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SXSW Interactive 2014

Playable City Versus Smart Cities

All over the world governments & tech companies are investing in smart cities, using networks & sensors to join up services & collect data. But the emphasis is often a drive for efficiency – Are we in danger of rendering our cities as isolated, professionalised places? How instead might we make them more malleable, communal & hospitable?

In 2012, Watershed launched the first Playable City Award, inviting creatives to pitch something wonderful to inspire & engage. Hello Lamp Post by London-based experience designers PAN Studio with Tom Armitage and Gyorgyi Galik, was chosen from 93 entries from around the world. Challenging myths & exploding preconceptions around the internet of things, smart cities & AI, Hello Lamp Post is a delicate, textured SMS-based experience that has delighted & engaged people from all walks of life.

Clare Reddington (Watershed) & Ben Barker (PAN) will introduce a new movement in designing for cities – one with people & permission to be playful at its core.

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  1. What is a Playable City? The term ‘Playable City’ is new, one that we have imagined as a counterpoint to ‘A Smart City’. It sits apart from the cold, utilitarian concerns of traffic management, big data and refuse collection; a Playable City has its people at its core. Hospitality and openness are key, enabling residents and visitors to reconfigure and rewrite their services, places and stories. It is a place where there is permission to be playful in public.
  2. What is wrong/missing from existing visions of ‘Smart Cities’? There is some great work going on by city planners and commercial giants (some of whom are partners in the Playable City Award) using super-fast broadband networks and increasing access to big data resources to make city systems more efficient, more useful and more responsive. There is nothing inherently wrong we this, but it tends to leave out the more human, playful and nuanced reasons that people favour one city over another.
  3. What is 'Hello Lamp Post'? As the first commission of the Playable City Award, Hello Lamp Post invites you to spark up a conversation with your nearest lamp post, mail box, hydrant or trash can. Using the simple SMS function of your mobile phone, you can ‘wake up’ everyday items of street furniture. Hello Lamp Post is an experimental, city-wide platform for play. It encourages you to rediscover your local environment, share memories and uncover the stories that others leave behind.
  4. How can you use technology as a gateway rather than a barrier to player engagement? The experience should reach out to players in their domain, engage them in a language where they are comfortable and confident. If that step is right then talking to lampposts isn't such a big deal. This is about avoiding the tropes of the city-centre game for hipsters. There's no app to download, no checking in or connecting to your facebook account, you just need a phone and the ability to send a text message.
  5. What might Hello Lamp Post teach us about cities? In Hello Lamp Post, PAN studio have created a kind of city analytics tool. Ben and Clare will explore what they have learnt about: capturing mood and sentiment, place-making, city branding, use of public spaces. They will take a look at what is next for The Playable City including plans to tour Hello Lamp Post & the next commission of the Playable City Award.


  • Clare Reddington, Director, iShed and Pervasive Media Studio, Watershed
  • Ben Barker, Co-founder, PAN Studio


Verity McIntosh, Pervasive Media Studio Producer, Watershed

Meta Information:

  • Tags: internet of things
  • Event: Interactive
  • Format: Dual
  • Track: Smart Transportation and Cities
  • Track 2
  • Level: Intermediate
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