This is a slightly longer version of this piece:
There is no shortage of visionaries when it comes to imagining the future city. That phrase alone probably conjures up a mental image. Is yours a Metropolis, or a Jetson’s filled with flying cars, or more Bladerunner? Perhaps it is a Kurzweilian cybertopia, or a hypnopaedic Brave New World of pre-conditioned bliss? We love these visions of the future, filled with burnished chrome or soot-stained neo-Victorians.
But ask yourself for a moment—where is the leisure in these visions? What will opera will be like in the future? Not the browser, but Bizet’s Carmen in the world of I, Robot, or Shakespeare in Wall-E’s horrific cultural catatonia. Are there pop stars twerking in Azimov’s Foundation? In 1984, is the Mousetrap still playing? How do people who are not watching or competing in the Hunger Games spend their time? In near-future visions, like Her or The Island, we aren’t told what has replaced Minecraft and Halo, or if the Simpsons still exists, or if people are still reading the da Vinci code, and if so, why?
Huxley, of course, did answer these questions. Brave New World is devoted to a monocultural adult play-time of sex, soma and indolent socialism (Shakespeare is banned). When he envisioned his world, a computer was a human that processed logarithmic tables, but today parallels abound between Huxley’s world and our passive absorption of TV, Facebook, and computer games. (OK, maybe with less focus on the drugs and the sex). But we do like to consume, and it is pretty monocultural. This year the average American will spend 12 hours a day consuming media, 10 of them screen-based. It’s a little isolating, maybe even anti-social. Do we need to fix this? Let’s say yes. So where to start?
Perhaps it’s by injecting a little, well, fun, into the cities of today. We’re in the 21st Century and instead of the flying cars we were promised, our focus is on getting our work done. Future cities are fantastical, but today’s urban spaces are, for the most part, lean, sustainable cities that aim for a state of constant productivity and edification. Someone somewhere is probably writing about social intelligence in urban planning, but we need to actually do it, to take on and create our own social vision. Enter the Playable City.
Last year Bristol’s Watershed started this commission with a challenge: to find ways of opening up Bristol’s urban spaces using the potential of digital culture to delight and enchant. Physical spaces, and objects (for example, lampposts) would interact with humans and data in an organic, natural way. That was not necessarily the brief, but that is what won. Tom Armitage tells this story perfectly on his blog. It was fabulous; hijacking existing technology, and making mundane objects magical with the simple trick of allowing people to indulge their imagination. It was a perfect start. Because it turns out that we are not in a novel  and we do need to engage with the visionaries, artists and writers because they do shape our future. Our cities are communal and physical and layered. They are stratified by centuries or even millennia of physical iteration. We have a modicum of control over the future of these spaces—we can submit to gleaming efficiency with screens on every table, or quirky, collisions of technology, culture and hyperlocality that spark the brain.
Our society values art and science—we show the greatest reverence to periods of history that are rich in technological or cultural development, yet we are frequently unwilling to actually support innovation in our own backyard. We like old art. So it makes sense that these sorts of projects start with the adventurous grassroots organisations, like the Watershed, and in Bristol, a city with a history of challenging convention and embracing cultural and technical innovation.
Along with science we also like things that are ‘real’, authentic, organic and physical: we prefer natural light to strip lights, we prefer real plants to plastic ones, the human touch beats a robot (apparently) - so it doesn’t make much sense to charge towards a world that humans won’t like, because - as we eloquently proved with the Segway - we just won’t use it. Playable Cities starts with a simple idea, how do we make digital interaction feel natural, feel fun in the city. At their best the entries last year verged on anti-corporate, pushing back at the vision of gleaming connected utopias. Pan Studios won because they reminded us that not everyone has a smartphone, and everyone can text. This year, with the exponential rise in mobile usage that argument may not feel so strong. 50% of all computers shipped worldwide will be tablets in 2014. 25% are smart phones and that technology saturates our lives. When watching TV I take delight in counting how often our creators feel the need to write phones out of plots. These are our ubiquitous computers - they can be disregarded but they are still be there in pockets and bags, waiting for culture to tune in.
If last year’s entries are anything to go by, our ‘playable’ city is a counterpoint to a super-connected city. Connected cities are great, for sure, washing machines that talk to your phone, buses that know that you are waiting ...but where’s the fun? Ultimately there is more to life than efficiency and machines—the Watershed project and others are the vanguard of contemporary culture today. They explore the incredible potential of this rapidly growing digital infrastructure to help us understand ourselves and our world. We now exist in a post-digital phase where the frisson of excitement at the power of the internet or a smartphone, or even an ATM has dissipated into the occasional “oh, cool”. But with a twist, with some play, all that awe comes rushing back - we love to see developers and artists working to use technology to make your morning dash for milk, or standing in a bus queue, well, special. Enchanting.
And there are broader signs of digital being embraced into the core of the creative process - from Olafur Eliasson & Ai Wei Wei moon project, to the Barbican’s DevArt project with Google, and Radiohead’s Polyfauna - an algorithmic music video app with Universal Everything. Creative digital is not an aesthetic, and the ‘digital’ art we see in projects like DevArt should not be a label for the lazy to define digital creativity. There is no such thing—there are coders making art, but that is no more digital than authors working with online reading patterns, or composers sampling from data sets, or choreographers working with motion capture and an Oculus Rift. It is reductive to put digital into a box; ‘net art’ or ‘dev art’ are just moments in an accelerating ecosystem. We will never move past artists’ desire to to express themselves with new technology, we just need to find the right platforms to talk about it and show the best of it.
I am delighted to have been invited back to judge this years awards for a second year and am optimistic that we will see a similar level of pragmatic digital delight and tomfoolery. Enigmatic, optimistic or simply baffling suggestions that aim to augment the wonder of the real world, rather than covering it in screens - if last year was about working out what playable meant, this year will be about bold and beautiful ideas. Hopefully, by next year, we will see commissions like Playable City as the time when culture began to assimilate, to incorporate, to grok digital.
Tom Uglow is Creative Director at Google Creative Lab, and @tomux on Twitter. Playable City is open for submissions until 11/04/14: www.watershed.co.uk/playablecity