A Design Award That Rewards Urban Play

The Playable City Award envisions fun ways to engage with urban environments.

Connected, green, smart: There is no shortage of hashtag-worthy concepts for the city of the future. Our wired world is constantly atwitter about what we must do to upgrade our urban systems, but for Clare Reddington, the director of iShed and the Pervasive Media Studio at Watershed (a digital creativity center in Bristol, U.K.), the answer is simple: We must become more playful.

Play is about social interaction, about bringing people together and giving them permission to think and move about their cities in different ways,” Reddington says. To that end, in October 2012, Watershed launched the first Playable City Award. The £30,000 grant challenged artists and designers to leverage technology, art, and play to engage Bristol’s community and infuse its public spaces with a sense of wonder.

Last January, London-based experience design studio PAN was selected out of 93 entries from 24 countries for its proposal Hello Lamp Post!, which will invite Bristol’s denizens to tune in to the secret conversations of their urban environment. This summer, locals will be communicating with ubiquitous street furniture like lampposts, bus stops, and mailboxes. Using the city’s maintenance codes, participants can text “Hello,” the object’s name, and its code to engage the street furniture in a text conversation.

For the judging panel, which included Tom Uglow, a creative director for Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, and musician Imogen Heap, the appeal of PAN’s proposal was in the way it used existing infrastructure to weave itself into the urban fabric. “Play for us is softer and more human,” says PAN’s Ben Barker. “We are interested in exploring small changes that shift the way we use the city, rather than one big change.”

Reddington wants the Playable City Award to encourage both unforeseen uses and unexpected users. “We really want to engage the people who read the local newspaper, rather than just the hipsters and cool kids,” she explains. But the real test will be engaging those who not only read the paper, but also advertise in it. “If we don’t involve creatives in authoring our technological experiences and designing a new way of doing things, we will end up with more of the mundane, cold, alienating applications that are often suggested by technology companies,” Reddington says. Her hope is that increasingly, lighthearted initiatives like the Playable City Award will foster new urban visions that are more powerfully connected, green, and smart. “And then hopefully,” she says, “the brands and product developers will get in the game.”

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