A Located Parlour Game

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A Located Parlour Game

Ben Barker

3rd December 2015

Earlier in the year we were selected to develop a prototype for the Lost Palaces commission by Historic Royal Palaces. Our project, called An East Wind, was an adventure for groups where each player followed a specific character from the Glorious Revolution (the events that led to William of Orange invading England and taking the throne from James II). Told on-site at the now lost Palaces of Whitehall, each character saw events unfold from a different perspective. Some of what they were told was to be shared whilst some was to be kept private. At different points players would be prompted to make decisions, knowing that others were working on their own agenda.


We were inspired in part by games like Resistance, a Mafia derivative described by BoardGameGeek as “a party game of social deduction’. In Resistance, collaborative storytelling and betrayal are closely linked, asking you to work together to complete tasks, whilst either convincing the other players of your innocence through hard work and loyal service, or creating convoluted scenarios to weed out spies and defeat the Imperialists.

The betrayal mechanic really suits the historic material of the Glorious Revolution. James II’s story is full of confused motives and opposing forces, from family and politics, to religion and pride. Though many players might already know how the story ends, we took Hilary Mantel’s approach of writing history in the present tense, or as Martin Belam says, creating “a narrative that you can see backwards, but the protagonists can’t”. It becomes not who will be betrayed, so much as under what circumstances. Luckily for us there is some ambiguity in exactly when the Protestant Bishops, James’ Commander in Chief and his sister Anne all defected.


In developing the digital element of the interaction, we often referenced the superb Spaceteam, ‘a collaborative shouting game for phones and tablets’. Spaceteam sits in a surprisingly small genre, that of the local network (shouting distance) multiplayer smartphone game. You are the crew of a spaceship undergoing various states of cosmic duress. Your task is to maintain the vessel using the instrument panel displayed on your smartphone. During the game you are given a queue of orders relating to yours and other players instruments, the later must be conveyed across the meat space in a timely fashion before the ship disintegrates. Though more joyously chaotic than An East Wind, the idea of a story pieced together in a few vocalised fragments makes for great intrigue during the game, and lengthy conversations after.

Spaceteam also handles synchronisation really well, over wifi or bluetooth. After too many weeks trying to get four player SMS to arrive at the same time, we moved to a web app format.  Though it was a shame to lose the intimacy of SMS, the web app gave us a huge jump in immediacy and precision. By the end of the run, with this jump in performance, it was very satisfying having the script of a four person narrative being generated dynamically and acted out directly.

We hope that by telling a historic story through the words and actions of other players, asking them to translate and perform, An East Wind creates an interesting relationship with the material, offering a new way to play in the lost historic details.

Hello Lamp Post Tokyo

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Hello Lamp Post Tokyo

Ben Barker

20th April 2015

Next weekend our playful city-wide project Hello Lamp Post will move from Austin, where it has been running for the last two months, to Tokyo where it will launch at Roppongi Art Night. From Saturday using text messaging on their mobile phones Tokyoites will be able to talk to the famous outdoor vending machines, street mirrors and any other city object with a serial code. As the objects wake up, they will learn from Tokyo’s inhabitants and share back the stories they hear. The project is being produced by British Council and was first developed for Watershed’s Playable City Award 2013.

Whilst Austin is young, spacious and built on its small town image, Tokyo is a venerable giant that spent the 20th century defining the idea of a modern metropolis. Both are changing fast though, Austin through it’s booming technology sector and Tokyo, under Shinzo Abe’s pro outsider policies, by learning to encourage a more diverse business and cultural outlook to boost the slowing economy. Like Austin, Tokyo has one of the most digitally literate populations in the world, it’s an exciting step for Hello Lamp Post.

Culturally Tokyo is also the city where cuteness, or Kawaii, is an acknowledged cultural product, Hello Kitty being Catmander in Chief. Aside from the similarities in name, charming is a word we’ve often used to describe the interaction at the core of Hello Lamp Post, that of helping newly sentient objects to understand the city they find themselves in. We hope that bodes well for the appeal of the project, though we’re aware we may be preaching to the choir when it comes to using technology to bring play and charm to public space.

So while we prepare for Tokyo this week, it’s also the last chance to play Hello Lamp Post in Austin, it will leave the city on the 27 April after having already received over 20,000 messages from Austin’s weird and curious denizens. As it draws to a close we wanted to reflect a little on how people are playing (click on the images to enlarge). We started off looking at some of the language used, what gets talked about and how does it compare against it’s antonyms?

This next map looks at bus stops in the city to see where people have been playing. Something we were really keen to do in Austin was to take the project to each of the newly formed 10 districts. As the map shows, we found the same thing as with the postboxes in Bristol, there is actually a really great spread of play. One of the things we are most proud of about Hello Lamp Post, is that it brings public art to people outside of the normal downtown bubble.

Finally, just to prove it is sometimes cold in Austin, a graph of when people play by temperature. This was taken four weeks in, so has probably warmed up, but there was even an icy patch in early spring.

We’ll take a lot of that forward into Tokyo. It’s such a big city we can’t try to promote the project everywhere, as in Austin, but we can animate some exciting objects. As ever, you can talk to anything in the city, but we’re particularly excited about Louise Bourgeois Maman being given a voice, as well as the height competitive Mori and Tokyo Towers. We’ll be promoting these from a couple of different vantage points. Tokyo Tower is a large, Eiffel inspired lattice tower and hopefully its scale will work to our advantage with people able to see it from most of the city.

