Bristol loves cereal, Tokyo hates doing the dishes, and other lessons from "Hello Lamp Post"

When lamp posts talk back. Image: PAN Studios.

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.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.