• Opinion
  • December 21, 2018
  • 8 minutes
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Playful approaches to the smart city — is there a role for fun and games?

Opinion: Play and the smart city are by no means binary, oppositional concepts

This piece was written by Dale Leorke, postdoctoral researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies at Tampere University, Finland. He is the author of Location-based Gaming: Play in Public Space and co-author (with Danielle Wyatt) of Public Libraries in the Smart City. For more like this, see our cities newsfeed.


For cities vying to become more liveable, economically competitive and internationally attractive to knowledge workers, the “smart city” offers an irresistible model. Its promises — to identify efficiencies and create tools for civic engagement through sensors embedded in the urban environment that harvest real-time data — have been enthusiastically embraced around the world.

Yet scholars and some mainstream commentators are considerably more sceptical than policymakers of the smart city’s potential. Some have critiqued its data fetishism, neoliberal tendencies and roots in corporate marketing discourse. Perhaps the most pointed criticisms have been reserved for the underlying principles of the smart city itself: its emphasis on efficiency and functionality at the expense of spontaneous, non-productive and playful behaviour.

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Smart city policies are couched in the language of efficiency and productivity

Within most smart city visions to date, there is little room for the types of behaviour and practices — wasteful, non-instrumental, superfluous, unpredictable, or indeed transgressive activities — that we associate with play. Instead, smart city policies are couched in the language of efficiency and productivity: “responsive architecture and systems”; platforms that “improve sustainability” and “optimise travel” from A to B; and policies that generate jobs in the knowledge sector based around “innovation”, “entrepreneurship” and “digital disruption”.

The Playable City movement is the most prominent advocate of this critique. Founded at Bristol’s Watershed arts and culture centre and since spreading to several other cities around the world, the Playable City envisions itself as an alternative to the smart city. As Watershed’s creative director Clare Reddington states, “There’s a lot of publicity around smart cities, future cities as big tech providers, but we’re trying to counter some of the difficulties […] technologies don’t have to be isolating, they can be used for fun.”

Playable City funds artistic — and often low-tech— projects and “interventions” that reappropriate smart city technologies for more playful purposes. Shadowing, for instance, uses smart street lamps to record and project the shadows of passers-by, defamiliarising a taken-for-granted technology. Stop, Smile, Stroll, meanwhile, transforms pedestrian crossings into 30-second parties by playing music based on the facial expressions it reads on people waiting for the lights to change.

While some commentators are effusive about the potential of projects like these for “interrupting the utilitarian efficiency of the urban environment”, others are critical of the broader impact of the Playable City movement. Christina Patterson points out that such projects risk imposing on and irritating as many people as they delight, while Feargus O’Sullivan polemically describes them as “infantilising distractions” from deeper urban problems, like inequality and the privatisation of public spaces.

It’s also important to note that although the Playable City’s founders describe it as a “counter” or “reaction” to the smart city, both concepts share the common, underlying imperative of attracting creative “knowledge workers” to their cities. Playable cities do this through public events and spectacles, and smart cities through start-up incubators and seamlessly integrated e-government platforms. But as a city-funded initiative, the Playable City label is just as much about branding and image boosting as the smart city.

Other groups are more diplomatic in their calls for more playful approaches to the smart city. Eric Gordon and Stephen Walter, based at Boston’s Emerson College and Mayor’s Office respectively, argue for what they call “meaningful inefficiencies” to be accommodated within smart city models. This involves allowing for unanticipated, unpredictable, and playful behaviour to unfold within smart city initiatives. They argue that designers and managers of smart cities must cater for people “acting against the system” and “playing with the rules” in ways that weren’t originally intended.

Unlike proponents of the Playable City model, Gordon and Walter do not frame meaningful inefficiencies as an alternative to the smart city, but rather as a rethinking or reconfiguration of its principles to accommodate “the marginalised, the emergent, and the playful.”

What does it means to augment, reconfigure and even challenge the smart city through games and play?

In addition to these approaches, some groups have sought to “gamify” the smart city by creating games that incentivise efficient and sustainable practices, like waste disposal and taking the bus. These projects incorporate playfulness into smart city initiatives without questioning its underpinning agenda.

As part of my research, myself and other academics at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies are unpacking these claims and thinking through what it means to augment, reconfigure and even challenge the smart city through games and play.

At stake in these debates are fundamental questions. To what extent will our increasingly smarter (and more pervasively monitored and surveilled) urban spaces allow for playful, non-instrumental behaviour? And how can these be genuinely transgressive, subversive and not so easily assimilated back into the smart city’s attempt to brand itself as high-tech and creative?

Play and the smart city are by no means binary, oppositional concepts

What is clear is that play and the smart city are by no means binary, oppositional concepts. What we need is a more nuanced approach that explores the more conceptual, philosophical nature of play and its role in increasingly digitised (read: connected and controlled) urban spaces. — Dale Leorke

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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