Interactive signposts and pedestrian crossing parties: it's this year's Playable Cities shortlist

Make Your Rhythm. Image: Nushin Samavaki & Elham Souri.

The 2016 Playable City Award shortlist has been revealed – and this year, the theme is “journeys”.

 “Certainly from our international work – in Japan, Nigeria, Brazil and so on,” explains Hilary O’Shaughnessy, the award’s producer, “we have noticed that movement and journeying are issues that affect all people, anywhere in the world, and from any demographic. So that’s one of the reasons we chose to make it expressly about journeys this year – to explore that in a bit more depth.”

This year, for the first time the winning award will be announced in London, in a ceremony to be held on 27 October at the Urban Innovation Centre in Clerkenwell. The eight shortlisted projects are:

  • “Happy Place” by Uniform, which will see signposts equipped with interactive displays capable of responding to the facial expressions of viewers;
  • “Im[press]ion” by Mobile Studio Architects, which connects strangers at various transit stops through their sense of touch, a bit like a pin screen toy;

Im[press]ion – click to expand. Image: Mobile Studio Architects. 

  • “Mischievous Footprints” by PCT Team, which relocates our attention from the screens of our smartphones back out on to the street by embedding pressure sensors and LED lights into the floor;
  • “Paths” by Biome Collective, a public space musical instrument and light installation;
  • “The Conversing Circuit” by Urban Conga, which aims to create a conversation between people waiting at bus stop;

The Conversing Circuit. Image: Urban Conga.

  • “Dance Step City” by Gigantic Mechanic, which will “offer a set of dance steps tailored to the environment, that take participants on a playful romp”;
  • “Make Your Rhythm” by Nushin Samavaki & Elham Souri, which transforms the bus stop seat into a swing which moves up and down;
  • “Stop, Wait, Dance, Walk”, by Hirsch & Mann Ltd, which “transforms the pedestrian crossing into a 30-second party”.

Stop, Wait, Dance, Walk. Image: Hirsch & Mann.

O’Shaughnessy says that she is optimistic about this year’s entries, and how the award has developed over the four years. “Because it is the fourth year, and we have received entries from 34 countries, I think the applicants are more aware of what a Playable City might look like, and of the impact it can have,” she says. “They are also aware of how the projects might affect the world or context in which they live, regardless of where that may be.”


She added that there was a “maturation or a depth of thought in the proposals” which she found encouraging. “That’s not to say other years projects were immature – but there is definitely a deeper connection with the central idea of Playable city, of reconfiguration, repurposing, and reimagining, to create deeper social connections.”

The winners will receive a £30,000 award along with practical support and guidance to help realise their project. They will prototype their project at Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, and publicly test it out in Bristol, before touring other Playable City locations globally.

Despite the award’s global outlook, it remains firmly Bristol based. “The public here are very much behind the projects, and each year we get the request for the next Playable City project. The city administration are also delighted as the award fits in with their goal to promote Bristol as a place of innovation, and a leader in experimentation that is civilly led and minded, which it is. We couldn’t ask for a more supportive environment.” 

Look out for the winner on 27 October in London, and in a Playable City near you soon.

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“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.