The system has also now learnt Japanese and in so doing become bilingual. Now if you say “こんにちは 六本木 交差点 #106” then it will recognise you as a native and reply accordingly, and if you speak in English then it will reply in English. We’ve also had to overcome a few regional issues, not least embrace email as a mechanism rather than SMS. Due to the fact mobile data was available here much earlier than in the west, SMS technology was largely bypassed and the dominant cross network system became email, with networks providing a phone specific address with any sim-card. So culturally email is treated more like sms, meaning it works on all phones smart or dumb and will work in either the messaging clients or email ones.

Finally of course we found that language just isn’t that simple. Japanese has a subject-object-verb structure, unlike English. Therefore the system needs to reflect that in the way it constructs a response. This means objects have to think differently about English responses “Another person told me something” than Japanese ones where it becomes “Another person something me told”. What a fun way of exploring different cultures this project is.

There’s lots more to share about our adventures with Hello Lamp Post over the last 18 months, but for now it’s just to say a huge thank you to Austin for being such a perfect match for the system, and to Tokyo for inviting this weird little project to cross the pacific. You can learn more about Austin here or Tokyo here and if you are interested in bringing Hello Lamp Post to your city, then please do get in touch here.

A Fork in the Road

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A Fork in the Road

Ben Barker

2nd September 2014


Last month we launched a small prototype of a new project called A Fork in the Road. Somewhere between a game and a storytelling platform, it works using the path and road network of the city as a framework to tell branching stories. In its current incarnation players use text messages to relay content and every junction has multiple directions, allowing players to decide how to progress. The prototype ran for four days in the American city of Indianapolis to coincide with a games festival called GenCon and we aimed to learn how both players and writers responded to the mechanic.


The Streets as Interface

The idea was partially conceived during Hello Lamp Post last year. As the experience was drawing to a close in Bristol, we hid a small branching narrative around the harbour. Only a handful of people encountered it, but the idea of city-based branching narratives kept nagging away at us. Then earlier this year we were speaking with John and Vishant at Concept Catapult in Indianapolis about GenCon and we realised that there was a perfect interface to manage those divergent choices: the city streets.

Streets make a great overarching story management grid, but are also completely legible by players at ground level. Located games have often abstracted the city to use its grid for excellent projects like Crossroad or Pacmanahatten, but we were influenced as much by the physchogeography of Iain Sinclair or Janet Cardiff’s Missing Voice which are both completely located and could only ever be experienced in one place. Interestingly neither could be played using street view, you have to enter buildings and look under benches to make the story work.

on street-04


We always felt this mechanic could work using anything from a Choose Your Own Adventure style book, which anyone who was a child in the 80s or 90s know, through to a GPS powered app. The choice to use SMS for the prototype came down to its ubiquity and accessibility. SMS means a player can go from zero awareness of the game, to playing, within 30 seconds. It’s also a very intimate medium – easy to suspend disbelief and imagine the message are being written by a remote ally, who’s carefully following your every step.


Even as we developed the idea and cemented the plan to create an SMS prototype for GenCon, we realised the potential implementation was very broad. Should the platform focus on competitive, game like experiences using chance, conditional modifiers and character progression? Players could play in groups and race to solve problems. One can imagine six friends starting out to solve a mystery, taking different journeys through the cityand arriving at a final point each with a different set of clues with which to approach the finale. Or the platform could be a collaboratively sourced narrative mechanic, where an exquisite corpse interaction combines with a peer voting system to create an evolving picture of local storytelling.

Story branches could be persistent, meaning multiple narrative threads could intersect a junction. Alternatively the junctions could be persistent, meaning the same context always exists but character state (e.g. ‘player has met npc x’) influence the interaction and possible outcomes.

With so many potential mechanics to explore we decided the first step was to build a simple prototype, get some users involved and test the premise of narrative-in-situ itself.

Writing for the City

The writing style naturally felt like it should be in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons, writers should construct story worlds for people to explore where the rules and realities were dependant on the imagination of the Dungeon Master. We spoke to a lot of writers and they mostly proposed an approach that played with fact and fiction, often building on city myths or playing with the history of place. We knew the system could work either entirely using fact as an enhanced city tour, or as fantastical tales rooted in the sights and sensations of the city, most of our authors chose abstract fiction that explored the in-between space.

Now, following on from the success of the playtest narrative, we have a story being written for Halloween by Janet Fry based on Washington Irving, an Indianapolis-based author and his story within in a story: The Sketch book of Geoffrey Crayon. We also have a tale just completed by Julie Young about the SS Indianapolis, the shark attack its crew faced and its role in the film Jaws.

However, as the initial playtest loomed, we realised we would need to write our own narrative to prove and articulate the nuances of the platform. So with a lot of help and research into local history, we pulled together a story around a historical quirk: In the 1860s a small town just outside Indianapolis called Boggstown had seceded from the Union. Simultaneously, Morgan, a Confederate general, was moving north in his infamous race through Union heart lands. In his party he had a Telegrapher, known for his skill with misinformation and propaganda. Our conceit was that there was a legacy of his work still existing in Boggstown and a shadowy operation was still exerting influence to this day. Some one called Ellsworth is connected and you’ve just received a message from him.

