Talk: Bristol, the world’s first Playable City

Last night I gave a lecture on Playable Cities to mark becoming a Visiting Professor at University of the West of England.  The talk itself featured zombies and a bingo ball system for choosing the order (which is pretty hard to replicate here), but I have copied the text below anyway.


Let’s start with some Microsoft and a corporately imagined vision of our future cities:

Despite the seduction I feel for this efficient, elegant vision of the future, the isolation also worries me – the absence of chance, questions, serendipity and texture point to a world that is just slightly dull. The careful management of schedules and transitions leaves no room to get lost and find a tiny bar far from the clutches of the lonely planet. Or be drawn in to the rant of a taxi driver about council rulings on paint pantones. There is no chance meetings with friends, opportunities to help fellow citizens, languages you don’t understand or unidentified food substances. It is the city of the uncanny valley – a photorealistic simulcram where community, grit and humour have been painted out.

So rather than painting ourselves in to a rather humourless corner, we started our Playable City journey by looking both in our own back yard and across the globe for inspiring examples where play, chaos, connectenedness and serendipity were designed in. And found some brilliantly mind blowing examples:

Sydney Harbour Bridge Picnic – In 2009, 6000 gathered to enjoy breakfast on what is usually eight lanes of busy motorway but for one day only it had been covered in grass.

Utrecht travel accelerator, also known as a slide. Designed to encourage more people to use public transport, actually it wasn’t massively popular as the residents felt they didn’t want to ‘get fat like Americans’.

The brilliantly named Colombian Mayor Mockus introduced Traffic mimes to Bogata, a city known for congestion and driving related misdemeanours. Charged with ridiculing people into behaving well, he sent 420 mimes on to the streets because he believed Colombians were more afraid of being ridiculed than fined.

And the Fun Theory – an old example but a favourite:

So this stuff is going on all over the world, but today I want to talk about Bristol and the projects, artists and ethos that make it the perfect place to explore and I guess put a name to a movement which requires more from its cities than  simply being smart.  Playable City is an antidote to the smart city movement, it was launched last year with our first open call for submissions and has already encompassed workshops with creatives from Japan, South Korea, Australia, Brazil and Singapore.

Legible Cities

In many ways, Playable city has its roots in Legible Cities, which I discovered very recently shares a lot of the same ethos and vision. In 2001 Andrew Kelly authored a paper called Building Legible Cities as part of his work in the Bristol Cultural Develop Partnership. Published in a time of urban renaissance (it starts with the brilliant line “cities are back”) it asks how cities can be made more understandable and enjoyable? How they can communicate more effectively with their users and explores the role of design, branding and public art in the 21st century city?

The paper references Kevin Lynch, an Amercian urban planner who greatly influenced the Legible City initiative. He was interested in the sensuality of cities – For Lynch a city was ideally ‘a work of art, fitted to human purpose.’ Lynch argued for places that could be understood easily and which people could navigate with few problems. He argued also that they should not be based on the views of city managers, urban planners, and construction companies but must start with the user.

Bristol Legible City followed this approach, funding over 40 projects, linking diverse parts of the city with consistent information, providing a clear identity for the city, and helping promote greater use of public transport. It employed map making and public art, gave the city its own font. Yes the iplus points stand fairly redundant now but its achievements are that it did indeed make Bristol easier to read and then inspired similar work all over the world. In the words of TS Elliot, also quoted in Andrew’s report:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

Playable City picks up and builds upon this foundation – by inviting people to behave differently, by giving people permission to play, we seek to change their relationship to places they live and work and the people they share those spaces with. It seeks to inspire in them the ability to question and change what they see.

