Memes for cities

Written for Huffington Post:

Amongst all the Fitbits and Jawbones, the Glass and the things, this year’s SXSW featured a small, but perfectly formed cluster of events about public spaces, neighbourhood platforms and the need to re-connect people with each other and their environment.

The first mention came from Katz Kiely in a V&A-led panel at Hackney House, East London’s SXSW home for the week. Tasked with choosing an influential digital design to preserve for the future, Katz (whose company Loop Labs is exploring ground-up smart cities in Brixton) chose Brighton’s Tidy Street project, where every day people measured their electricity consumption with the data used to chalk up a street art infographic on the streets outside their houses every night.

Elsewhere in the Festival, interaction designers, Daily Tous Les Jours from Montreal, showed the beautiful and humorous work they make for public spaces. Quoting American political philosopher Michael Sander’s TED talk, they riffed off his reflections on how to meet the need for common life in society:

“Democracy does not require perfect equality, but what it does require is that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different social backgrounds and different walks of life encounter one another, bump up against one another in the ordinary course of life…” Michael Sander.

Daily Tous Les Jours’ beautiful 21 Balançoires (21 swings which trigger pianos sounds) encapsulates perfectly the sense of possibility and connection in their work: the project didn’t just enable people to make music by playing on the swings, it asked them to pay attention to each other – more complex and rewarding melodies were triggered the more in sync with their neighbours they became.

My colleague Verity McIntosh reported back from the Re+Public panel, where urban artist Jordan Seiler and academic Heavy Biermann were discussing using augmented reality to subvert billboards, film posters and adverts with digital slogans (like adding the word breathe to a Marlboro advert). I am cautious of Augmented Reality; it can often feel like it puts a physical barrier between the user and the city. In this case there appears to be some contradiction between Re+Public’s stated aim of democratizing access, agency and ownership of public space, and the fact that they are working with a technology that can only be experienced via smartphones and tablets.

Ben Barker of PAN Studio and I also presented at SXSW this year, marking the launch of the second Playable City Award with an in depth case-study of Hello Lamp Post, which won last year. We kicked off with examples of playable projects from around the world, like the cheeky New York Subway Signs Experiment, the bouncy Fast track from Russia (a trampoline for commuters) and Slingshot‘s rather more scary 2.8 Hours Later. Ben also shared some of the inspirations that had inputted into their thinking around Hello Lamp Post – from Mudlark‘s Chromaroma game for the London Underground, to Tom Loois’ Blank Ways, a smart phone map which deletes the bits of the city you have visited, encouraging people to try out new places. We were able to share thinking with interested parties and potential applicants from all over the world and the standard of debate and questions were high: how do we track the impact of this kind of work over time? How might we share learning back with people who contributed/played? Is Hello Lamp Post a bit like a Womble? (Answer: yes, in that it does one thing very simply, but it was a tough question to explain to our US friends).

Finally, we were pleased to see George Zisiadis win a SXSW interactive award for Pulse of the City, a public art installation that turns pedestrians’ heartbeats into music. Currently installed in five locations across Boston, Pulse of the City mounts large red hearts with speakers and handles on to poles. When visitors hold on, they hear their heartbeat layered over custom music produced from their real-time pulse data. The idea was originally conceived and prototyped as part of San Francisco’s Urban Prototyping Festival and is designed to reconnect pedestrians with the rhythm of their bodies in an uplifting and imaginative way. Across these events, it was great to share why we think this stuff is important, to discuss how Playable Cities can connect communities in new ways (so that when a sick child wants to fight crime alongside Batman, he can). How, like internet memes, the best city projects are created, added to and shared by users, rather than by industry or brands. How playful projects can support behaviour change in a way that isn’t hectoring (As Fun Theory’s brilliant Piano Stairs does) and how, if you are given permission to play in a city, you are more likely to feel like you can participate in its processes, its democracy, its civic life.

Of course SXSW Interactive Festival (which is probably the biggest event of its kind in the world), was mostly concerned with the building and selling of virtual goods rather than the slightly more messy city stuff. But perhaps the data-tracking thrust of SXSW’s interactive sessions isn’t that different to these public space interventions. The quantified self doesn’t offer much meaning until your data is connected to other people’s. The Playable City seeks to connects citizens to each other, to incite a shared sense of potential and a shared momentum for change.

Clare Reddington is Executive Producer of Watershed‘s Playable City Award, an annual commission for playful work in public spaces. The international award closes on 11 April – more at