Waiting for the smart city

Nowadays when we talk about the smart city we don’t necessarily talk about smartness or cities.

I feel like when the term is used it often obscures more than it reveals.

Here a few reasons why.

To begin with, the term suggests something that is yet to arrive. Some kind of tech-enabled utopia. But actually, current day cities are already smart to a greater or lesser degree depending on where and how you look.

This is important because too often we postpone action as we wait for the smart city to arrive. We don’t have to wait. We can act to improve things right now.

Furthermore, ‘smart city’ suggests something monolithic that can be designed as a whole. But a smart city, like any city, is a huge mess of interconnected things. It resists topdown design.

History is littered with failed attempts at authoritarian high-modernist city design. Just stop it.

Smartness should not be an end but a means.

I read ‘smart’ as a shorthand for ‘technologically augmented’. A smart city is a city eaten by software. All cities are being eaten (or have been eaten) by software to a greater or lesser extent. Uber and Airbnb are obvious examples. Smaller more subtle ones abound.

The question is, smart to what end? Efficiency? Legibility? Controllability? Anti-fragility? Playability? Liveability? Sustainability? The answer depends on your outlook.

These are ways in which the smart city label obscures. It obscures agency. It obscures networks. It obscures intent.

I’m not saying don’t ever use it. But in many cases you can get by without it. You can talk about specific parts that make up the whole of a city, specific technologies and specific aims.

Postscript 1

We can do the same exercise with the ‘city’ part of the meme.

The same process that is making cities smart (software eating the world) is also making everything else smart. Smart towns. Smart countrysides. The ends are different. The networks are different. The processes play out in different ways.

It’s okay to think about cities but don’t think they have a monopoly on ‘disruption’.

Postscript 2

Some of this inspired by clever things I heard Sebastian Quack say at Playful Design for Smart Cities and Usman Haque at ThingsCon Amsterdam.


I am back in the Netherlands for over seven weeks now but I am still busy running around the country reconnecting to people and telling them about my experiences in Singapore.

It was great.

I really did manage to reconsider a lot of things and got reoriented, about which more later.

Learned a lot about myself and others by meeting and working with lots of new people from different backgrounds.

And I do miss the city already. The iron-clad guarantee of sun and warmth. Many places to explore offering lots of surprising experiences. And on every street corner, amazing affordable food.

I will miss Singapore, and I am thankful for all it has done for me in the brief period I got to call it my home.

Below are some photos. More are over at Flickr. Happy scrolling and maybe don’t look at these if you’re hungry.

Continue reading Singapore

My year in cities 2009

Last year was thankfully much lower on travel than previous ones. We’re almost a week into 2010, I know, but I still thought it would be worth posting these.1

  • Vancouver
  • Saint Augustine
  • Kuala Lumpur
  • London

One or more nights were spent in each place. All of these were lovely in their own way, but KL’s my favorite of the bunch. Best city for food anywhere on the planet. In case you’re interested, I keep track of these on Dopplr.

  1. As per Kottke and many others. []

Jane Jacobs and London’s Old Street area

I’ve been reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities at a leisurely pace since october or so. (A tempo that seems to suit the book fine. Jacobs makes me want to slow down and see.) I came across this passage during a session with the book this weekend and something about a recent visit to London clicked.

After explaining how large companies do not need to be in cities because they are to a large extent self-sufficient and thus do not have to rely on services outside themselves, Jacobs goes on to say:

“But for small manufacturers, everything is reversed. Typically they must draw on many and varied supplies and skills outside themselves, they must serve a narrow market at the point where a market exists, and they must be sensitive to quick changes in this market. Without cities, they would simply not exist. Dependent on a huge diversity of other city enterprises, they can add further to that diversity. This last is a most important point to remember. City diversity itself permits and stimulates more diversity.

(My emphasis, by the way.)

The day before Playful ’09 I spent some time at BERG, Tinker.it! and Really Interesting Group. Nothing fancy mind you. I mean, they lent me a chair and a bit of table, plus internet. It wasn’t like I actually worked with them (although I’m sure I would enjoy it!) It was a nice experience, but most of all, it was humbling. I was struck by the spareness of the space they were in, the limited facilities at their disposal, the little room they had for all the people present.

Let me just say it was as little or less than what I’ve seen comparable groups in the Netherlands have to make do with.

And this is the thing. Over here, many of the startups I’ve encountered seem to believe they first need more and fancier facilities before they can make it big time. The Silicon Roundabout crew I mentioned earlier make a global splash at a regular basis, despite the limited (that I observed) resources at their disposal.

