The Playful City: a short term scientific mission in Bristol

End of March/beginning of April 2015 I will visit the Digital Cultures Research Centre UWE based at the Pervasive Media Studio in the Watershed in Bristol. My aim is to do a short inquiry into the notions of the “playable city” and “playful city” as people-centered alternatives for the “smart city”. Funded by EU COST Action 1306, my aim is to do the following:

The Playful City: play and games for citizen participation in the smart city

Michiel de Lange

 

This proposal and working plan for a STSM (short-term scientific mission) asks how digital play and games contribute to fostering citizen participation in the smart city. In addressing this question, the STSM contributes to ongoing research and debates about Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and urban public spaces, which is the main aim of the EU funded COST1306 Action “Cyberparks”. The outcomes of this STSM will provide COST1306 with a better grasp of the current state of affairs in “playful city” or “playable city” R&D, and contributes to the exchange ideas and the development of shared interest and networks for future collaborations.

The idea of the playful/playable city is something that I’ve been interested in and working on since my PhD research. For example, I have written about Locative media as Playful Technologies and about The Mobile City project in relation to urban games, published a dissertation and various articles and chapters in English and Dutch about digital media, play and the city (herehere and here), and have been an advisor of the project Rezone Playful Interventions. This research is further meant to enrich our ongoing investigations of the “hackable city“, a closely associated notion that takes a similarly radical citizen-centric view of smart city making.

Read more about this short research in the proposal below. I hope to find the time to write a bit about the STSM on this blog.

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Rezone Playful Interventions – 3RD by Monobanda & DUS Architects.

 

The Playful City: play and games for citizen participation in the smart city

STSM working plan at Watershed/Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol, 24 March – April 2 2015

Michiel de Lange, PhD, lecturer/researcher New Media and Urban Culture, Utrecht University, NL

Abstract

This proposal and working plan for a STSM (short-term scientific mission) asks how digital play and games contribute to fostering citizen participation in the smart city. In addressing this question, the STSM contributes to ongoing research and debates about Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and urban public spaces, which is the main aim of the EU funded COST1306 Action “Cyberparks”. The outcomes of this STSM will provide COST1306 with a better grasp of the current state of affairs in “playful city” or “playable city” R&D, and contributes to the exchange ideas and the development of shared interest and networks for future collaborations.

I. Introduction to the field: the playful smart city

Since several decades the relationship between technology, creativity, and city life has been an intimate one. Following “creative city” policies popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “smart city” business, policy and design visions have gained considerable traction since the mid-2000s. Smart city agendas aim to improve services and livability through ICTs and supporting infrastructures like urban labs, and rapidly gain foothold in cities worldwide. Large tech companies like IBM, HP, CISCO, Microsoft, and so on, are forming smart city coalitions with municipalities and knowledge institutions. Among the issues that smart city policies seek to address are mobility, clean energy, water and food production and distribution, health, living and public participation (Hollands 2008). However there are huge differences in emphasis and actual implementation of smart city visions between cities worldwide, like Birmingham, London, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Masdar, or Songdo.

Smart city visions have received much criticism, both by academics and practitioners (for example Greenfield 2013, Hemment and Townsend 2013, Townsend 2013, Hollands 2008, de Lange and de Waal 2013). By and large, these criticisms target the ill-defined notion of “smartness”, the simplified presumption of what constitutes city life, and the a-political technocratic nature of the smart city agenda. Many smart city views remain conspicuously silent on what “smart” actually means, and who are supposed to be smart. Further, it appears from many proposed smart city plans that city life and the urban experience are primarily about control, efficiency and predictability, rather than about encountering the unexpected and dealing with differences. Moreover, a myopic obsession with hi-tech solutions seems to unproblematically assume that “technological fixes” can by themselves solve complex urban problems. Technology-driven solutions ignore the active role and contributions of citizens which may even have adverse effects on urban public life and identities at large, thwarting initiative and a sense of ownership (de Lange and de Waal 2013). Many smart city policies do not empower citizens to become active “players” and “hackers” of their own cities.