After a series of iterations and play tests the mechanic and story seemed to go down really well. Below are a couple of players in front of the war memorial in the heart of downtown Indianapolis. If you are in Indianapolis and want to play, let us know, the stories are still up and running. They all start from a specific plaque in the city. The Irvington Halloween story will start from a small local bookstore, the Civil War Boggstown narrative starts form the convention center and the SS Indianapolis starts form the Soldiers and Sailors monument.


Next Steps

From our work in Indianapolis we quickly saw that the challenge was not so much to communicate the premise to players, as it was to explain how the mechanic worked to writers. Writing good branching narratives is hard, a point reinforced by Glynn Cannon’s piece on the subject that nagged throughout the writing process. There has been so much enthusiasm from writers to create content for the system that we need an interface that lets them prototype, visualise and mange the expanding complexity of a branching narrative. We have begun testing different map based UIs to help people write directly in location.

The other idea that has come out really strongly is a more democratic writing process. The line between player, and contributor is very thin. People want to add to and improve the stories, even more so whilst they’re out on the street, playing the game. We’ll hope to test how writers can open up stories to be forked and added to by citizens. Local people will know the best legends, locations and secrets of a place, the exquisite corpse of story telling in location has real potential.

SA route

We ran a small writing workshop at GenCon to generate new content and contexts for the application. We’d love to collaborate with other organisations to create a story that takes players to and from places of interest while telling them an engaging story. So of course, if you think your community or audience has a story to tell or you have a journey you’d like to take them on then please get in touch, we’d love to work with you.

Better Than Life

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Better Than Life

Ben Barker

29th August 2014

Last month we worked on Better Than Life, Coney’s 45-minute interactive theatre piece designed for a small live audience and an unlimited number of people online simultaneously. Though created for a paying public, it was very much a research piece, an exploration of modes and markets for development in the digital arts. By blending elements from theatre, gaming and TV, it set out to explore how drama is generated when agency is given to audiences online and in a physical space to influence a single narrative world. Can you create theatre that is equally compelling for both audiences?


The narrative focused on the life of Gavin, an unassuming cult leader whom, under the direction of passionate believer Shipra, had developed an inquisitive following. In their headquarters, hidden behind a bike shop in New Cross, Gavin had predicted a potentially world altering event which the live and online audience were coming together to avert.

Coney approached us to design the interactive experiences that would cross between the two audience contexts. We’ve always been keen to explore the impact of networked experiences on live immersive theatre. So alongside the set, visual and online design, we worked on a number of interactions, including designing the Ouija board mechanic integral to the conclusion of the piece and the disappearing trick seen above.


What does agency look like online?

This was a big starting question. There is a precedent set for research in live-streamed immersive theatre by Punchdrunk’s digital staging of Sleep No More in New York. In that work they aimed to recreate their very successful live show for an online audience, which they did by linking an audience member online with one in the live space, thus creating a one-to-one relationship between audience online and off. The Nesta report goes into that work in more detail:

“In effect, Punchdrunk planned to create an entirely new theatrical experience based on ‘mixed–reality’ – the live performance linked with the online experience. Could they offer an interactive online user anything to match the quality of the interactive live experience that is at the heart of immersive work?”

As the work progressed it became clear that it was a hugely ambitious undertaking and had to be somewhat scaled back:

“The decision was made to focus on paired online and real–world participants who, over three hours, would work together to discover a hidden narrative.”

With Better Than Life we were particularly interested in exploring experiences that allow scalable online audiences, where numbers could reach into the thousands and still have a direct influence on the space. So our challenge was not ‘how do we recreate this experience online?’, but ‘how do we create something that suits both contexts well?’. A particularly relevant online experience was Kilo by Light Light, a crowd sourced, interactive music video seen below. There is a sense of the average online viewer, a visual consensus, yet at the same time there is room for an individual to standout. As I watch I find myself wondering about whats happening with the person wiggling her cursor in the top right corner of the screen.

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 15.16.29


Ouija Board

That line of inquiry led us to one of our key design decisions. There had to be a space somewhere in the piece that allowed online audience to see themselves directly relayed, whilst also being able to collectively affect a significant impact on the narrative. That is key to what it means to be part of a community, both being expressive as an individual and powerful together. We also felt it was important that people in the space were active in that exchange, could they influence or avert the power of the online community? What evolved from that was loosely termed ‘the Ouija board mechanic’, the idea of using a camera and projector rig, ceiling mounted and angled directly to the floor. This video stream would show the live audience, whilst the projector would relay the mouse position over the video of all online viewers. We would have a feedback loop of projected mouse pointers, creating spotlights in the space viewable to the live audience and then relayed back online via the live stream. So we had a mechanic where an audience online could expose a traitor, vote in a new leader or influence the progression of a particular emerging storyline. The challenge was then to weave it into the narrative and make it work technically. I won’t say too much about how it came together narratively, but suffice to say it includes some of the above.