All well and good but what does this look and feel like? (** at this point in the talk my zombie assistants randomly picket bingo balls which triggered sections on the following projects**)


Born in Bristol in 2010, 2.8 Hours Later has toured across the UK, inviting thousands of players to explore their city as they would a video game:

The Simons, the two creatives behind Slingshot, riff of the city, using its buildings, alleys and carparks as a set, the scale of which no creative could afford. They invite you to experience the city in an entirely new way, you must collaborate with people you don’t know to traverse its challenges, leaving you with memories of zombies hiding behind dustbins which remain long after the ache in your legs has gone.

2.8 Hours later and its subsequent iteration Asylum, is of course a gritterier, dirtier scarier type of Playable city than most, but its success is in exploration of disorder, dystopia and of letting go. And of course it features a very good zombie party at its end.


Circumstance create cinematic experiences in unexpected environments which explore the politics of public space and mobile technologies, wrapped up in melancholy, romance and very long project titles.

Their first subtlemob was created here in Bristol, an invisible flashmob, it integrates with the beauty of the everyday world, so only its participants are aware of it. It’s like walking through a film.

A subtlemob is experienced on headphones. Armed with only an mp3 player it takes you on a cinematic experience of twists and turns. Different MP3 files are distributed to different audience groups, so while some perform simple actions, the others hear stories about these actions, so that everywhere they look the stories come alive in the world around them.

Duncan Speakman, one of the founders of Circumstance and a long term Pervasive Media Studio collaborator pointed me to Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life, to help get inside his work. George writes: “…. the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions. These are the psychological conditions of the metropolis”

Duncan’s work leans toward the emotional and the expressive, almost as a release from this kind of intellectual regard of the environment. If many of us see our city environments as Simmel does as places to feel lost and lonely, subtlemobs are a different kind of Playable proposition which get people to emotionally engage with the city environment.

Another influencing factor in Duncan’s work is the notion that mobile technology connects us to remote locations yet distances us from our immediate surroundings. In the urban space where we are surrounded by so much of everything and everyone we seem to have an increased desire to share that experience remotely (via instagram facebook, twitter). We experience the world through a viewfinder. Circumstance use these same technologies to invert this notion, gifting people’ memories of the city they can access later, rather than quick snaps to broadcast to the world.

Playing Out

A project I haven’t been involved in, but which I think is brilliant, in its playfulness, its sense of vision and the way they have exported their message and model across the UK is Playing out which seeks to enable children to play safely and freely in the street where they live –

Playing Out began four years ago in a south Bristol street when two friends and neighbours (Alice Ferguson and Amy Rose) applied to Bristol City Council to close their street to traffic and open it for play. They wanted to create alternative ways to use the street space – an under-used but very ‘playable’ space – in a different, shared and imaginative way. And like many others they were motivated by a serious concern about the lost opportunities for play outside homes which they and previous generations of children took for granted.

From their first experimental playing out session, the idea grew across Bristol through word of mouth, media publicity and through the website,. Playing Out became a not-for-profit Community Interest Company to support residents wanting to get street play happening in their neighbourhood and the project now runs across the city. In 2011 Bristol City Council became the first local authority to put in place a policy to enable residents to apply to close their street for regular play And 26 local authorities outside Bristol have followed suit.

Now in Bristol there are 30 streets and more than 4,000 children playing our regularly . There is a real sense of cultural change in the way streets are being viewed and a growing challenge to the idea they are simply for driving and parking. Streets which have participated for over two years are experiencing a sustained change to the way neighbours interact, to children’s sense of independence and their confidence in getting around their neighbourhood.

Of course the  best viewpoints on playing out and what it means come from residents:

“Don’t park on our octopus.  He needs to reach the mermaid and treasure chest.  You’ll have to park somewhere else”  is the brilliant quote from a child in South Bristol street at the end of their playing out session when cars were returning and covering up a chalked sea-scape they had created together.

And there are benefits to those without children too – Steve an elderly resident in Bristol said

“Usually my wife and I see nothing but people parking their cars and disappearing into their houses. Now on playing out days it feels like a different street with people chatting and being friendly.”