However, and this is where the quote from Death and Life comes in, perhaps I was looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps the Shoreditch startups are more effective than their Dutch counterparts not just because they do more with less (and because they are, clearly, insanely talented and hard working, “riding the wave of innovation, 24/7”, right guys?) but because they are in London. A city at a different scale than Amsterdam or for that matter the greater Amsterdam area, the Randstad as we call it around these parts. A city with a more diverse ecosystem of services and things, smaller services, more specialised services, ready to be employed by companies like BERG and RIG and Tinker, enhancing their abilities when needed.

The city, in this case, not as a battle suit, but more like a huge drug store stocked with a huge range of pharmaceuticals that augment then this trait, then the other.

Buildings and Brains at the Nijmegen Design Platform (NOP)

It’s been a few weeks since I presented at the Nijmegen Design Platform (NOP), but I thought it would still be useful to post a summary of what I talked about here.

Update: it took me a while, but the slides that accompanied this talk are now up at SlideShare.

A little context: The NOP run frequent events for designers in the region. These designers mostly work in more traditional domains such as graphic, fashion and industrial design. NOP asked Jeroen van Mastrigt — a friend and occasional colleague of mine — to talk about games at one of their events. Jeroen in turn asked me to play Robin to his Batman, I would follow up his epic romp through game design theory with a brief look at pervasive games. This of course was an offer I could not refuse. The event was held at a lovely location (the huge art-house cinema LUX) and was attended by a healthy-sized crowd. Kudos to the NOP for organizing it and many thanks to them (and Jeroen) for inviting me.

So, what I tried to do in the talk was to first give a sense of what pervasive games are, what characterizes them. I drew from the Hide & Seek website for the list of characteristics and used The Soho Project as a running example throughout this part. I also tied the characteristics to some theory I found interesting:

  • Mixing digital technology with real world play — I emphasized that ultimately, technology is but a means to an end. At Interaction ‘09 Robert Fabricant said the medium of interaction design is human behavior. I think the same holds true for the design of pervasive games.
  • Social interactionRaph Koster once said single player games are a historical aberration. It is clear much of the fun in pervasive games is social. In a way I think they bridge the gap between the “old” board games and contemporary video games.
  • Using the city as a playground — Here I could not resist bringing in Jane Jacob’s notions of the city as an entity that is organised from the bottom up and Kevin Lynch’s work on the mental maps we create of cities as we move through them. Cities play a vital role in facilitating the play of pervasive games. At best they are the main protagonist of them.
  • Transforming public spaces into theatrical stagesets — This is related to the previous one, but here I made a sidestep into the embodied nature of player interactions in pervasive games and how embodiment facilitates reading at a distance of such actions. In a sense, the social fun of embodied play is due to its performative quality.

After this, I tried to show why designers outside the domain of games should care about pervasive games. This I did by talking about ways they can be used for purposes other than ‘mere’ entertainment. These were:

  • Enlarging perceived reality; you can create games that play with the way we customarily perceive reality. This was inspired by the talk Kevin Slavin of Area/Code delivered at MIND08. Examples I used were Crossroads and The Comfort of Strangers.
  • Changing human behavior for the better; think of the Toyota Prius dashboard’s effect on people’s driving behavior. Examples of games that use feedback loops to steer us towards desirable goals are CryptoZoo and FourSquare.
  • Crowdsourcing solutions; games can simulate possible futures and challenge players to respond to their problems. Here I used Jane McGonigal’s ideas around collective intelligence gaming. The example game I talked about was World Without Oil.
  • Conveying arguments procedurally; Ian Bogost‘s concept of procedural rhetoric isn’t specific to pervasive games, but I think the way they get mixed up with everyday life make them particularly effective channels for communicating ideas. I used The Go Game, Cruel 2B Kind and Join the Line1 as examples.

By talking about these things I hoped to provide a link to the audience’s own design practice. They may not deal with games, but they surely deal with communicating ideas and changing people’s behavior. Come to think of it though, I was doing a very old media style presentation in attempt to achieve the same… Oh well.

  1. Join the Line is a game students conceptualized during a workshop I ran. []

Mashing up the real-time city and urban games

Yesterday evening I was at the Club of Amsterdam. They host events centred around preferred futures. I was invited to speak at an evening about the future of games.1 I thought I’d share what I talked about with you here.

I had ten minutes to get my point across. To be honest, I think I failed rather dismally. Some of the ideas I included were still quite fresh and unfinished, and I am afraid this did not work out well. I also relied too heavily on referencing other’s work, presuming people would be familiar with them. A miscalculation on my part.

In any case, thanks to Felix Bopp and Carla Hoekendijk for inviting me. I had a good time and enjoyed the other presenter’s talks. The discussion afterwards too was a lot of things, but dull certainly isn’t among them.