What were the challenges? With BTL being a live streaming project, we talked a lot about lag and its impact on interaction. As the project developed there was a general feeling that below 2 seconds was fine, hardly longer than an intake of breath; 2-5 seconds could be handled using dramatic pauses, perhaps even create drama of its own as people awaited responses or feedback. However anything over 5 seconds and we were in a difficult place where audiences might start to waiver and interactions between online and live would become jarring. With the number of streams we were aiming for and heavy load on the servers, BTL was running at between 4-7 seconds of lag. This among other technical issues, such as calibrating the projector and making actors distinct enough from above, meant the Ouija board mechanic struggled. Players moused around and waited for responses, never quite long enough to understand the relationship between what they were doing and what was happening in the space. As a result, without support from the cast, readability in the space was largely lost. However moments of wonder did emerge. In one play-through an online participant managed to guide a live audience member around the space by shining his mouse cursor spot light onto his open hands. So although flawed, there is still something very exciting about having had at times 100 or more people organically influencing and expressing themselves upon a live narrative from their bedrooms and lounges around the world.


The Disappearance

A more definitely successful interaction was the disappearing trick seen above. The show needed a climax that read equally well online and in the space. A camera was rigged at the perfect viewing spot, 90 degrees from the stage, to ensure it read well online, then the live audience were moved to a position where they were viewing from the optimum angle. Though a far less technical challenge, it’s value came from leaving both audience unsure as to what had occurred, and looking to each other for answers. For the online audience, was it a trick just for them, something in the edit. For the people in the space, were the online audience aware of the nature of what had happened.


The Space

Both of the above interactions took place in the third and final space. The rectangular Orangery in New Cross was divided up into thirds, roughly equivalent to acts, each one delineated by a transparent butchers curtain. The second space had collaborative drawing exercise, where the live audience was pulled together to draw a vision for Gavin, set to the rhythmic pulsing of lights and sounds set by the mouse movements of the online audience. A far more ambient interaction, but important in getting that audience used to the more involved mouse interaction coming in the final scene.




In the first space we created a number of smaller profiling tests, designed as a way of giving an identity to each of the live audience members so if things came down to a personality test later on people online would have a way of recognising particular traits. The outcome of those tests resulted in Shipra assigning one of four profile types.

One of the tests was a galvanic skin response test, built using this source code. Another was a Rorschach object recognition test seen below.


In hindsight we might have made better use of the online audience at this point, by having them pass judgement or able to give rewards or enact punishments. These test were visually scientific, even sinister, the hint of something a bit more shocking here, playing with the fear of an online judgement would have set things up well for what was to come.

Is there a difference between a person in the space making a judgement on how you performed and a remote collective doing that? I think there is and I think it comes down to a perceived disconnect. Empathy and personality are removed. If the online audience could have suddenly popped out and made a wrong, surprising  or even cruel decision it would have reminded all audiences that the order was only being maintain by a collective of humans, rather than an immutable digital system.


Visual Design

We also designed the online interface and show branding. The interface posed questions about how commonplace this level of audience interaction was. We started out trying to be quite clever, with hidden interactions, Easter eggs for unlocking other camera streams and credits to be spent on interactions including the Ouija board. Bearing in mind the other technical challenges, such as lag and the steep learning curve, we may have over reached. We were asking people to understand a narrative, online/offline interactions and an interface all withi 45 minutes. Given the newness of this type of experience, particularly for the online audience, things may have felt a little borderless. People in the space had a clearly defined sense of scale: three acts made clear by the space in front of them. It must have been much harder for the online audience to know what or indeed, how much, to expect.

btl_poster-01 Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 13.41.55

What does an online bar look like?

Throughout the development of the show, this question kept coming up. Though on the surface a peripheral challenge, it always felt like an important part of the research. Aside from being a vital source of revenue, theatre bars form an important part of the experience; a place to dissect what happened, even more so in the divergent narrative worlds of immersive theatre. As the show progressed, that question became more pertinent as we realised we’d forgotten to answer something even more obvious: What is it like to be online with other people? It took two thirds of the run to realise that, of course, people with access to a chat window would be as fascinated by each other, where they come from and how they got involved, as the theatre piece unfolding in front of them. Experiencing the theatre online was more like being in a bar than a theatre, not a story to be navigated, but a social experience to be discussed in real-time.

As we saw this trend emerging we knew what we had to do with the bar space at the end of the show. People in the space get beer, people at home do the same. Then we stood the live audience in front of a camera and the people online asked them things through the chat window. It was without doubt the show’s biggest success. We saw the two separate views coming together and unpicking what they had seen. A sense emerged from both groups that the other had had the full experience. People online felt like they were working the story out with each other, rather than having the whole story. Whilst people in the space were seeing odd asides to camera that perhaps didn’t make sense. This led to better conversations later, especially if narratives start coming together. The shared sense of confusion after Nigel’s disappearance from online and offline worked really well.


Better Than Life was a hugely ambitious experiment, broadcast live around the world. There were breakages, successes and failures, but most of all it was really good fun. We look forward to further exploring the future of online theatre.

