Designing for open-ended play is an interesting alley

states Michiel de Lange of The Mobile City in an interview with Play the City

Majority Report Interview: Michiel de Lange

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Michiel de Lange, part-time lecturer at Utrecht University in New Media Studies. In 2007 he co-founded The Mobile City with Martijn de Waal - a research organization interested in the relationship between cities and digital media technologies. The basic question that they ask is how cities are transforming when they become intertwined with various media technologies and what it means for urban life. They also question what it means for urban designers; how can they adapt to it or relate to these developments?

1. What do you think the top 5 digital tools for improving the city are?

I would rather state that the tools matter less than the processes that are designed. It's not really important which tools you use (obviously within a certain bandwidth it does, because you always have to take into account what tools people have access to). It's more appropriate to think about how to involve people in an urban issue. In particular, we need to ask what the problem at hand is, and only then look at which digital tools can be used at what points of the design process. Perhaps early in the design process you want to collect information, to tap into local knowledge - then you could equip people with Location Based Technologies to trace their routes. Or you could 'scrape' tweets to interpret and find out which terms they use to capture their experiences and emotions of specific areas and situations. So there's a wealth of information that is already out there, that with some creativity can already be tapped into. This can be used early in the design process.

In the actual co-creation phase, collaborative platforms can be used for people to contribute, filter, document and vote on ideas, as well as being used as a discussion tool. This way people can decide together on what is and isn't worthwhile. This could either be based on text, like a Wikipedia Talk page, where people can discuss what is worth including in the article and what should be discarded in a very democratic way. Let's not forget to take into account the reputation of those who contribute: who actually has more knowledge on the particular area than others? So it should not be completely flat, purely bottom-up, but different contributions should be weighed, even curated.

It could also be more of a simulation environment, where the game aspect becomes interesting. People could contribute visual ideas, or action, and be able to test them to explore 'what if' scenarios. There's the example of the Face Your World project by Jeanne van Heeswijk, where she had a simulation environment where people could contribute and discuss their ideas, and vote on which ones were the best. It was almost like a game environment; game aspects could be added to make it more useful and fun. It was also a way to filter out what was good and what was not.

Later on in the design process you could think of tools, or digital media as actual products, as integral parts of the service or product that you're trying to deliver. If you want to do something outdoors to enhance the public sphere, then you could think of a digital installation or things that people could program themselves so they're not merely passive consumers of the urban environment but active contributors to what is going on. In this scenario, digital tools could be integrated into the 'finished' product or service.

A further step is maintenance or governance. Once you're done with the project you'd ideally like someone to adopt and maintain it, to assure it's not vandalized and continues to evolve. Here digital media could provide a set of collaborative tools to manage governance.

Finally you could even use these tools to evaluate what you've been designing.

2. Do you have examples of one(s) are you are using?

Well, for example Verbeterdebuurt is a project inspired by the UK project, Fix My Street. Where Fix My Street is focusing on problems, the Verbeterdebuurt app also allows users to contribute ideas. It has a bit more of a positive approach, people can not only point out what is going wrong in their environment by pinpointing it on the map and sending it to the local authorities, but they can also contribute how to improve the neighborhood and must gain followers that backup their idea.

[Play the city]: In our research we didn't think Verbeterdebuurt was being used very frequently (based on the website). Can you think of reasons?

It's always easier to point out problems than to contribute good ideas. There's also a lack of knowledge, people don't know that the tool is out there, it's not really being actively promoted. I believe they're actually working on that at the moment.

Also, people will only become active and contribute 'fixes' when they receive feedback. So there must be an instant feedback loop. I believe some municipalities are quite diligent in producing feedback on Verbeterdebuurt.

This raises the issue that there really needs to be someone in the municipality who is ready to work on the process; no matter how beautifully designed the tool is, it needs the agents to activate it.

This is perhaps the biggest issue: the responsibility of various stakeholders in keeping the urban environment a livable place. Right now there's a big reshuffling of responsibilities, with governments retreating and leaving much more up to society and stakeholders. Perhaps you cannot simply start by creating a lovely tool, it's really about getting the right people to adopt the tool, contribute, and feel that they're actually benefiting from it. For any tool, it's about doing workshops with stakeholders so they can adopt the tool and feel ownership over it.

[Play the City]: So maybe the analog version needs to activate it?