Luke Jerram

Bristol based artist Luke Jerram asks people to play in a very different way – his project Play Me I am Yours installs street pianos across cities and has toured across the world, making music with thousands of people.

Luke installs his work in cities to unlock it from the art gallery or museum and the cultural gatekeepers that might limit its language and presentation, but at the same time he recognizes that the work has to be more ambitious in order to be seen. He treats the city as a playground for experimentation, but also knows that by reaching people on a mass scale, he can actually change peoples lives…..

And Luke’s notion of public spaces is not limited to parks and plazas but encompasses the sky spaces of our city too:

When I interviewed Luke for this talk, he challenged my notion of Bristol being a special place, suggesting as a city we lacks ambition or maybe just cash, to think big and stretch the limits of what can be done. He noted that of the 40 cities he has installed ‘Play Me I’m Yours’, Bristol is the only city where many of the pianos were vandalised. He does however see Bristol as a good place to test ideas out and has certainly succeeded in scaling up his projects and sharing them with the world.

And his projects do change lives – perhaps not for the naked man who rushed out of his house to see the sky orchestra only to discover he had locked himself out, but certainly for the couples who met over a street piano and have since got married and for the homeless Italian pianist who was lifted from the streets by a music producer and has now produced his first album.

Hello Lamp Post

So Hello Lamp Post were the winners of our first Playable City award, funded by Watershed and a network of brilliant partners with the aims of making a satisfying and convincing experience that people of any age could play; making something that would appeal to people across the city. Basically NOT make a city-centre game for hipsters.

We had 100 hundred entries from all over the world and our brilliant judging team helped us select Pan Studio’s Hello Lamp Post as the winner, which was installed in Bristol this summer:

So what was Hello Lamp Post? 

Not a game. Not a toy. It is game-like and we use the word “player” not user or audience. Although perhaps this is because we lack a better word to describe these people who play in these city-based projects.

It had no natural language processing, the system glues together sentences from a toolkit. So it is a simulation – more like an automata than an AI system. However it turns out that no one minds that the technology is pretty simple as long as its convincing – when it works, nobody minds how stupid it is.

Tom Armitage, the creative technologist on the project, talked about designing this project defensively: We learnt it was better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing.

Hello Lamp Postwas designed aggressively to be brilliant for the single experience: 95% of people will do only play once. It is not good enough to say ‘its great on the third go” you have to design an audience of first time players. Yes, there are easter eggs and hidden narrative but Pan also had to ask themselves what are we competing with? Ice cream? Gromits? If the experience didn’t work first time people will just get to your competition quicker..

The project was a pretty great with over 25,000 text messages exchanged, huge amounts of global press both for the project and for Bristol and publications like Fast Company hailing it a global success.

Some of my favourite things were families playing together:

Bridge #per1: How many strides does it take for you to walk across me?

Player: 60 giant daughter embarrassing steps over the bridge.

The people who learnt to hack the system (a woman used it to encourage the use of public libraries) and accidently releasing the voice of Gromit.

If we go back to Kevin Lynch, he said “The landscape can orient its inhabitants to the past, to the cyclical rhythms of the present, and even to the hopes and dangers of the future.’ Hello lamp Post did just this, helping us to look at our city anew.


Of course there are many other Playable projects I could have covered – See No evil, AntiVJ’s mapped projections, Gromit Unleashed. And there will be many more to come. In January we will be starting our Playable City Lab working with creative from both the UK and Recife in Brazil, In January we will also will launch the call for the next commission. In March we will be touring Hello Lamp Post to Austin and in May holding the world’s first Playable City conference, with the Festival of Ideas.

When I asked people what made a city playable, they talked about needing the rules of a city to bend, as well its open-ness. They talked about permission to be mischievous. They talked abour enabling city leadership. We have all of these things in this city and the opportunity to think big and be much more.

So long live Bristol with its chaos and constraints. Let us take our playfulness to the world. and build a global network of playable cities to play with.