Better Than Life was a collaboration between Coney, Goldsmiths and Showcaster. It was funded by Nesta Digital R&D
More about the show: Better Than Life – Coney
Guardian review: Coney No Island
Sketches Review: Better Than Life

Kentucky Derby – New York

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Kentucky Derby – New York

Ben Barker

22nd August 2014

We were asked by London-based experience design duo Bompas & Parr to design a Kentucky Derby – a traditional horse racing game commonly seen at funfairs – but with a bawdy twist. The game was to form part of their Funland Exhibition at the Museum of Sex, New York. Never having been a studio to say ‘no’ to making large-scale arcade games, we agreed. The twist? The horses were… well, they were shiny disco sticks. They were glittery schlongs. Spangly wangs.

They were golden hand-carved penises.

Hardware and Software

Our proposed design had four players, each with a dedicated individual rolling ramp, a corresponding racing lane, lighting and audio. Underneath we constructed four identical, 2 meter long linear rail sets. To ensure precise control of each carriage we used a combination of T5 timing belts and pulleys. Each set powered by ‘Nema23’ motor controlled by a variable step and current drivers. Strips of wire created a link between the wheel of the carriage and the ‘horse’ to create a wobbly ‘galloping’ motion.

The use of SPDT (Single Pole Double Throw) micro limit switches as sensors helped to determine ‘home’ and ‘end’ positions, allowing us to calibrate the horse position on activation and determine the winner. The same switches were used to count successful rolls.

The code for the game was written to allow us to adjust the speed and number of rolls required for a win, important as the mechanic was being developed alongside the cabinet, 8 successful rolls proved to offer the best difficulty level.

Audio loops were played from an Mp3 shield which were used in combination with led and signal lights, different combinations were generated in response to different stages of the game.

Here’s a video on the game, and the whole exhibition:

Cool Hunting Video: Funland from Cool Hunting on Vimeo.

Future Cities: Starting From Scratch

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Future Cities: Starting From Scratch

Ben Barker

29th March 2014

Above Photo: Last years Delhi Trip

As I write this we’ve taxied to the far side of Heathrow. Through the window are a beige 7 storey car park, an angular carrier plane and 2 cars on a road just beyond the footprint of the airport. We’re waiting for clearance on an Air India flight, first to Mumbai, then on to Ahmedabad.

We are in Ballard country. Through the window is his proto-city. Not the airport itself, but the spaces that grew around it, turned from London and it’s institutions, freed to be a new type of urban, a city built for speed. To Ballard, Heathrow and it’s suburbs were places built around anonymity, efficiency and a decoupling from the heavy gravity of London. Most of all the Heathrow Hilton:

“The Heathrow Hilton, designed by Michael Manser, is a masterpiece…Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to. I’d like everything to be like that. I’d like England to look as if everybody was getting ready to leave for Mars.”

There are parallels in Ballards Heathrow to the modern narrative of the smart city, sold through glossy adverts and soulless urbanites. As Adam Greefield points out in his pamphlet Against the Smart City big technologies vision of the future city is being built from scratch in the desert, places such as PlanIT Valley in Portugal or Kochi in India. They are urban spaces built around a vision, rather than on top of other institutions. They are places without concession. Although most of us have never been to the parties, homes or offices depicted and they bare no resemblance to our experience, big technologies view of the future is still carving the deepest channel in our cities.

Concrete Island, Ballard’s book about a man marooned in the negative space between two flyovers tells a deeper truth about urban life. Trapped in the un designed margin, the protagonist is forced to adapt, a 20th century Alexander Selkirk, which for me recalls images of ingenuity and compromise from Delhi and last years Unbox. There this same triangle of land was a dwelling, a garden centre or a bike repair stall. Cities are people and things in improbable places. It’s the bar down the seedy side street, the theatre piece in a disused office. The city is a collection of potential spaces, impossible to know entirely. It’s a patchwork not just stitched by services and data, but stories experienced together and apart.

So whilst in Ahmedabad, I’ll be thinking about how we convey human experience in the future city. Our storytelling is often limited to measurability, impact and scale. We show a future of data zipping to expectant end points and people freed from impulse. How do we support cities that think it’s just as important to have intrigue and disappointment?

If Microsoft, Cisco and IBM all get to have their dream city, what is our sensation and experience driven city? In the Hilton, Ballard got his functional Corbusian dream but what spaces would we build in the blank slate paradigm? If we went now to found a city in the desert, what if anything, would we take from the suburbs of Heathrow, from the IT Valleys of Portugal and from beneath the flyovers of Dehli? Then, what institutions and spaces would we build to support them?

Now, first flight over I’m in Mumbai airport, sat in the new and other-wordly Terminal 2, waiting for a flight to Ahmedabad. Stuffed with seven thousand pieces of art from the last 1500 years, it’s billed as the one of the largest public displays in the world. But as Naresh Fernandes points out, it’s only public once you’ve bought an international flight. So in Mumbai, as in Ballards Hilton, and in Plan IT valley, this vision of the future is privately owned, built without concession and not for everyone. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ahmedabad and the Unbox programme provokes that might challenge the current offer.


Other reading:
Ballard: Cities Built for Speed
Matt Ward: Boring Urban Spaces.

