Playable City Award: How innovative technology is helping people engage with their cities

The award, worth £30,000 to the lucky winner, is now in its second year. Rhodri Marsden joins in the fun

As I sit quietly in the Watershed café at Bristol's Harbourside, I'm desperately trying to think of a Hollywood depiction of a futuristic city that doesn't feel impossibly bleak. I can recall plenty of scenes of post-apocalyptic dystopia, but even a more benign vision of the future, such as the one in Spike Jonze's Her, seems pretty utilitarian and joyless. You can almost see us drifting towards a tedious touchscreen tomorrow, and that's something that Clare Reddington, executive producer of the international Playable City Award, is actively battling against.

"Serendipity is being engineered out of the way we experience a city," she tells me over a cup of tea. "Everything is being negotiated for us via maps on our phones. Stumbling across a great bar at the end of a urine-stained alleyway is less and less likely; cities are becoming very regulated, efficient spaces."

The Playable City Award, worth £30,000 to the lucky winner, is now in its second year; it invites entrants from across the world to submit ideas that use technology to create playful interactions, connecting the citizens of the city in unexpected ways and helping them to engage with the spaces around them. Last year's winner, Hello Lamp Post, invited people to interact with street furniture – benches, lamp posts, post boxes – via text message, to learn about that object and the previous conversations it had had with passers-by.

The enthusiasm with which local people embraced the idea stood in stark contrast to the anonymous contempt flung at it online, with "waste of money" being a common accusation. The funding for the prize comes from many sources, including sponsorship, Watershed and Bristol City Council, but as taxpayers we often find it difficult to put a price on joyful experiences. It's analogous to the arguments surrounding government cuts in arts funding; people will always believe that there are better ways of spending the money.

But while £30,000 could be seen as an excessive amount to blow on something that seems notionally frivolous, Reddington believes that people's underlying concerns about cities of the future are very real. "I was recently involved in a project in Guimaraes, Portugal," she says, "and everyone who we talked to was scared that they'd become isolated and cut off, that they'd never talk to anyone. And I know that the likes of IBM and Microsoft aren't particularly in love with their own visions of the future either. All of us are grasping for these more human, more playful things."

Reddington's work, both with Playable City and in her role as director of the Pervasive Media Studio, also housed at Watershed, is entirely concerned with this; bringing academics, creatives, artists and technologists together to imagine different ways that city-dwellers will be living in the years to come.

Shadowing will delight - and infuriate - Bristolians from September Shadowing will delight - and infuriate - Bristolians from September
Today, the studio is a hive of activity, with academics from Exeter University thrashing out ideas with guests from the worlds of theatre, gaming, magic and design. Today's work is devoted to the role of robots in a city of the future – "hopefully sidestepping a lot of the clichés and doing something interesting," says Reddington. Several dozen people at adjoining desks are also working on projects that can last anything from a few weeks to a couple of years. "We set the place up on a wing and a prayer to locate all this wisdom in one place," says Reddington, "bringing people in early in their design process to help them think in ways that they might not do in a laboratory. There's a great creative energy."

The entries to this year's Playable City Award, some 78 of them from 29 countries, were broad in their scope; from poetry generated by footsteps to collaborative musical devices in the form of pipework bursting from the ground; from sharks leaping from puddles to a subversion of CCTV that puts the public in control.

Something to get your teeth into: A kerbside shark Something to get your teeth into: A kerbside shark
The winner, however, was Shadowing, created by designers Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier (based in New York and Treviso respectively), in which the shadows of those who have walked down city streets are played back to passers-by, like ghostly time-travellers. "I loved the idea of the traces of the city, activity that's previously happened, suddenly becoming apparent to people," says Reddington. "There's also that slightly sinister edge to it, which is exciting. Giving people permission to 'play' in the city centre doesn't always equate to saccharine fun."

What is it about Bristol that makes it a natural home for this stuff? "It's always been an awkward place," she says. "While the rest of the UK voted against elected mayors, Bristol said 'we want that'. It thinks of itself as counter-cultural, as independent, and the city seems to have really coalesced around that thinking. There's a sense that you can do stuff here – almost because it's not London. A few weeks ago, a man called Luke Jerram did a crowd-funded project called Park and Slide, to build a water slide down Park Street, the big hill behind us. He raised £5,000, put the slide up, 500 people went down it and thousands came out to watch."

Playing Out, a project that encourages people to apply for their road to be shut for the day so children can play in the street, also began in Bristol. "It's an unorthodox city," says Reddington. "It seems to revel in that."

Hands on: A musical game called Press Play Hands on: A musical game called Press Play
But Playable Cities is an international award, and Reddington's aim is to create a global network of playable cities, swapping work around the world and bringing surprise into urban spaces. "We have a conference later this year that will bring clever people together to talk about precisely this because, of course, the sense of public space is very different depending on where you are in the world; in Brazil it might feel quite dangerous, while in other countries you could be arrested for merely holding up a placard. So we'll be shaping that idea of the playable city, thinking about cohesion, how you bring people together without imposing your own idea of authorised 'fun' in a public space."

Shadowing, a subtle, witty idea that's bound to delight and infuriate in equal measure, will be installed in Bristol in September and will tour internationally next year.

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