Exactly, I know that Verbeterdebuurt is doing things like that - municipalities are organizing neighborhood walks where people are equipped with the app to actively hunting for bugs in the urban environment. It's of course a 'gezellig uitje' [cozy outing] for people to meet in the neighborhood and chat about what could be better in your area. I think that it's really important to mix the technology with an actual face-to-face encounter. These meetings are key to establishing trust and a sense of ownership. People need to feel that what they're doing matters for their environment, that it actually helps to solve something.

Also working on the feedback loop is vital - to establish who is the agent of the month or whose ideas are taken over by the city most often.

I think those are great ideas, you have to highlight success stories and make people feel that their contribution matters. The lack of that could be an issue. To a large degree, it's about telling stories about what you're doing, and making people feel like they're an actor in that story.

3. How would you define a Smart City?

That's a tough one... let me start by telling you what it's not. Up until now, the discourse of Smart Cities has been about optimizing various urban functions and services to make them more efficient and streamline their delivery to citizens. Which is still a rather top-down approach when reflecting on the roles of citizens. It's also a rhetoric of efficiency that is to a degree understandable for a city but, on the other hand, you also have to look at what it leaves out - and it leaves out an important element of urban life, that is moments of friction or unexpected encounters, serendipity. Moments when things are not going smoothly, when you have to take a stance against something or for something, or talk with a stranger. Moments that require you to suddenly relate to your environment and to fellow urbanites.

The rhetoric of efficiency seems to ignore these moments, therefore what we've been trying to do as The Mobile City is focus on exactly that, the part that is left out- which we've dubbed the 'Social City'. This turned into the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference we co-organized with Virtueel Platform and ARCAM in February 2012, where we tried to balance this Smart City rhetoric and focus on the active role of the citizenry. Instead of a top-down approach or a purely bottom-up approach, we explored an approach where we linked up active stakeholders who all bring in their different perspectives and backgrounds. They were treated as being different but in a sense equal contributors to the issue at stake.

The Social City that we envision also incorporates the poetic side of the urban experience, which is not just about efficiency or optimizing urban services but about how people feel the city is actually theirs, that they have a place in the city's narratives. We also focused a lot on art and media-art type projects that tried to do just that. Cinematographic, playful or poetic experiences of the city matter, because through these art mediations people can look at their environment with new eyes and become reattached to places and others, which is also really important. In our view the city isn't just a complex system that has to be made efficient but also about the experiences and affective relationships people have.

4. As this was the topic for the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference, what were the 3 main things on the topic you learned from the conference?

One of the things was a remark by one of the keynote speakers, Dan Hill, who said that time for merely experimenting is over, there are no one-off interventions anymore. If you really want to tackle the wicked and complex problems in our cities today, which are very complex, such as environmental issues and social equity, simple technological fixes cannot just be plugged-in. It will never work. So creating an app or platform and throwing it out there is not going to provide you with results that you'd like. Change requires engaging with the problem for a long time, being an active participant in it, an active stakeholder - rather than being a fly-on-the-wall consultant that shouts a solution, takes their hands off the problem and lets other people solve it. It really struck me that there really are no easy technological fixes for complex urban issues.

What really worked out well was a 3-day workshop we organized prior to the conference day. We formed teams of about 5-6 people that were really diverse, which was a big success. The teams consisted of architects, designers, media makers, hackers and academics. We thought this diversity represented on a micro-scale the kind of diversity you'd have to deal with in an urban situation. They were also participants from various countries in Europe who brought in their own experience and cultural background as well. To my surprise, they managed to negotiate a common language which is sometimes difficult because architects are trained in a certain vocabulary, and artists and academics each have a different discourse that they operate in. Once a common language is established a basis is created for collaboration.

We worked on real-world questions and situations, not hypothetical lab questions, where participants were encouraged to go on-site. We brought it to participants as a potential business case where freelancers or young professionals could be provided with the opportunity to continue developing the project even after the workshop was over.

'Unlikely coalitions' were created, where creatives were teamed with a housing corporation, architects, a cultural organization, and the Amsterdam municipality. These were people and institutions who would normally have difficulties in finding each other and seeing what the added value could be in collaborating. We spent a lot of time on preparatory work to get these organizations to contribute a case. It was quite brave of them to admit that they needed help in solving an issue that they couldn't resolve alone. The workshop was also about exploring business models, thinking how you could make money from collaborating, which is of course an important condition for any project.

We talked with stakeholders about the importance of their presence on the workshop presentation day, and to vocalize what their commitment would be to the outcomes. We didn't want it to be a one-off case, but a stepping stone to potential collaborations.