Originally posted here
Delhi Photos here

Future Cities: Playing

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Future Cities: Playing

Ben Barker

Ahmedabad, India

What makes a city? Last week as I flew out to India I wrote about the blank slate, Le Corbusier’s influence on Ballard and the new city that emerged around Heathrow. Ahmedabad was something of a playground for Le Corbusier, he did some of his most experimental work here. DNA India points out a number of his architectural ideas can be traced to Ahmedabad. His building at the Musuem of the City was the first to use his internal form circular exhibition, and by all accounts the Mill Owners Association is beautiful. Ahmedaabad offered a lack of constraint to Le Corbusier and the modernist movement.

I’m interested in the Tabula Rasa and what the seeds of an experiential, playful city might look like. Ahemedabad, and India in general, can be a sobering place to do that. 50% of people live in slum housing, there’s a massive disparity between rich and poor, and huge sanitation and health issues. An often spoken phrase is: ‘We have more malls than parks.’ Public space is a hot topic. The National Institute of Design, where we are working, was built in Corbusier’s modernist style, following a report from Charles and Ray Eames. That report, though written over 50 years ago and relatively brief, is surprisingly similar in it’s message: India has huge social problems and all design and artistic effort must be mobilised to improve living conditions. So it’s into that historical context, with pressing social issues, that we are designing and thinking about cities in a universal sense.

CEPT, the national school of architecture describes Ahmedabad as the formless city. A place where there is no one public space and all are claimed by many. The multiple centres are activated according to time of year and day. In the old city, Manek Chowk is an excellent example. Early morning it’s a vegetable market as traders enter the city, in the day it offers jewellery and gold, then at night it becomes a co-operative food market. It lives 24hrs. Ahmedabadis describe their chaotic, polycentric city with a pride for the empathetic chaos that defines its public space. Further north Chandigarh, Corbusiers top down, modernist city has two faces. The concrete facades are listed, yet inside away from the view of planners and conservationists spill out chaotic, colourful interiors. Indian owners were forced to turn their exploratory form of expression inwards and there is a much discussed tensions between the values of modernism and the way people actually live.

Ahmedabad, India

The imagination of a modern municipality doesn’t include the idea of cows (let alone elephants) on the street. That’s the truth of an India city, a society defined by a visible acceptance of what should remain public. Ahmedabad has multiple cow insurance policies and a municipal organisation who collect bovine corpses. Indian cities are defined by an on going tussle for how things should be. Systems are tested through iteration and exploration.

Though the Eames report is heavy reading in many ways, there is a suggestion of a more experimental approach:

Like most problems in design and architecture, [planning for an event] is a problem in true speculation. You must relive the act before and evaluate many possible courses of action.

What the Eames’ describe is not unlike play, the creation of an alternate space in which to inhabit other realities, and versions of this reality. It’s the freedom to contest and re-articulate systems, to appropriate, to hack and subvert. It’s well documented in the work of Guy Debord and the situationists that play and the spectacle are tools for political change. As it is in Eric Zimmermans idea of the ludic century. Play is both exploring the slack in a system and creating a new system that demands a different reality. Its potential both here in Ahmedbabd and globally, is to be our method to challenge the status quo.

Ahmedabad, India

And of course India does play, at sports and in unusual spaces. In Ahmedabad they play in rusty old cars, they play catch in the crowded street and cricket in a 4 foot wide alley. Play, and the constant re-articulation and contestation of space, and the subsequent consent achieved through public visibility, is play at it’s most powerful. As we move forward I’ll be thinking of play as a way of exploring what an alternate, experiential city might look like. Whether that’s the spacial qualities of a game city like Assassins Creed’s Venice (Ahemedabad old town has a wonderful secret passage network ), the engineered social experiences of Disney’s Celebration or completely new types of city on other planets or in other futures.

Other reading:
More Ahmedabad photos
Sam’s post on Digital Cities
The Eames Report

Future Cities: Which Future?

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Future Cities: Which Future?

Ben Barker

The future has a lot in store for cities. Planners and architects will soon see some weird briefs. We’ll make settlements on the moonin digital space and roaming settlements that graze the landscape for resources. Opportunities will shape our urban futures in exciting ways, whilst impending challenges will redefine how we understand urban. The decline in the efficacy of antibiotics will affect how we live together and rising water levels will terraform cities from London to the Ganges Delta. Designers and makers will have a responsibility to explore what those futures are, and understand how we’ll live when they get here.

Bruce Sterling’s assertion, in his closing notes at SxSW, that the future will be old people in cities, frightened of the sky, is an extrapolation of the challenges of climate change, urban migration and an ageing population. It’s a possible future that hasn’t been rendered in such folk terms before. In that talk Sterling also announced that he would become a maker of things, his decision to move from words to objects shows his understanding of the power of design, it puts the thing in your hand and the idea in a form you can discuss.

At the start of March I was part of the Unbox Future Cities Lab, a two weeks programme held at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. 36 researchers, designers and makers from the Uk and India came together around theme of Future Cities. The brief was almost impossibly open: collect people working on city based projects using diverse processes and get them thinking about cities together. We know there is a responsibility for practitioners to explore the forces that might split, weave and define the many possible threads of the future, the question is which futures?


First we have to define what the opportunities and trends facing our collective futures are. Most will happen on some scale, somewhere, but which are likely to have the greatest impact? We spent a day creating headlines from futures we both anticipated and hoped for. The cross-cultural record of the future we created will be one of my enduring records of the trip, a zeitgeist of expectation from two continents. Importantly, as with Sterlings assertion, closer inspection of those ideas reveals that a lot of them aren’t as far away as they first seem.