What alternatives then are there to these technology-driven smart city visions? How can we depart from a more active role of citizens? Various alternative terms have been proposed to address the weaknesses mentioned above. Several notions explicitly focus on the smart city in conjunction with play and games, such as “playable city” 1, “playful city” (Borden 2007, de Lange forthcoming), and “gameful city” (Alfrink 2015). Other related notions make the same connection but are less directly a response to the smart city agenda, such as the “ludic city” (Stevens 2007, Feirreis 2007), “game urbanism” (van Westrenen 2011), “playful planning” (de Lange 2014), and the wide body of literature about urban play and games, civic games, pervasive games, hybrid reality games and other more or less overlapping terms (Gordon and Koo 2008, Gordon, Schirra, and Hollander 2011, de Lange 2009, 2013, McGonical 2007, Montola, Stenros, and Waern 2009, de Souza e Silva and Hjorth 2009, de Souza e Silva and Sutko 2009). Rather similar notions are the “social city” and the “hackable city”, terms Martijn de Waal and I have used in various publications and collaborations 2. This notion of “hackability” is of particular interest for at least two reasons. First, from literature obvious parallels emerge between play and hacking practices, for instance in the fun and pleasure of both, the self-motivated autotelic ethic, being creative with things at hand, an ever-present tension between competition and collaboration, subverting existing rules and boundaries, the affordance to creatively change objects, services and structures into something else however temporary, and many more (see for example Roszak 1986, Himanen 2001, Levy 2010). Second, and more pragmatically, I am involved in ongoing research projects that focus on the notion of hackability as an important way to allow urbanites to actively shape their urban environment. By connecting existing research that’s being done on the “hackable city” and the “playful city” I hope to share knowledge and networks, and cross-fertilize both fields of inquiry.

In these people-centered views, the issue at stake is how to engage “smart citizens” with their urban environment and each other with the aid of play and games. The notions of the “playful city” and “playable city” open up a multitude of ways to conceive of “smartness” and urban public life, instead of just a technologically driven one. If we want not just cities but also citizens to be smart, we need to better understand how people already are clever in a multitude of ways when it comes to participating in and hacking their urban environment, and how we can leverage this creativity to create more interesting cities and make city life better.

II. Objectives and research questions of the STSM

This STSM (short-term scientific mission) shall take place in Bristol, UK, at Watershed/Pervasive Media Studio. Watershed (a curated cross-art venue) and Pervasive Media Studio (a city-centre research space) are the initiators of the Playable City program, an attempt to rethink the smart city through the lens of play and games. supported by a number of other institutions they have since a few years organized the Playable City program, consisting of events, conferences, and an award (http://www.watershed.co.uk/playablecity). In this view future cities should be conceptualized as playable, malleable, and idiosyncratic public spaces. The recent Playable City Award Call 2015 contains the following statement:

All over the world governments and tech companies are investing in smart systems for cities, using communication networks and sensors to join up services, collect data and make efficiencies. The Playable City Award asks us to imagine how we might use these same technologies to make our cities more liveable, hopeful and collaborative.” 3.

In the Netherlands too a number of parties are involved in this phenomenon. An example is the Playful City workshop recently organized by Het Nieuwe Instituut and Freedomlab in Amsterdam in October 2014 4. In this workshop, participants from various countries – game designers, academics, artists – were brought together to talk about and work on an agenda for designing the playful city.

With this STSM, I will investigate this nascent research and design agenda that connects the world of urban research and design to the world of new media/digital play and games scholarship and design. This STSM will lead to a better developed understanding of the current discourses, practices and theories that relate playability and playfulness to digital media, city life and citizen participation, as well as an overview of actual practices in various stages of maturity.

The main question of this inquiry is in what ways digital play and games may contribute to fostering citizen participation in the smart city. From this main question a number of more concrete subquestions arise:

  1. Who are main stakeholders and individuals involved in “playful city” or “playable city” discourses and practices, particularly in Bristol but also in the UK and elsewhere?

  2. What are the main ideas and assumptions these stakeholders and people have about play and games as alternatives for smart city discourses and for fostering civic participation?

  3. What according to these stakeholders and individuals are the particular strengths and possible weaknesses of play and games for a people-centered view of the smart city?

  4. What is the status of their ideas and practices, e.g. are they incipient ideas, prototypes, or already tested and evaluated?

  5. Which types of games and kinds of play are being employed towards the stated goals of the “playable” or “playful city”? Can a provisional yet productive typology be made?

  6. How can key concepts like “playability” and “playfulness” be further defined and operationalized in relation to participatory citizenship (what are their salient differences if any)?

  7. How do “playable city” and “playful city” relate to similar terms, particularly those that emphasize some form of active smart citizenship such as the “hackable city”?

