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!