How Bristol will become a Playable City this summer


The concept of a playable city, explains the website of Bristol-based arts and cinema venue Watershed, was dreamt up as a counterpoint to the technological ideal of a smart city. A place, it elaborates, that allows residents and visitors to “reconfigure and rewrite its services, places and stories”.

While it may sound worryingly like the formative steps toward a Ghost In The Shell-style dystopian future, Watershed’s initiative is thankfully more playful. The newly created Playable City Award is designed to encourage experimentation in that awkward hinterland where technology and culture intersect, producing interactive work that pushes those who engage with it to explore and reconsider their surroundings.

The project’s first winner, research studio PAN’s Hello Lamp Post!, was chosen from a shortlist of ten proposals and allows players to chat to the titular street furniture as well as post boxes, bus stops and bollards. Starting this summer, you’ll be able to text these objects by using their ID codes and have what we imagine will be a more metaphysical take on a Siri conversation.

“Hello Lamp Post! stood out with a potential for both art and play using existing urban furniture,” says Google’s creative director Tom Uglow, one third of a judging panel that also consists of musician Imogen Heap and Claire Doherty, director of independent arts organisation Situations.

“It points to a future made up of the physical objects already around us, the ‘internet of things’, and the underlying complexity is made simple and easy for people by just using SMS for this project. Poetry and technology combine to create subtle and playful reflections of the world we live in. It filled me with a childish delight.”

Other shortlisted projects included Ludic Rooms’ Balloonometer, which tasks players with guiding a balloon through a large scaffold structure towards one of two containers – a “safe house” and one filled with spikes – using fans, while Hide&Seek’s Playscape proposes a series of networked, digital screens placed around Bristol that allow people to play “micro-games”.

Details on all of the proposals can be found here. PAN will receive £30,000 along with a “modest budget” to assist with accommodation, travel and production. The team will also be provided desk space at Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio and a national PR campaign once the project is launched.

While all of the projects err very much on the side of public events, many have clearly been inspired by the trends and techniques prevalent in today’s videogames – Fred Deakin’s Interactive Album sounds tantalisingly close to a real-life Proteus, for example. All blur the line between play and street art, and the project offers a fascinating insight how public spaces can be augmented in ways that sidestep the cynicism often associated with that horrible term, gamification. More than that, some offer a glimpse into the ways we might interact with the cities of the future.

We just hope PAN’s project doesn’t suffer from excessive letterboxing.