We also have to bring these ideas to life. Whether that’s through the design fiction seen in the work of Dunne and Raby or in the alternate realities of games and film. If we don’t imagine and then realise these futures then we are left working under the assumed notion of a shared values of the future. We have to design futures that encapsulate the values we want. We have to be frank about what and only by making them can we defend or avert them.

When Mayor Antanas Mockus of Bogota made all his traffic warden dress up as Mimes, he wasn’t saying this is the future, he was saying what if we understood the role of the city differently.  One of our best known working prototype future cities might be Disney Land, Walt Disney created a a testing model for our future urban spaces in the form of a theme park. I want more weird future testing spaces, if Unbox left me thinking one thing, it’s lets bring to life more of these possible future cities. Below are a selection of the spaces we began to describe at Unbox, the document containing more detail can be seen here.

The Data City – Due to it’s climate and proximity to energy resources, a Siberian town becomes home to the worlds largest data centre. The finance industry move in driven by a need for reduced latency in algorithmic trading and briefly make it the banking capital of the Eurasian continent. Who moves in after them?

The City after Antibiotics – LA becomes obsessed with personal hygiene transparency and sterilisation as antibiotics are deemed no longer effective against the vast majority of diseases and bacteria. How do people move around and indicate their good health in disease obsessed city?

The First Settlers at Chernobyl – In the distant future, with uninhabited land at a premium, the first planning permission is received for the irradiated blast zone around Chernobyl after lying uninhabited for nearly 600 years. What does this application look like..

Hello Lamp Post –
Designs of the Year

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Hello Lamp Post –
Designs of the Year

Ben Barker

10th February 2014


We’re thrilled to announce that Hello Lamp Post has been nominated for a Design of the Year award at the Design Museum. We’ll be exhibiting, along with the other shortlisted projects, between 26 March – 25 August 2014.

We’re proud to be alongside some wonderful work, especially in the digital category where Oculus RiftCity Mapper and Vitamins are all shortlisted. As ever a massive thank you to the whole team, but especially Tom, Gyorgyi, Verity and Clare who really made the project possible.

Finally, as most people will know, Hello Lamp Post was made possible by funding and support received through winning the Playable City Award. Today, the opening of the 2014 award was announced, head over to the Playable City Award site for more information .

Knee High Challenge: The Play Agency

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Knee High Challenge: The Play Agency

Ben Barker

20th November 2013

The Play Agency is looking for new recruits; families in Southwark and Lambeth are being enlisted to help share ideas for play. Explore, invent or play, then share your ideas with other agents and get families in the boroughs playing more.



The Knee High Challenge

A few months ago we proposed a project for the Knee High Challenge called the Play Agency, which focused on getting families playing more together. Happily it was shortlisted for further development, and we’re now exploring it’s development. Our ambition was to create an organisation that recruited families to find, capture and share ideas for play across Lambeth and Southwark, celebrating and encouraging a layer of daily play. Our belief was that play can happen anywhere, and by highlighting it we can take the pressure off parents to be ‘good’ players. The Knee High project research told us that although dedicated spaces like parks and soft play offer good opportunities, getting the children ready to go and travelling to the location are big barriers. We imagined families might capture anything from where good deep puddles form in the rain, to a game of make-believe they play using bike racks. We wanted to challenge the common conception of where play should and shouldn’t happen and help people explore new opportunities.

knee high PDF
See the longer document here

The key to the success of the project will come from the ability for players of all backgrounds and skills to share and learn from each other, rewarding the inventor, as much as the explorer or casual browser.  That means we must balance technology and physical tools to make best use of the affordances and accessibility of each. We imagine that using digital technologies to capture locations, contemporaneous notes and images would be well complimented by physical reporting and dissemination. Our research is now focused on exploring which format is right for each.





Research and Exploration

In our initial research we’ve stripped away technology to understand more about the value of this hidden layer of play. We’ve been at these key themes;

Capture – families look out for examples and opportunities for play;

Share – example are distributed to Agency members;

Learn – the examples supply families with inspiring ideas for play in their local area;

Families then have the tools and ideas to develop their own play ideas, capture and share, continuing the loop.


We proposed focusing our idea on children aged 3-5 years. At an age where their language and social skills are developing rapidly and their curiosity and independence is growing, this age group will benefit most from being encouraged to, and celebrated for, playing. Parents who may be struggling for ideas and those which are bursting with inspiration will be able to learn and share with others, building a network of skilled play inventors.


We aim to build upon the capabilities of parents to play with their children regularly as part of a daily routine. The Agency encourages parents to notice and be proud of the play they engage in with their children; even those lacking in confidence will have developed their own approaches to play and our vision is to facilitate the sharing of those ideas between parents. As parents become more confident in their own abilities to find opportunities for play, play is legitimised and rewarded, becoming a normal part of everyday life for families.


Through the Play Agency, children are encouraged to explore the world around them through play. Coming up with ideas for play isn’t just down to parents; children invent games and find fun everyday and the Agency hopes to harness children’s naturally playful, curious nature and celebrate it. With parents growing confidence in using play to aid in their child’s development, the children will be exposed to more stimulation and interaction with their parents and other children.


