All in Good Fun?
Cities Turn Run-of-the-Mill Infrastructure into Interactive Experiences
Stairs as pianos. Crosswalk dance parties. Lampposts that engage passers-by in conversation via text message. Urban infrastructure is coming alive as organizations around the globe back projects to create interactive, and often whimsical, experiences. The idea is to convert the anonymity of many cityscapes into something livelier.
“In cities, public space sometimes seems to be dismissed as an environment people use to get from A to B, without much consideration for how it can be enjoyed,” says Sam Hill, co-founder of design firm PAN Studio, London, England, which helms the Hello Lamp Post program. The program started in Bristol, England in 2013, with project sponsors ranging from Toshiba and HP Labs to the City of Bristol and the University of the West of England.
Hello Lamp Post allows passers-by to send text messages to designated inanimate objects along city streets. Objects respond with questions about their surroundings, and they can share inspirational or funny messages other people have provided via text message. After a successful project in Bristol, the program expanded to support similar initiatives in Austin, Texas, USA; Tokyo, Japan; and Bordeaux, France.
“In cities, public space sometimes seems to be dismissed as an environment people use to get from A to B, without much consideration for how it can be enjoyed.”
—Sam Hill, PAN Studio, London, England
“We want people to look up from their phones, rediscover their city, and communicate,” says Mr. Hill. “It changes their agency and sense of ownership over that space—you feel more invested in the environment.”
“It's important for us to work with and engage local producers instead of just parachuting in with a project and then leaving.”
—Hilary O'Shaughnessy, Playable City, Cork, Ireland
Helping people connect to their surroundings starts with tailoring project plans to the cityscapes and local stakeholders.
“With these types of projects, there's a lot of variation in language, populations, wealth and cultural appropriateness,” says Hilary O'Shaughnessy, producer, Playable City, Cork, Ireland. “It's important for us to work with and engage local producers instead of just parachuting in with a project and then leaving.” Playable City is a frequent sponsor of interactive infrastructure, hosting an annual global competition for project funding.
Gauging local interest in new approaches to infrastructure can be a project unto itself. Last year, Playable City executed a 10-day interactive workshop in Lagos, Nigeria to engage a blended team of Nigerians and U.K. visitors to brainstorm future infrastructure initiatives. The event's planning stretched back months, including street surveys to gather resident input and two research trips by Ms. O'Shaughnessy to meet local participants. That advance engagement helped the project team focus the workshop on specific social challenges and potential infrastructure sites within Lagos. It culminated with the team presenting prototype ideas to a local audience during a one-day pop-up event.
The upshot of all this was a prototype project to install phones on a few buses to allow people to speak to a stranger on another bus during a traffic jam. (Traffic jams in Lagos can last for hours.) Playable City hopes a sponsor emerges to fund a similar project at a larger scale in Nigeria.
But even if a project ends up falling through— whether because of funding problems or a lack of government or public support—the conversations with those communities alone can carry value, Ms. O'Shaughnessy adds.
“Even if we only get to the project planning stage, we're creating new relationships in cities between citizens and their governments.” —Kate Rockwood
The Danfone prototype project in Lagos, Nigeria allows people to speak to a stranger on another bus during a traffic jam.
CRONOS FOTO / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
PHOTOS COURTESY OF PLAYABLE CITY