[Play the city]: Was there anything you learned from the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference not to do again?

One of the important mistakes that we made was that we didn't have a longer term plan to continue with the outcomes after the event was over. This was particularly important for the workshop, because, as I mentioned earlier, one-off interventions should be replaced by more durable and sustainable interventions. After the 3 days, we basically left it up to the teams to sort things out on their own. We could've better thought of our own role as a broker or mediator in the process even after the workshop was over.

As for the conference day itself, the space in which the conference took place was a rather traditional setting - basically a theater where people were sitting in chairs gazing at speakers. There was little potential for real interaction that day. I caught a few complaints from the audience about that. We could've scheduled the conference day less densely and allowed for more discussion moments during the day. It's really important that visitors should feel like they can contribute to the day as well, rather than being a passive audience.

5. Just because it is easier to build participatory platforms [apps, websites, installations], should we expect citizens to contribute more to the city making process?

That is obviously our hope, but it's not going to happen automatically. As I said earlier, the user experience of the platform or whether it looks slick or not (the quality of the platform) is perhaps less important than the process that you're designing to get people to feel ownership over specific issues in their environment and contribute to it. The real challenge is how to use the platform in a wider social design type of project.

In our research, we have found that simply designed applications that communicate well tend to have success over more complicated applications.

That's true, when you think of the platform itself, it needs to be modest in its reach. Not to appeal to the most technologically savvy, like high-tech augmented reality interfaces that only a few are knowledgable about, but to aim low to the common denomination of people. Though it is a bit of a dangerous statement, who are the 'masses'?

You could also think of a diversified approach - that is already happening - web-based interfaces and mobile-interfaces, physical meeting, and playing an analog game; a diversified approach that is targeted to people that can actually work with it is important.

As we said earlier, rapid-feedback loops that are typical of game design are important to making people feel that their action causes a reaction. Acting matters. That is the basic idea you have to get across. So people can play the system and explore, getting people into a playful state of mind. When they play, they're more willing to let themselves go and step outside of their comfort zone, become more exploratory, immerse themselves to a certain degree, and come up with tactical teamwork approaches. Maybe in the long-run they can even develop strategic thinking about how to play the system; through playing they can create a longer term plan for the future, define the goal of a game. So there's great potential in playfulness as a strategy.

As a designer, you can act as a game-designer by designing the rules, the physical object and the execution of the game. Designing for open-ended play is an interesting alley to explore. Rather than formulating pre-defined end-goals, an openness of use should be designed to allow players to modify, contribute, hack, play the with rules of play and basically run off with the initial design. When they take over, they gain a sense of ownership and people will start to feel more related to the game.

6. For the same reasons, should we expect city councils to involve citizens more into city making?

There are some experiments out there already, I know the Amsterdam municipality wanted a civic platform where residents of Amsterdam could have an active say in how the budget is spent, or could contribute ideas on how to solve parking problems, or how to make it more bicycle friendly and so on.

Opening up data for third parties to work on and creating interesting apps based on government data is also happening. There are quite a few examples of this worldwide and also in the Netherlands.

But the role of the municipality changes from creating a policy and trying to implement it as well as possible through town-hall meetings, to a more modest role as enablers who take away restrictions to allow other individuals or institutions to contribute their own ideas. So the municipality becomes more like a mediator instead of just a policy-maker.

7. What does ‘open data’ mean for citizens? Why do they need to get involved?

In and of itself open data means nothing to most citizens. They will have no idea where to get it, what to do with it, and no way to work with it because of lack of technical skills. But various organizations are noticing that it is more about creating experimental practices and inspiring stories about open data for others to adopt the data. The potential is out there, but it's to a large degree about good storytelling, and how to embed technical stories like open-data sets, open standards and creating APIs that are open source for others to build upon and contribute to.

Most importantly, it's about its social nature - who are the ones that are able to work with these data sets, share them, who are benefiting from the open data, and what can you actually build with it?

For example, what Waag Society has done in collaboration with the Amsterdam Municipality and Hack de Overheid!. Their app contests are a great kick-off for open data. The apps that were created during the challenge showcase are examples of what can be done with open data. They broaden the imagination and are exploring fantasies of what is possible.

[Play the City]: Who should be in charge of translating this data?

It depends on the legal owner of the database, because there's a difference between ownership in the juridical sense and ownership in a moral sense. I hope to see collaborations with government, business, knowledge institutions and citizens in consortia. Societal institutions like Bits of Freedom who are concerned with our privacy online, surveillance in our digital age, and legal matters, are people that you want to have sit at the same table and form working teams on opening data. I know in some cities it's happening already. There should be a movement from a narrow definition of ownership of data to a broader more inclusive sense of ownership, meaning you have the power to act on data and do something useful with it.