III. Approach and methodology

Subquestions 1 – 5 focus mostly on finding out what the main stakeholders say and do. Subquestions 6 and 7 attempt to synthesize these findings into a more general framework. Answers to these subquestions 1 – 7 shall be given by means of a mixed method approach. This includes doing semi-structured and unstructured interviews with relevant stakeholders and people; observations and informal interactions (a kind of mini-ethnographic “participant observation”); textual analysis of a selection of playful objects/apps/interfaces/interventions and games (possibly “playable city award” winners and runner ups) that focuses on the affordances and the mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics of these interventions {the so-called MDA-model; see \Hunicke, 2004 #1123}; a discourse analysis of relevant sources, primarily those published and disseminated by the host institution and affiliates/partners but also sources by other practitioners and scholars.

IV. Outcomes and relevance for COST1306

The COST1306 Action “CyberParks” aims to foster knowledge about the relationship between Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Public Spaces, and build a European research network around this theme. This STSM contributes to the overall COST1306 Action in multiple ways:

  1. By focusing on the “playable/playful city” this STSM will deepen our shared understanding of digital media technologies and citizen participation in urban collective issues.

  2. The STSM I will contribute to a body of best practices and example projects.

  3. The STSM contributes to theorizing “cyberparks” as play spaces where citizens are able to “hack” the city (i.e. become active makers of their urban environment) using their own means.

  4. The STSM shall provide a typology for analyzing and developing the “playful city” or “playable city”, and will reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of these notion and practices.

  5. The STSM outlines a field of research that in turn may lead up to a collaborative EU grant proposal that involves COST1306 members.

V. Planning and deliverables

The STSM consists of a number of phases. This roughly looks like this:

VI. Initial inventory relevant institutions, organizations and individuals (work in progress)

During this STSM I plan to talk to a variety of people at a number of organizations in Bristol and elsewhere the UK. Through a snowballing method (part of the preparatory phase) I will get in touch with more people and organizations. […]

VII. My publications (relevant to the STSM theme)

Academic/non-academic, international/Dutch publications that I (co-)wrote, relevant to this theme:

Frissen, Valerie, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul, and Joost Raessens, eds. 2015. Playful Identities: The ludification of digital media cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

de Lange, Michiel. 2009. From always on to always there: Locative media as playful technologies. In Digital cityscapes: Merging digital and urban playspaces, eds. Adriana de Souza e Silva and Daniel M. Sutko. New York: Peter Lang. 55-70.

de Lange, Michiel. 2009. The mobile city project and urban gaming. Second Nature: International journal of creative media, special issue “Games, Locative & Mobile Media” 1 (2): 160-169.

de Lange, Michiel. 2010. Moving circles: Mobile media and playful identities. PhD dissertation, Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam. http://bit.ly/9lriyT.

de Lange, Michiel. 2012. Stad, spel, media: Spelenderwijs eigenaar worden van je stad [City, play, media: Playfully taking ownership of your city]. In Balkan in de polder: Naar organische gebiedsontwikkeling in Nederland?, eds. Ellen Holleman, Robert-Jan de Kort and Sabrina Lindemann. Amsterdam: Mondriaanfonds. 78-82.

de Lange, Michiel. 2012. Eigenaarschap: Stedelingen betrekken bij hun stad met digitale media [Ownership: engaging citizens in city-making with digital media]. In Samen slimmer. Hoe de wisdom of crowds onze samenleving verandert.ed. Maurits Kreijveld. Den Haag: STT. 152-153.

de Lange, Michiel. 2013. Rezone the game: Playing for urban transformation. http://www.bijt.org/wordpress/2013/04/24/rezone-the-game-playing-for-urban-transformation.

de Lange, Michiel. 2014. Playful planning: Citizens making the smart and social city. ECLECTIS report: A contribution from cultural and creative actors to citizens’ empowerment, http://www.dedale.info/_objets/medias/autres/publication-eclectis-corrigee101214-965.pdf.

de Lange, Michiel. in press. “The Playful City: using play and games to foster citizen participation.” In Social Technologies and collective intelligence, ed. Aelita Skaržauskienė. Vilnius: Baltic Copy.

de Lange, Michiel. forthcoming. “Playful city making: the citizen as urban planner in the smart and social city.” In The Playful Citizen: Power, Creativity, Knowledge, eds. René Glas, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange and Joost Raessens. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

de Lange, Michiel, Rolf van Boxmeer, and Tessa Peters. 2014. Rezone playful interventions: Spelen voor de toekomst [Rezone playful interventions: playing for the future]. Den Bosch: BAI & bART/DW. http://www.themobilecity.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Rezone_Playful_Interventions-Spelen_voor_de_toekomst.pdf.

de Lange, Michiel, and Martijn de Waal. 2012. Ownership in the hybrid city. Amsterdam. http://virtueelplatform.nl/g/content/download/virtueel-platform-ownership-in-the-hybrid-city-2012.pdf.

de Lange, Michiel, and Martijn de Waal. 2013. Owning the city: New media and citizen engagement in urban design. First Monday, special issue “Media & the city” 18 (11). http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4954/3786.

