Playing the City

As of 2010, more than half of the world’s population can be found in cities and the numbers continue to grow. In the UK today, 8 out of 10 of us live in urban centres.

Crowding diversity requires us to be more social, to access many points of view when developing new ideas. We are able to test things out, throwing ideas away, or defending them to the death in equal measure with those who think differently to us.

Technology has a crucial role to play in the expression of ideas in urban life, as a connector, enabler and provocateur. Far from dehumanising us, new developments are giving rise to unprecedented creativity in urban spaces, through the buildings we build, the services we design and the way that we connect with one another. From the Transfer Accelerator by HIK Ontwerpers in Utrecht that lets commuters take a slide to work, to Usman Haque’s Flightpath that invited the people of Toronto to don wings and “claim airspace as public space”; artists across the world are investigating their relationship with the city and with citizens.

We hear about the ‘democratisation’ of public space but perhaps it is more personal than democracy. Digital technologies can give us a direct relationship with the world we live in and with each other. We do not require collective agreement over an authority figure, charged with approving activity; rather we give one another permission to pursue individual and communal goals.

It seems apparent that we are all getting more playful in public. We flash mob, yarn bomb and occupy public places in vast numbers. Raves are back, street art has never been more prevalent and we are sharing our experiences of government systems online to trigger street closures that allow children to ‘play out’. Very often, this is occurring without the influence or approval of big brands or governing bodies, and is organised instead through social channels by people seeking to intervene in public space. Artists and creative practitioners are responding by creating work that is increasingly encountered by the passing public, rather than reserving experiences for traditional arts-attenders in formal, gallery settings.

The 21st Century Light Space Modulator from Jason Bruges Studio sits underneath the Hungerford Bridge. This work was very deliberately prototyped and tested with citizens in situ to find out how people wanted to play and to interact with the piece. The artists feeling strongly that to “improve people’s everyday experience of space” you have to understand their interpretation and expectations of the work. The final piece was installed in October and the array of lights and reflective surfaces now twist and reconfigure themselves in response to the motion and sounds of the city.

Playing the city can help to change civic behaviour too. The Fun Theory have been incredibly successful in getting people to choose the stairs over the escalator by turning the steps of a subway into the keys of a piano; and making a game of speed camera so that the fines of those speeding are given as a lottery prize, rewarding safer drivers. In Helsinki, the Nuage Vert project projected an image of the city’s energy consumption onto the omnipresent plume of smoke emanating from the city centre power station, in the form of a glowing green light. In one hour there was a collective reduction of 800 kVA. In Bogotá, Mayor Antanas Mockus enlisted the help of 400 mimes to playfully mimic and mock the jaywalkers that were clogging the cities streets, shaming them into respecting the rules of the road. Mockus asserts that “Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”

In proposing the Playable City Award, Watershed and our partners are inviting artists, creatives, and ultimately citizens, to explore and explode the idea of a ‘Smart City’. As Graham Hitchens notes in a recent think piece for the GuimarãesOpen City project, “Smart cities will be smart because their citizens have found new ways to craft, interlink and make sense of their own interests”. We have opened the invitation. What does a Playable City mean to you and how will the urban spaces of the future connect to, interact with and be configured by the people that make them tick?