8. What is a Civic City according to you?

A Civic City would be where the majority of individuals feel that they are contributing to the larger whole, and feel that acting to improve their environment and relations actually matters, that it actually helps to increase the livability and liveliness of that city. I don't believe that we will have a utopian city where everyone is happy and contributing. The question becomes whether you make it more worthwhile for people to contribute. There's a large potential for improvement and profit, because even occasional contributions can really do a lot to the collective effort. It can really add up and set something in motion.

9. After researching digital projects for the Social Cities of Tomorrow Conference, are there examples of applications that were particularly effective?

What stood out was an approach rather than a particular platform. One of the interesting approaches was by the City of Eindhoven with their open data initiative. As it is a small city, relationships were easily established between stakeholders such as the local municipality, the province and media labs, etc. They really created a consortium of people that wanted to sit in on the topic. They also created an app challenge which was helpful to get the point across, to visualize and tell stories about the potential benefits of open data.

Another project that stood out, "as if it were the last time" by Duncan Speakman, was more on the poetic side. In it, people would undergo a cinematographic experience. They were challenged to look at their city with new eyes, they would probably also tie their emotional experience of that evening to that particular locality. That place will always be somewhere special in their memory.

Placemaking is also an important term in architecture, and placemaking through media art is an interesting alley to explore. Also placemaking through public outdoor games, and urban games - there's a big potential for that out there.

10. Are there any risks you see with creating interactive city tools? (an overload of games for instance).

Most people have a limited amount of time to actually play. An overload of gamified experiences will numb people and will not really trigger any more new responses. I guess that is a risk, but if you're able to come up with a really creative gameplay, then you can negotiate that risk to contribute something new. Play provides an endless vat of creativity and possibilities, so I don't think there's a limit to creating new and interesting experiences for people through games and play. In that sense the possibilities are infinite.

A risk I see is that the gamified experience of the city is now dragged into the commercial realm, and all these marketing types are now rapidly cannibalizing this new creative tendency to come up with outdoor games. They will do it for their own benefit to sell more. As a game maker, you can respond to that by making absolutely clear who the sender is, so that the players will be sure that your goals are not for profit. You must state who you are, what your intent is, and how you are a stakeholder in the game. Talking about yourself as a game-maker is key, because only in that way will people be able to judge if they are willing to play the game or not. Instead of feeling that they are being played by a commercial marketing company, they will feel that they are doing something for the greater good. Telling a story about why you're doing that is also very crucial.

11. What kind of reachability can we expect from mobile phones in the coming years? Could they be the main base for urban initiatives?

It's going to grow even more. I think it's also very interesting to see that it's no longer merely a communications device but is increasingly becoming an informational device. When talking about the phone, the C in the abbreviation ICT (Information and Communications Technology) used to be the most important. But I think by now the 'I' has become just as important. There's a lot of potential in the fact that much of our communication is augmented by information, and that information is becoming contextualized and social through (mobile) communication. There's also this coupling of mobile devices with external urban sensors that you can tap into, to check air quality for instance. This can be a way to organize collective action. There are also very personalized sensors, with this development of a 'lab on a chip' idea where you can measure all types of information like temperature, blood pressure or sweat meters with mobile sensors that can monitor your body and perhaps even psychological arousal. This could improve health for people who are not living in the vicinity of good health facilities, and perhaps in the longer run contribute to reshaping public services.

There's also huge potential in the public domain for citizen journalists who can use mobile devices for reporting on events, or to record misdeeds by the authorities by engaging in sousveillance as it's often called. Instead of surveillance from the top-down, they can now look back through their mobile phones and film brutal deeds by the Syrian government for example. There's now potential for mobile media to gaze back at the powers that be. However, there's a tendency for people to begin monitoring each other, often called coveillance, which means that people often name and shame any deviation from the social norm and post it online.

On the whole there's big potential for mobile media to enable people to become reattached to their environment in various ways, since our phones are our most intimate and personal technology that we take everywhere and use often, depending on specific situations. If we're talking about play and games in urban initiatives, that will have to be done on that platform too, particularly because people can use it more casually. Rather than a big screen requiring full engagement, a mobile phone can be used while in discussion with others, making it easier to socialize with information delivered through a mobile platform.