This week marks our first Playable City conference (Making the City Playable) and the unveiling of Shadowing, the winner of our second Playable City Award, which animates the lamp posts of Bristol to capture and play back the shadows of passers by.
When we began creating Playable City projects, we talked about them as being a 'counterpoint' to a smart city - which we described as being cold and isolating. But as friend and collaborator Mark Leaver pointed out, it is better to be for something than against something. So I now prefer to think of the Playable City as a kind of possibility machine - opening up conversations and making connections that don't usually take place.
In An Exploratory Model of Play, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Stith Bennett talk about play as grounded in the concept of possibility. We spend a lot of time thinking about what is actual, blaming stuff on other people, or waiting for people to fix things for us. So perhaps the introduction of play in the city balances the lethargy and inevitability of city life with a sense of the possible... A sense that we are part of a network that we have agency in.
After two awards and a series of global labs and workshops, our evolving idea of what a Playable City project is, is one that enables this sense of possibility through the creative re-use of a city's own infrastructure. A Playable City project connects citizens to their city and to each other in surprising, challenging and entertaining ways.
So, when dusk falls on Thursday 11 September, Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier's Shadowing will give memory to eight of Bristol's real street lights, enabling them to record and play back the shadows of those who pass underneath.
I caught up with Canadian Interaction Designer Jonathan, to ask him about their intentions for the project:
"Shadowing acts as a reminder that we share the city with many others, and offers a chance to interact with these people who walk the same paths as us. It nudges us to connect with those that share our spaces, and in doing so raises questions around anonymity and community, and which we value more."
The theme of animating the existing infrastructure of the city, is very present in Shadowing, which Jonathan and Matthew see as a tool or a toy - something which can be used in any way. "We built the software to make it more like a chalkboard than a game."
Designing Shadowing - which when it is installed will look no different at all from any other lamp post, was obviously a challenge - they had to fit the hardware into a lamp head AND make it weather proof and reliable. Now, as launch day edges closer - a test lamp is up and running (in a secret location in Bristol!), and how people will interact with the project is becoming more clear:
"I'm really excited to see how people respond. Beyond the surprise (and hopefully joy) of their local lamppost evolving into something entirely unexpected, I hope that people feel a sense of connection with those with whom they share their spaces."
This sense of connection, with people in the city that walk the same paths as you, but that you might never meet, was one of the reasons that the Award judges were so excited about the project. Shadowing will be playing with the people of Bristol until 31 October. And what after that? Jonathan and Matthew are hoping to tour the project to other cities, but are also turning their minds to the library of shadows they will have collected:
"I'd love to see all the shadows we have captured, walk together, Noah's Ark style, in a long procession. That would be a nice thing to see."