Playful Design for Smart Cities

Earlier this week I escaped the miserable weather and food of the Netherlands to spend a couple of days in Barcelona, where I attended the ‘Playful Design for Smart Cities’ workshop at RMIT Europe.

I helped Jussi Holopainen run a workshop in which participants from industry, government and academia together defined projects aimed at further exploring this idea of playful design within the context of smart cities, without falling into the trap of solutionism.

Before the workshop I presented a summary of my chapter in The Gameful World, along with some of my current thinking on it. There were also great talks by Judith Ackermann, Florian ‘Floyd’ Müller, and Gilly Karjevsky and Sebastian Quack.

Below are the slides for my talk and links to all the articles, books and examples I explicitly and implicitly referenced throughout.

Ronald Rietveld is the fourth speaker at This happened – Utrecht #7

Vacant NL

I’m happy to say we have our fourth speaker confirmed for next Monday’s This happened. Here’s the blurb:

Landscape architect Ronald Rietveld talks about Vacant NL. The installation challenges the Dutch government to use the enormous potential of inspiring, unused buildings from the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st century for creative entrepreneurship and innovation. The Dutch government wants to be in the top 5 of world knowledge economies by the end of 2020. Vacant NL takes this political ambition seriously and leverages vacancy to stimulate innovation within the creative knowledge economy. Vacant NL is the Dutch submission for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010. It is made by Rietveld Landscape, which Ronald Rietveld founded after winning the Prix de Rome in Architecture 2006. In 2003 he graduated with honors from the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture.

At first sight this might be an odd one out, and architectural exhibition at an interaction design event. But both the subject of the installation and the design of the experience deal with interaction in many ways. So I am sure it will provide attendees with valuable insights.

Week 140

Is it march already? Time flies.

I’m on my way to Amsterdam again. Around 10 hours earlier, I was in a train in the opposite direction, coming back from Visible Cities #02. This turned out to be an evening well spent. Some nice examples of AR projects were shown but in particular Ole Bouman of the NAi’s perspective on the changes architecture will go through under the pressure of new technologies was enlightening. He came across as both critical and knowledgeable, passionate about the field with a solid grounding in its history. Inspiring. Finally spending an evening in TrouwAmsterdam – eating a burger and drinking a beer in the space where printing presses used to run – was another plus.

I’m at Layar a lot this week again. Still can’t tell you too much about what’s going on there. But it continues to be both a challenging and fun engagement, so that’s good.

Apart from this, I spent a day brainstorming new game concepts for one of the Netherlands’s big lotteries, with which they’re hoping to reach a younger generation. It’s always a challenge to immerse oneself in a new context that fast, but it went well. Lots of nice ideas came up and the workshop was facilitated in a tight manner. Participating in these things always results in useful insights for when I run my own sessions.

I do feel slightly exhausted from all this, not in the least because what should have been a two hour review of proposals on monday morning with my students turned into a three-and-a-half hour marathon session. They’ve had to submit their graduation project proposals now, so I’ll soon sit down and do a final assessment of them. Then they’re good to go.

And so will I.

Cities, systems, literacy, games

If you were asked to improve your own neighbourhood, what would you change? And how would you go about communicating those changes?

Cities are systems, or rather, many systems that interconnect. Like buildings, they can be thought of as having layers, each changing at its own pace. If those layers are loosely coupled, the city — like the building — can adapt.

Recently, new urban layers/systems have started to emerge. They are made up of rapidly proliferating computing power, carried by people and embedded in the environment, used to access vast amounts of data.

At the same time, games have given rise to a new form of literacysystemic literacy. However, to date, players have mostly inhabited the systems that make up games. They can read them. Writing, on the other hand, is another matter. True systemic literacy means being able to change the systems you inhabit.

True read/write systemic literacy can be used to craft games, yes. But it can also be used to see that many other problems and challenges in daily life are systemic ones.

To be sure, the real-time city will confront its inhabitants with many new problems. It is of the essence that the people shaping these new systems have a deep concern for their fellow humans. But it is also at least as important that people are taught the knowledge and skills — and given the tools — to change stuff about their surroundings as they see fit.

The wonderful thing is, we can shape systems, using the ‘new’ streets as a platform that transfer this knowledge and these skills to people. We can create ‘seriousurban games that facilitate speculative modelling, so that people can improve their living environment, or at least express what they would change about it, in a playful way.

A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

A while ago I was interviewed by Sam Warnaars. He’s researching people’s conference experiences; he asked me what my most favourite and least favourite conference of the past year was. I wish he’d asked me after my trip to Playful ’08, because it has been by far the best conference experience to date. Why? Because it was like Toby, Richard and the rest of the event’s producers had taken a peek inside my brain and came up with a program encompassing (almost) all my fascinations — games, interaction design, play, sociality, the web, products, physical interfaces, etc. Almost every speaker brought something interesting to the table. The audience was composed of people from many different backgrounds, and all seemed to, well, like each other. The venue was lovely and atmospheric (albeit a bit chilly). They had good tea. Drinks afterwards were tasty and fun, the tapas later on even more so. And the whiskey after that, well let’s just say I was glad to have a late flight the next day. Many thanks to my friends at Pixel-Lab for inviting me, and to Mr. Davies for the referral.

Below is a transcript plus slides of my contribution to the day. The slides are also on SlideShare. I have been told all talks have been recorded and will be published to the event’s Vimeo group.

Perhaps 1874 words is a bit too much for you? In that case, let me give you an executive summary of sorts:

  1. The role of design in rich forms of play, such as skateboarding, is facilitatory. Designers provide tools for people to play with.
  2. It is hard to predict what people will do exactly with your tools. This is OK. In fact it is best to leave room for unexpected uses.
  3. Underspecified, playful tools can be used for learning. People can use them to explore complex concepts on their own terms.