What follows is a write-up of what I more or less said during the presentation, plus references to the sources I used, which will hopefully make things clearer than they were during the evening itself.2


(This is where I did the usual introduction of who I am and what I do. I won’t bore you with it here. In case you are wondering, the title of this talk is slightly tongue-in cheek. I had to come up with it for the abstract before writing the actual talk. Had I been able to choose a title afterwards, it would’ve been something like “Growth” or “A New Biology of Urban Play”…)


This gentleman is Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He is said to be the first to formulate a coherent theory of evolution. His ideas centred around inheritance of acquired traits. So for instance, a blacksmiths who works hard his whole life will probably get really strong arms. In the Lamarckist view, his offspring will inherit these strong arms from him. Darwinism rules supreme in evolutionary biology, so it is no surprise that this theory is out of favour nowadays. What I find interesting is the fact that outside of the natural domain, Lamarckism is still applicable, most notably in culture. Cultural organisms can pass on traits they acquired in their lifetime to their offspring. Furthermore, there is a codependency between culture and humans. The two have co-evolved. You could say culture is a trick humans use to get around the limits of Darwinism (slow, trial-and-error based incremental improvements) in order to achieve Lamarckism.3


You can think of cities as cultural meta-organisms. They’re a great example of natural-cultural co-evolution. We use cities as huge information storage and retrieval machines. What you see here is a map of the city of Hamburg circa 1800. In his book Emergence, Steven Berlin Johnson compares the shape of this map to that of the human brain, to illustrate this idea of the city being alive, in a sense. Cities are self-organizing cities that emerge from the bottom up. They grow, patterns are created from low-level interactions, things like neighbourhoods.4


Games are this other thing nature has come up with to speed up evolution. I’m not going to go into why I think we play (you could do worse than have a look at The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith to get a sense of all the different viewpoints on the matter). Let’s just say I think one thing games are good at is conveying viewpoints of the world in a procedural way (a.k.a. ‘procedural rhetoric’ as described in Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games). They provide people with a way to explore a system from the inside out. They give rise to ‘systemic literacy’.5 The image is from Animal Crossing: Wild World, a game that, as Bogost argues, tries to point out certain issues that exist with consumerism and private home ownership.


Moving on, I’d like to discuss two trends that I see happening right now. I’ll build on those to formulate my future vision.


So trend number one: the real-time city. In cities around the globe, we are continuously pumping up the amount of sensors, actuators and processors. The behaviour of people is being sensed, processed and fed back to them in an ever tightening feedback loop. This will inevitably change the behaviour of humans as well as the city. So cities are headed to a phase transition, where they’ll move (if not in whole then at least in neighbourhood-sized chunks) to a new level of evolvability. Adam Greenfield calls it network weather. Dan Hill talks about how these new soft infrastructures can help us change the user experience of the city without needing to change the hard stuff. The problem is, though, that the majority of this stuff is next-to invisible, and therefore hard to “read”.6 The image, by the way, is from Stamen Design’s awesome project Cabspotting, which (amongst other things) consists of real-time tracking and visualization of the trajectories of taxis in the Bay Area.


Trend number two. In the past decade or so, there’s a renewed interest in playing in public spaces. Urban games are being used to re-imagine and repurpose the city in new ways (such as the parkour player pictured here). Consciously or subconsciously, urban games designers are flirting with the notions of the Situationist International, most notably the idea of inner space shaping our experience of outer space (psycho-geography) and the use of playful acts to subvert those spaces. Parkour and free running can’t really be called games, but things like SFZero, The Soho Project and Cruel 2 B Kind all fit these ideas in some way.


So I see an opportunity here: To alleviate some of the illegibility of the real-time city’s new soft infrastructures, we can deploy games that tap into them. Thus we employ the capacity of games to provide insight into complex systems. With urban games, this ‘grokking’ can happen in situ.


Through playing these games, people will be better able to “read” the real-time city, and to move towards a more decentralized mindset. The image is from a project by Dan Hill, where the shape of public Wi-Fi in the State Library of Queensland was visualized and overlaid on the building’s floor-plan.


Ultimately though, I would love to enable people to not only “read” but also “write” possible processes for the real-time city. I see many advantages here. Fore one this could lead to situated procedural arguments: people could be enabled to propose alternative ways of interacting with urban space. But even without this, just by making stuff, another way of learning is activated, known as ‘analysis by synthesis’. This was the aim of Mitchel Resnick when he made StarLogo (of which you see a screenshot here). And it works. StarLogo enables children to make sense of complex systems. A real-time urban game design toolkit could to the same, with the added benefit of the games being juxtaposed with the cities they are about.


This juxtaposition might result in dynamics similar to what we find in nature. Processes from these new games might be spontaneously transferred over to the city, and vice versa. The image is of roots with outgrowths on them which are caused by a bacteria called Agrobacterium. This bacteria is well known for its ability to transfer DNA between itself and plants. An example of nature circumventing natural selection.7 A new symbiosis between urban games and the real-time city might lead to similar acceleration of their evolutions.


