Halfway through the interviews for the 2014 Playable City Award, fellow judge Tom Uglow messaged me - "what random and wonderful inspiration allowed us to trust PAN last year?" I was wondering the same thing - for with the joy of awarding bright and talented people funding, comes a feeling of great responsibility.
This was our difficult second album - last year PAN, Tom Armitage and Gyorgyi Galik's Hello Lamp Post captured the imagination of Bristol and the world. By inviting people to communicate through lamp posts, post boxes and other familiar street furniture, they tapped in to emerging narratives around smart cities, internet of things and big data. Described by Matt Webb as: "a poetic and mainstream glimpse into the future user experience of the coming fully-connected world" Hello Lamp Post has gone on to be presented across the globe, contributing to a growing sense that Bristol's unique sense of playfulness and permission to experiment, marks it out as a ground-breaking city.
We started Playable City as a people-centred counterpoint to the notion of the Smart City, as a place to celebrate and promote serendipity, hospitality and openness. Public narratives around future cities often feature concerns that community and conversation are not well served - that technology somehow isolates people from each other. Playable City interventions use technology to connect people to each other and their surroundings. We believe that by offering permission to play we can effect change - encouraging citizens to re-imagine and re-configure their city's services, places and stories.
The annual Playable City award gives £30,000 to a future-facing idea that responds to this theme by injecting a sense of intrigue and meaning into public space. The project is installed in Bristol for seven weeks and successful projects must be accessible and playable by all (not just by smart-phone touting hipsters).
This year, we were delighted to be swamped again with brilliant ideas from every corner of the world, and we published a strong and exciting shortlist for public comment in April. Across the eight projects that went through to the final stage, were shared themes around unexpected connections and ways to turn abandoned corners of the city into celebrated spaces. Surveillance, perhaps inevitably, was at the heart of many of the projects, drawing people's attention to where and how they are being watched. Collaboration was a significant theme too - the best projects came to life through audience interaction, with the piece and with each other.
In order to choose the final winner, we set up a day of interviews - a staggering feat in itself as applicants were based across the world and Tom Uglow was judging from Australia. We also took seriously the comments that people had left on The Playable City website - from the enthusiastic to the questioning. Inevitably our idea of what a project might be began to shift and change in conversation with its creators and it was a real pleasure to be able to get under the skin of so many great ideas.
Awarding funding is the art of imagining a finished project, of questioning how engaging it will be, of treading a careful line between shaping what a project might become and respecting and trusting the maker's original idea. But most of all it is a time to ask yourself the question - do I want to experience this project? If you are anything less than enthusiastic about the final result, it is not the one to make.
The fact we can't wait to experience Shadowing, the winner of the 2014 award, is very exciting. The project, created by design duo Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier, plays with the city street lights to offer passers-by a trace of those who have walked the same path before. As well as peeling back the traces of the city's nooks and crannies, Shadowing offers an exploration of the disconnectedness that technology can create between strangers, the role of light in creating a city's character, and the unseen data layers and surveillance culture that pervades our contemporary urban spaces.
Like Hello Lamp Post (yes we clearly have a lamp post thing going on), it uses the infrastructure of the city to make its statement, but this year there is added edge. We quizzed Jonathan and Matt hard about whether they were making something creepy (as alluded to in Huffington Post's article about the project), but were satisfied that Shadowing would be mysterious, gothic and gritty, with shadows sometimes representing ghostly time travellers and others more like a more playful Peter Pan.
Shadowing will be launched in Bristol at the Making the City Playable conference in September and will run for two months. From now and until then we will work with the creators to question, explore and make the most engaging, surprising, thoughtful project we can. I love how much this project moves on the notion of a Playable City and look forward to demonstrating again that playful city interventions can be more than just fun.
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