23/01/2013 09:20 GMT | Updated 23/03/2013 05:12 GMT

The Playable City is Here: It's Time to Start Having Fun With the City's Infrastructure

At the Playful 2012 conference, Einar Sneve Martinussen gave a talk about the relationship between technology, design and everyday life, describing the future-city vision of companies like Microsoft as one of "seamlessness and efficiency".

While there is certainly merit in "seamlessness and efficiency", at Bristol's Watershed we wanted to do something with a little bit more joy in it. As a counter-point to the 'Smart City', we have been exploring the notion of Playable Cities, bringing artists, designers, technologists and academics together to sketch out what a Playable City project might be. We knew that it would reject the cold efficiency of the 'smart city' that Martinussen describes. We thought that instead it would enable residents and visitors to reconfigure and rewrite services, places and stories. We hoped it might seek out and celebrate the seams of city life, rather than seek to gloss over or 'fix' them.

So, with enthusiasm, a cohort of incredibly supportive partners and an emergent notion of the territory, in October 2012 we launched The Playable City Award, a £30,000 prize and package of support to make something playable in Bristol. This week we are pleased to announce Hello Lamp Post! by Design and Research Studio Pan as the Award's first winners.

Of the 93 international applications we received, Hello Lamp Post! certainly gave us a lot to think about, and responded to the brief most strongly. In their words" The sensory extremities of a smart city are its utilities and street furniture - objects so familiar that they have become invisible to us. They include (but aren't exclusive to) street lights, post boxes and bus stops."


A smart city might augment these touchpoints with technologies like digital displays, but Hello Lamp Post! seeks instead to make them playable, using existing city infrastructure to encourage you to notice and interact with what is around you.

Hello Lamp Post! is partly a game and partly a story which anyone will be able to interact with by texting in the unique codes found on a city's street objects. Objects are "woken" by texting the code to the Playable City phone number, this triggers a series of questions and exchanges between a player and the object it has texted. The clever bit is that players' responses are stored in a database and served back as questions and conversation to other people. This isn't a bot-led artificial intelligence project, it is classic Wizard of Oz.

The project offers an alternative view of the Internet Of Things and our relationship with networked objects. It asks questions about who owns the digital counterparts of public infrastructure and space and challenges the prevalence of mass-entertainment and spectacle. It certainly won't be a straightforward project to ensure visibility for, but we are excited about the accessibility of the technology and working with Pan, Tom Armitage and Gyorgyi Galik to ensure it causes a stir.

We hope hundreds of people will interact with Hello Lamp Post! to find new ways to explore the city, to swap info about what is around them, to connect with others. People may decide to 'claim' a piece of street furniture outside their house or business, to use the system for flirtation, trickery or marketing, or simply to discover others around them who share the very same street furniture that is part of their everyday landscape. We just don't know until it is launched in Bristol in the summer. One thing is for sure though, you'll never look at the post box the same way again.

To find out more about Hello Lamp Post! and The Playable City Award visit