(I finished a little over time and had time for one question. Adriaan Wormgoor of FourceLabs asked whether I thought games would sooner or later become self-evolving themselves. My answer was “absolutely”. to get to ever higher levels of complexity we’ll be forced to start growing or rearing our games more than assembling them from parts. Games want to be free, you could say, so they are inevitably heading towards ever higher levels of evolvability.)

  1. Iskander Smit has posted a report of the evening over at his blog. []
  2. If you’re interested, the slide deck as a whole is also available on SlideShare. []
  3. I first came across Lamarck, and the idea of nature and culture co-evolving in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control. The blacksmith example is his too. []
  4. All this flies in the face of large-scale top-down planning and zoning, as Jane Jacobs makes painfully clear in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. []
  5. Eric Zimmerman talked at length about the need for systemic literacy at Playful 2008. []
  6. For more on this have a look at another blog post by Adam Greenfield titled Reading, writing, texts, literacy, cities. []
  7. As Kevin Kelly writes in Out of Control, evolution with symbiosis included is less like a tree and more like a thicket. []

The theory and practice of urban game design

A few weeks ago NLGD asked me to help out with an urban games ‘seminar’ that they had commissioned in collaboration with the Dutch Game Garden. A group of around 50 students from two game design courses at the Utrecht School of the Arts1 were asked to design a game for the upcoming Festival of Games in Utrecht. The workshop lasted a week. My involvement consisted of a short lecture, followed by several design exercises designed to help the students get started on Monday. On Friday, I was part of the jury that determined which game will be played at the festival.


In the lecture I briefly introduced some thinkers in urbanism that I find of interest to urban game designers. I talked about Jane Jacobs’ view of the city as a living organism that is grown from the bottom up. I also mentioned Kevin Lynch’s work around wayfinding and the elements that make up people’s mental maps of cities. I touched upon the need to have a good grasp of social interaction patterns2. Finally, I advised the students to be frugal when it comes to the inclusion of technology in the students’ game designs. A good question to always ask yourself is: can I have as much fun without this gadget?

I wrapped up the lecture by looking at 5 games, some well-known, others less so: Big Urban Game, ConQwest, Pac-Manhattan, The Soho Project and The Comfort of Strangers. There are many more good examples, of course, but each of these helped in highlighting a specific aspect of urban games design.


Next, I ran a workshop of around 3 hours with the students, consisting of two exercises (plus one they could complete afterwards in their own time). The first one is the most interesting to discuss here. It’s a game-like elicitation technique called VNA3, which derives its name from the card types in the deck it is made up of: verbs, nouns and adjectives.

Students doing a VNA exercise

The way it works is that you take turns drawing a card from the deck and make up a one-sentence idea involving the term. The first person to go draws a verb, the second person a noun and the third an adjective. Each person builds on the idea of his or her precursor. The concept that results from the three-card sequence is written down, and the next person draws a verb card again.4 The exercise resembles cadavre exquis, the biggest difference being that here, the terms are predetermined.

VNA is a great ice-breaker. The students were divided into teams of five and, because a side-goal of the seminar was to encourage collaboration between students from the different courses, they often did not know each other. Thanks to this exercise they became acquainted, but within a creative context. The exercise also privileges volume of ideas over their quality, which is perfect in the early stages of conceptualization. Last but not least, it is a lot of fun; many students asked where they could get the deck of cards.


On Friday, I (together with the other jury members) was treated to ten presentations by the students. Each had prepared a video containing footage of prototyping and play-testing sessions, as well as an elevator pitch. A lot of them were quite good, especially considering the fact that many students had not created an urban game before, or hadn’t even played one. But one game really stood out for me. It employed a simple mechanic: making chains of people by holding hands. A chain was started by players, but required the help of passers-by to complete. Watching the videos of chains being completed evoked a strong positive emotional response, not only with myself, but also my fellow jurors. What’s more important though, is that the game clearly engendered happiness in its participants, including the people who joined in as it was being played.

An urban game being played

In one video sequence, we see a near-completed chain of people in a mall, shouting requests at people to join in. A lone man has been observing the spectacle from a distance for some time. Suddenly, he steps forward, and joins hands with the others. The chain is completed. A huge cheer emerges from the group, hands are raised in the air and applause follows, the man joining in. Then he walks off towards the camera, grinning, two thumbs up. I could not help but grin back.5

Happy urban game participant

  1. Game Design and Development and Design for Virtual Theatre and Games []
  2. pointing to this resource, that was discussed at length on the IGDA ARG SIG []
  3. developed by Annakaisa Kultima []
  4. An interesting aside is that the deck was originally designed to be used for the creation of casual mobile games. The words were chosen accordingly. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, they are quite suitable to the design of urban games. []
  5. To clarify, this was not the game that got selected for the Festival of Games. There were some issues with the game as a whole. It was short-listed though. Another excellent game, involving mechanics inspired by photo safari, was the winner. []

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.

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. []