VIII. References

Alfrink, Kars. 2015. “The Gameful City.” In The gameful world: approaches, issues, applications, edited by Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding, pages cm. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Borden, Ian. 2007. “Tactics for a Playful City.” In Space time play: computer games, architecture and urbanism: the next level, edited by Friedrich Von Borries, Steffen P. Walz and Matthias Boettger, 332-334. Boston, MA: Birkhauser Verlag AG.

Feirreis, Lukas. 2007. “New Babylon reloaded: Learning from the Ludic City.” In Space time play: computer games, architecture and urbanism: the next level, edited by Friedrich Von Borries, Steffen P. Walz and Matthias Boettger, 332-334. Boston, MA: Birkhauser Verlag AG.

Gordon, Eric, and Gene Koo. 2008. “Placeworlds: Using virtual worlds to foster civic engagement.” Space and Culture no. 11 (3):204-221.

Gordon, Eric, Steven Schirra, and Justin Hollander. 2011. “Immersive planning: a conceptual model for designing public participation with new technologies.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design no. 38 (3):505-519.

Greenfield, Adam. 2013. Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use Book 1). New York: Do Projects.

Hemment, Drew, and Anthony Townsend, eds. 2013. Smart Citizens. Manchester: FutureEverything Publications.

Himanen, Pekka. 2001. The hacker ethic, and the spirit of the information age. 1st ed. New York: Random House.

Hollands, Robert G. 2008. “Will the real smart city please stand up? Intelligent, progressive or entrepreneurial?” City no. 12 (3):303-320. doi: 10.1080/13604810802479126.

de Lange, Michiel. 2009. “The Mobile City project and urban gaming.” Second Nature: International journal of creative media, special issue “Games, Locative & Mobile Media” no. 1 (2):160-169.

de Lange, Michiel. 2013. Rezone the game: playing for urban transformation. http://www.bijt.org/wordpress/2013/04/24/rezone-the-game-playing-for-urban-transformation.

de Lange, Michiel. 2014. Playful Planning: Citizens Making The Smart And Social City. ECLECTIS report: A contribution from cultural and creative actors to citizens’ empowerment, http://www.dedale.info/_objets/medias/autres/publication-eclectis-corrigee101214-965.pdf.

de Lange, Michiel. in press. “The Playful City: using play and games to foster citizen participation.” In Social Technologies and collective intelligence, ed. Aelita Skaržauskienė. Vilnius: Baltic Copy.

de Lange, Michiel, and Martijn de Waal. 2013. “Owning the city: new media and citizen engagement in urban design.” First Monday, special issue “Media & the city” no. 18 (11). doi: doi:10.5210/fm.v18i11.

Levy, Steven. 2010. Hackers: heroes of the computer revolution. 25th anniversary ed. ed. Beijing ; Farnham: O’Reilly.

McGonical, Jane. 2007. “Ubiquitous Gaming: a vision for the Future of enchanted Spaces.” In Space time play: computer games, architecture and urbanism: the next level, edited by F. von Borries, S. P. Walz and M. Boettger, 233-237. Boston, MA: Birkhauser Verlag AG.

Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. 2009. Pervasive games: theory and design. Amsterdam ; Boston: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann.

Roszak, Theodore. 1986. The cult of information: the folklore of computers and the true art of thinking. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon.

de Souza e Silva, Adriana, and Larissa Hjorth. 2009. “Playful Urban Spaces A Historical Approach to Mobile Games.” Simulation & Gaming no. 40 (5):602-625.

de Souza e Silva, Adriana, and Daniel M. Sutko. 2009. Digital cityscapes: merging digital and urban playspaces, Digital formations,. New York: Peter Lang.

Stevens, Quentin. 2007. The Ludic City: Exploring the potential of public spaces. New York, NY: Routledge.

Townsend, Anthony M. 2013. Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. First edition. ed.

van Westrenen, Francien. 2011. “Urbanism Game.” In Game Urbanism: Manual for Cultural Spatial Planning, edited by Hans Venhuizen. Valiz Book and Cultural Projects.

2 See www.themobilecity.nl.

3 Source: http://www.watershed.co.uk/playablecity/apply/2015.

4 See http://www.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en/international/partner-programmes/asem-international-networking-programme/creative-skills-playful.

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