Playing the City: new implications for civic involvement

A £30,000 award launched this week by Bristol’s Watershed Centre celebrates the notion of the ‘playable city’, by supporting the creation of a new work to be installed in a public space in Bristol next summer. The challenge: to ‘use creative technologies in surprising and engaging ways’ to reflect the theme of ‘playability’.

The competition will ultimately be a way to explore what this concept might be: organizer Claire Reddington has made clear that the meaning has yet to be defined. She does state in their news blog that a ‘playable city’ is imagined as a counterpoint to a ‘smart city’. Rather than focusing on ‘infrastructure, services and monitoring’, ‘people, hospitality and openness will be key’ to creating ‘a place where residents and visitors have permission to reconfigure and rewrite places, attractions and stories’.

The distinction between the ‘smart city’ and ‘playable city’ is an interesting one.

Of course, participatory practice and transparency of local government is important, but for many citizens, becoming involved in the innovation of public service might not seem ‘fun’. Encouraging citizens to engage with their city in a playful way might make the positive transformation of public services more likely. Whilst Code for America and Commons for Europe encourage cities to share public service innovations that bring citizens closer to local government, this competition transforms the idea of ‘service’, as future town planning initiatives might stem from projects that are more akin to games.

We can imagine the type of works that Watershed would welcome from looking at the experiments that resulted from a lab they produced with the British Council last year, where the title ‘Playable City’ was first used. These included the smallest ever pirate radio station, to be followed by listeners as it floated along the river, and ‘Bike Tag’, a game in which encounters between cyclists are tagged with lights, providing entertainment whilst clearly mapping cyclists’ needs.

Similarly, projects by other organizations they have highlighted include a slide to replace stairs to an underground station in Utrecht, and traffic light buttons at which you can play ‘Pong’ with an opponent on the other side of the road in Germany.

Given that the winning entry will be toured internationally after its installation in Bristol, we can expect the ‘Playable City’ to become a more familiar subject, heralding a new direction in civic involvement, and exciting prospects for urban living.

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