Tom Uglow: Play and the city

The following is an extract from an interview in, 26 February 2014. Read the full article here.

Playable City is a competition run by Bristol’s Watershed, which awards an annual prize to the best example of an intelligently-connected urban environment. Last year, the award was won by PAN Studio with their project Hello Lamp Post. Returning as a judge this year is Google’s Tom Uglow. We caught up with Tom to ask him about what a more playable, interactive urban environment should be like.

What does the concept of a “playable city” mean to you?

TU: A playable city is a counterpoint to a super-connected city… not that connected cities are a bad thing, but where’s the fun? Ultimately, we all know there is more to life than efficiency and machines [and] projects like Playable City are at the vanguard of contemporary culture, exploring the incredible potential of our new digital infrastructure in order to help us understand ourselves and our world.

We are way past being thrilled at playing with a touch-screen, but we remember the first-time awe of it, and we’d love to see people use technology to create that same sensation from touching a tree, or standing in a bus queue.

What are the challenges for playable city projects? How can they evolve beyond small projects into mechanics for wider participation and appreciation of city living?

TU: I think that the challenges are about our perception of value, which in turn prevents institutions supporting similar projects in a significant way. Society funds high culture like opera, art and literature to allow it to reach new audiences, to remind us of our human capacity to project emotion and find deep human truths that are impossible to express. Projects like Playable City face challenges in enabling audiences to see beyond depth, beyond ‘digital’. Folks think that we mean a games console, or online video, or just mindless noise.

Our society values art and science; we show the greatest reverence to periods of history that are rich in technological or cultural development, yet we are frequently unwilling to actually support innovation in our own backyard. We like old art. So, it makes sense that these sorts of projects start with the adventurous grass-roots organisations, like the Watershed, and in Bristol, a city with a history of challenging convention and embracing cultural and technical innovation.

To what extent could/should playable city projects be interactive? Can they also be passive?

TU: Nothing in an urban space is that passive once you move beyond billboards, and I quite like billboards for interactive opportunities. It seems hard to imagine something ‘playable’ that one just watches.

I expect a shortlist full of challenging, engaging, and curiosity-inspiring interactions; preferably with a strong sense of the physical, the non-digital, and the actual physical city around us, rather than screens, or robots, or websites or apps. Enchanting the real world with digital is often quite challenging, but you certainly need to interact with the work. The idea of digital as a separate aesthetic is a red herring; digital isn’t a type of art, just like it isn’t a type of work in the work place. Digital embraces all forms of culture, and can be used to change any kind of experience. How that new way of thinking emerges through the creative act is going to be fascinating. The richest projects will let people experience something without even noticing that there is a ‘digital’ component. They should really just feel fun.

Read the full article here.

Find out more about the Playable City judging panel.