and the unseen data layers and surveillance culture that pervades our contemporary urban spaces.
Shadowing will be unveiled in Bristol this autumn as one highlight of the Making the City Playable conference in September.
I shouldn't be quick to judge, but while Shadowing definitely is playful, I'm wondering whether there's much reason to hold it up as a hallmark of the playful cities concept. To me, there are other projects that seem more useful.
For example, in Stockholm, a set of stairs from a subway station was designed as a piano keyboard so each stair plays a musical note. Next to the stairs is an escalator. The thinking is more people would take the stairs -- good exercise -- than the escalator.
In Bogota the city hired some 400 mimes to portray whether drivers were driving well or poorly, handing out cards with a "thumbs up or "thumbs down."
Those two projects (and Hello Lamp Post) were fun, engaging to residents, and to a certain extent useful. Projects that can combine all three qualities might have a place in cities. After all, what's a city without fun and civic engagement?
Not everyone thinks the playable city concept should be a separate major movement. Shouldn't those qualities be part of any smart city? Yes! But are they? I suspect it wouldn't hurt some urban planners to be reminded every once in a while that all work and no play can make cities dull.
Re: Let's have some fun Yes Alan, as a young Mother I was told to keep. My children busy(a idle mind is the devils workshop) and they would turn out better. At points my income was low but the neighborhood recreation center provide a place for structured socialization and exercise. Game, team, etc.. Teach us how to work with different personalities, how to share, how to creatively solve problems, how to be patient and wait our turn the list goes on.... We laugh which has prove to be healing. People live longer when they laugh, have a good social net work....so many benefits and skills are learned thru play,. For example gamefication. Thru play my children were introduced to so much...... They thanked me when they went away to college for all they learn because they were continuously involved. They learned so much I can not write it all here, so much!
Yes, play is important. I remember a Star Trek (the original series) episode, "Shore Leave," where the crew of the Enterprise landed on a planet where anything the crew thought of -- specific people, book characters, animals, etc. -- would be created. The planet was sort of an amusement park created by an advanced race. When Sulu asked the sole person on the planet, the caretaker, why a such a race would need a place to play, Capt. Kirk said, "the more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play."
The idea of the "playable city" isn't just undisciplined play, but to encourage citizen participation. Still, there's nothing wrong with having fun!
Re: Let's have some fun Play is very important for a City. That is why the Recreation DepArtment exist and has a budget. People form bonds, get exercise, share knowledge ...thru play. It makes for a healthier city socially, physically and financially!
I completely agree. City/corporate sponsorship seems like a good idea to me, especially since these "playable" projects aren't necessarily the most city-centric from an efficiency standpoint, like better transportation or water systems.
Corporate play? Alan, those great piano stairs appear to be a Volkwagen initiative (according to the video), with permission from the city presumably. That might be the perfect combination -- bring a little levity, don't stretch city budgets, and get people moving (in this instance). Fun for free -- more or less...
Re: Let's have some fun It would seem appropriate to have corporate, foundation or individual sponsorship of musical stairs, and other fun community projects. It would seem right up the corporate PR department's road to sponsor these projects and get their brand name widely seen by the general public, yet not posing a burden on taxpayers.
Re: Let's have some fun The idea of talking objects does seem fun and I would think would encouage citizen participation into planning useful IoT projects. But, on the other hand, these sample experiments seem a bit more like art projects and entertainment which may or may not be justified economically into a city's budget. But it would be useful to try some and see what results they may bring.
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