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.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

7 thoughts on “Cities, systems, literacy, games”

  1. That sys­temic lit­er­a­cy was also named dur­ing the Ser­vice Design Con­fer­ence as one of the most impor­tant skills for a ser­vice design­er. Not entire­ly clear where to acquire it, though it seems that there is some cor­re­la­tion with tech­ni­cal uni­ver­si­ties and oth­er cours­es that teach high lev­els of abstrac­tion.

  2. Are you sure the ser­vice design peo­ple weren’t talk­ing about sys­tems the­o­ry? Sure­ly a use­ful field to dip into, I’ve main­ly looked at it in rela­tion to game design (as dis­cussed in Rules of Play, for instance). I’ve main­ly been inter­est­ed in com­plex adap­tive sys­tems. You could do worse than to look at Johnson’s lit­tle book, or Resnick’s. Cyber­net­ics is also worth check­ing, although I have not got­ten around to read­ing any­thing yet (aside from what I was fed while study­ing IxD).

  3. I think they were, but doesn’t the study of sys­tems the­o­ry yield sys­temic lit­er­a­cy?

    The books you rec­om­mend at first glance seem to be treat­ing low lev­el emer­gence in sys­tems which sounds pret­ty famil­iar. Cyber­net­ics may be more inter­est­ing if that deals more with high­er lev­el process­es and com­mu­ni­ca­tion & con­trol.

  4. I think they were, but doesn’t the study of sys­tems the­o­ry yield sys­temic lit­er­a­cy?”

    It does, I guess, but not to the gen­er­al pub­lic. I’m think­ing more along the lines of this Alan Kay quote:

    Any medi­um pow­er­ful enough to extend man’s reach is pow­er­ful enough to top­ple his world. To get the medium’s mag­ic to work for one’s aims rather than against them is to attain lit­er­a­cy.”

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