As always, I am interested in receiving constructive criticism, as well as good examples of the things I’ve discussed.

Continue reading A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

Reboot 10 slides and video

I am breaking radio-silence for a bit to let you know the slides and video for my Reboot 10 presentation are now available online, in case you’re interested. I presented this talk before at The Web and Beyond, but this time I had a lot more time, and I presented in English. I therefore think this might still be of interest to some people.1 As always, I am very interested in receiving constructive criticism Just drop me a line in the comments.

Update: It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to briefly summarize what this is about. This is a presentation in two parts. In the first, I theorize about the emergence of games that have as their goal the conveying of an argument. These games would use the real-time city as their platform. It is these games that I call urban procedural rhetorics. In the second part I give a few examples of what such games might look like, using a series of sketches.

The slides, posted to SlideShare, as usual:

The video, hosted on the Reboot website:

  1. I did post a transcript in English before, in case you prefer reading to listening. []

Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the presentation to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for recording this.

In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1

Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:

“…the street finds its own uses for things”

For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…

Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2

Continue reading Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

  1. The website of Gramschap contains a chronology of the Provo movement in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emergence of the vertical style of skateboarding see the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys. []

Second order design and play in A Pattern Language

According to Molly, architects hate Christopher Alexander’s guts. Along with a lot of other interaction designers I happen to think his book A Pattern Language is a wonderful resource. It has some interesting things to say about designing for emergence—or second order design—and also contains some patterns related to play. So following the example of Michal Migurski (and many others after him) I’ll blog some dog eared pages.

In the introduction Alexander encourages readers to trace their own path through the book. The idea is to pick a pattern that most closely fits the project you have in mind, and from there move through the book to other ‘smaller’ patterns. It won’t surprise frequent readers of this blog that my eye was immediately caught by the pattern ‘Adventure Playground’ (pattern number 73). Let’s look at the problem statement, on p.368:

“A castle, made of carton, rocks and old branches, by a group of children for themselves, is worth a thousand perfectly detailed, exactly finished castles, made for them in a factory.”

And on the following two pages (p.369-370), the proposed solution:

“Set up a playground for the children in each neighborhood. Not a highly finished playground, with asfalt and swings, but a place with raw materials of all kinds—nets, boxes, barrels, trees, ropes, simple tools, frames, grass, and water—where children can create and re-create playgrounds of their own.”

In the sections enclosed by these two quotes Alexander briefly explains how vital play is to the development of children. He states that neatly designed playgrounds limit children’s imagination. In the countryside, there is plenty of space for these adventure playgrounds to emerge without intervention, but in cities, they must be created.

I’m reminded of the rich range of playful activities teenagers engage in on Habbo Hotel, despite the lack of explicit support for them. At GDC 2008 Sulka Haro showed one example in particular that has stuck with me: Teens enacted a manege by having some of them dress up in brown outfits (the horses), and other standing next to them (the caretakers).

What would the online equivalent of an adventure playground look like? What are the “kinds of junk” we can provide for play (not only by children but by anyone who cares to play). In the physical world, what happens when connected junk enters the playground? Food for thought.

Adventure playground is a pattern “of that part of the language which defines a town or a community.” (p.3)

What I like the most about A Pattern Language is its almost fractal nature. Small patterns can be implemented by one individual or a group of individuals. These smaller ones flow into ever larger ones, etc. Alexander does not believe large scale patterns can be brought into existence through central planning (p.3):

“We believe that the patterns in this section [the largest scale patterns of towns] can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large-scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there.”

So to build an adventure playground, you’ll need smaller-scale patterns, such as ‘bike paths and racks’ and ‘child caves’. Adventure playground itself is encapsulated by patterns such as ‘connected play’. It is all beautifully interconnected. On page xiii:

“In short, no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it. This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at the one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”

Wonderful. A solid description of second order design and another piece of the Playful IAs puzzle. The only way to know if something “does or does not help to form certain large-scale patterns” is by having a language like Alexander’s. The online equivalent of the largest scale patterns would be encompass more than just single sites, they would describe huge chunks of the internet.

In social software, in playful spaces, the large scale patterns cannot be designed directly, but you must be able to describe them accurately, and know how they connect to smaller scale patterns that you can design and build directly. Finally, you need to be aware of even larger scale patterns, that make up the online ecosystem, and play nicely with them (or if your agenda is to change them, consciously create productive friction).

A great book. I would recommend anyone with a passion for emergent design to buy it. As Adaptive Path say:

“This 1977 book is one of the best pieces of information design we’ve come across. The book’s presentation — the layout of each item of the language, the nodal navigation from item to item, the mix of text and image — is as inspiring as the topic itself.”

Tangible — first of five IA Summit 2007 themes

I’ll be posting a top 5 of the themes I noticed during the past 2007 IA Summit in Las Vegas. It’s a little late maybe, but hopefully still offers some value. Here are the 5 themes. My thoughts on the first one (tangible) are below the list:

  1. Tangible (this post)
  2. Social
  3. Web of data
  4. Strategy
  5. Interface design

1. Tangible

The IA community is making a strange dance around the topic of design for physical spaces and objects. On the one hand IAs seem reluctant to move away from the web, on the other hand they seem very curious about what value they can bring to the table when designing buildings, appliances, etc.

The opening keynote was delivered by Joshua Prince-Ramus, of REX (notes by Rob Fay and Jennifer Keach). He made some interesting points about how ‘real’ architects are struggling with including informational concerns in their practice. Michele Tepper, a designer at Frog talked us through the creation of a specialized communications device for day traders where industrial design, interaction design and information architecture went hand in hand.

More to come!