If you were mayor of your city, what would you change? What’s your city’s claim to fame? And what did you have for breakfast?
Over the last 18 months Pan Studio, the design studio I founded, has been making street furniture ask exactly these questions of their citizens, in three very different cities – Tokyo, Bristol and Austin.
Hello Lamp Post is our playful, citywide installation inviting people to strike up conversations with familiar street furniture using the text message function of their mobile phones. Most street furniture anywhere in the world has a unique code for maintenance purposes. Hello Lamp Post repurposes these, allowing passers-by to identify an object and “wake it up”, prompting it to ask its caller a few questions. By giving specific personalities to specific objects, we are asking citizens to reflect on where they live and what they feel about the other inhabitants of the city.
We originally developed Hello Lamp Post for Watershed’s inaugural Playable City Award in Bristol in 2013, and have since rolled it out elsewhere. We designed it so that about half the questions are unique to a city, creating a sort of comfortable familiarity, designed to elicit conversational responses. The other series of questions are the same everywhere, allowing us to start to look at how the cities differ in language, perception and values.
Some people have recounted their childhood memories (“Watching jeopardy with my grandma and papa while drinking coke out of a styrofoam cup and eating peppermint patties”). Others have tried to explain their city to someone else (“It is a very, very strange place. Lots of big creatures called cars and giant buildings. A whole lot of people”).
Still others have described what they would do if they were mayor (“I would implement a government leadership training program to engage and train tomorrow's leaders”).
The questions asked in many cities have allowed us to see patterns in how people talk about or to the place they live. Below we have visualised some of these, looking for commonalities and differences across the three cities. Typically the data is drawn from a pool of around 25,000 user responses per city, although the sample size in Tokyo is smaller, as the scheme is only half way through its run.
Across the three cities, stereotypes are perhaps most confounded by answers the question, “Do you have a hobby?” In Austin, the city of music, no one identifies it as a hobby. Perhaps, this just emphasises how much a part of local culture music is. (After all, Bristolians don’t mentions talking about the weather as a hobby either.)
The question of daily activity was skewed a bit in Tokyo by the fact we launched at a cultural event, but is an interesting reflection of where people engaged with the project, nonetheless. In Austin, where the project was promoted more heavily outside of the city centre, people were less likely to talk about culture and socialising, and more likely to talk about daily routine stuff, like working and heading home. Perhaps it’s a reflection that there is just more going on downtown.
On the subject of culture, some of the nicest bits of analysis we can do are on how people perceive their city. Both in terms of the memories they carry of it…
…and in terms of what they don’t like. Austin had just rejected a transport bond on a proposed light rail system: a lot of people were angry. Meanwhile, Bristol had a recent hike in bus fares and parking costs.
There is some correlation between Austin and Tokyo on chores that you would rather robots did. Going to work and doing the dishes, it seems, are universally loathed. Isn’t there already a robot that does the dishes in most homes? No, it turns out that in Tokyo, with space at a premium, most people don’t have dishwashers. But what’s going on in Austin?
If it’s not robots then it’s super powers. Will we ever really know why the people of Austin want to be able to teleport, but people in Bristol are much more interested in controlling time?
Sting got a whole song out of the transatlantic differences in breakfasting habits. Toast and cereal are the overwhelming favourites in Bristol; while in Austin it’s tacos and eggs.
The portrait that Hello Lamp Post paints of a city is often charming, sometimes mundane, occasional profound, but rarely definite. Perhaps one of its most important traits is its lack of tangibility, an idea of a place that is somehow all the more human.
Now if we could just figure out where those people in Austin want to teleport to.
You can find more examples of what people have been saying to street furniture in the three Hello Lamp Post cities at the following links:
Thanks to British Council for their role as cultural broker for the latest incarnation of Hello Lamp Post; watch out for more Playable City opportunities to be announced soon.
Ben Barker is an experience designer and founder of design practice PAN Studio. PAN produces interactive objects for installations and immersive theatre, and creates experimental objects designed to find new ways of enriching everyday living.