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.

Singapore

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

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(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”…)

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

Lec­ture

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.

Work­shop

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.

Jury­ing

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. []