Local parents and families are able to connect through the Play Agency, through sharing and learning about ideas for play. Whether parents and families meet through a physical space such as a pop-up shop, online via a website or through sharing ideas on a social media platform, it will be the celebration of creativity and ideas that unites those who join the Agency. As research suggests, it is parents who have a strong informal support network that are best able to deal with the highs and lows of parenthood and we hope the Agency will strengthen those networks as families get to know their neighbours through sharing ideas with those in the local area.


For a lot of parents the understanding seems to be that play is structured and to some extent formalised. For the Play Agency to have real merit we have to engage parent in the idea that there is equal, if not greater value in small scale, playful moments throughout the day. The project continues to develop, and we’ve discussed a newspaper format, as well as a system that uses post boxes as markers for play in the local area, supported by a post card subscription system. For now follow the agency on twitter or check out the flickr set for more research images.

Post boxes – a very public object

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Post boxes – a very public object

Ben Barker

24th October 2013


Last Tuesday Royal Mail became a plc. It will face an uphill task to survive, with Fedex and UkMail competing for the easy money, whilst it remains solely responsible for the universal access service. Privatising now was weird timing, given Royal mail made a substantial profit for the tax payer last year and the shares have nearly doubled in value since floatation (we spent 500 years growing the company for government to sell it at half price), but it’s been coming for a while. Either way, the red boxes on our streets now belong to private investors. Thomas Pynchon’s novella, The Crying of Lot 49, makes a good companion read. Its description of a secret underground postal service, running alongside the state funded service, encourages us to imagine a different future for the Royal Mail and it’s boxes.

For me seeing a post box creates a muscle longing, in part from the disappointment of no longer really using them, and in part from their role in my childhood. Growing up the boxes were treasure chests on the street, I dreamt of arriving at collection time and seeing inside. Posting a letter was just as charged, every child wanted the responsibility, an irreversible act that epitomised growing up. There were 3 post boxes in my village, two pillar boxes, gatekeepers to the nations door matts. The third was built into a stone wall outside of the church. Slightly out of the way and hardly used, yet also the input for an international communication system, serviced everyday on the off chance. Imagine how many empty postboxes RM staff open on any given day (can we get a montage of that?). As we rely on it less, the services impressive scale becomes more apparent, the USPS still delivers more mail in 1 day than Fed Ex does in a year.

The post box in question, not quite as moss-covered as I remember, it’s CB24 447 PB fans

With uptake and visibility being two of the biggest challenges facing emerging networks, the postal service has units everywhere. Britain is covered with red, logically numbered and strategically situated boxes. Each one individually identifiable using an alpha-numeric sequence printed on the front (a derivative of the post code), making them a located (but not overly) reference point that’s positioned in and around communities. It’s a system ready for re-appropriation.

A map of all the post boxes used during Hello Lamp Post, it’s worth noting that about a 3rd more were talked to, but weren’t locatable as the code was formatted in an ambigous way, or only the first part had been used, thus not making it specific to one box. The really popular one is a fake

The semi-located nature of post boxes feels right for a few behaviours, information exchange, exploration and game-like experiences. You’re normally near a box, even in remote places such as Knoydart where you can find this guy who is only served by ferry, but their discovery may require a degree of exploration (there’s a street view game in there somewhere). Royal mail doesn’t publish the precise locations, but their are some neat OSM tools for finding them, and for information on the quality of that data check this article (The data’s not perfect, but is fun to use).

So how is the position of a post box chosen, or rather what can we deduce from seeing one? The obligation on the postal service until recently was:

In each postcode area where the delivery point density is not less than 200 delivery points per square kilometre, not less than 99% of users of postal services are within 500 metres of a letter box. (DUSP clause 1.8.4)

Which sounds clumsy, flimsy and as pointed out here, was was not in keeping with the universal access policy:

That criteria only applied to the 61 PCAs (post code areas) where there is a delivery point density greater than 200 delivery points per square km, resulting in the exclusion of predominantly rural PCAs.

In part in response to Royal Mail going private, Ofcom now requires that 98% of the population of the country is within 500m of a post box, which didn’t change a lot but it has protected the location of a good part of Britains 115,000 post boxes. Following that criteria change, more than ever, a post box serves as an indicator of population density.

An international system, a photo from Delhi earlier in the year, where codes applied to an area rather than a single unit.

Post boxes have a great potential as a platform, game object or exchange point. The impending change in our relationship with the service makes the discussion of what’s next more relevant (remember there are 115,000 in Britian). In part based on my fascination with them as a space full of potential as a child, we explored a proposal for the Knee High Challenge, a design council initiative targeted at under 5’s, that focused on post boxes as an object for sharing play ideas, a meeting point, where the opportunities for play or adventure in the area could be listed. Our proposal, (which has happily been shortlisted) may well use a different technology and language but post boxes are still very much in our thoughts. Pynchens novel is a reminder of how much importance the postal service is in our culture and how much it is a part of our past, (though his Tyrstero service used waste bins). By showing how various marginalised groups felt the Trystero and it’s iconic muted horn existed to serve them he hints at what is core to our postal service. It works the same for everybody, a universal service allows everyone a feeling ownership. That may no longer strictly be true for Royal Mail, but it’s boxes are still very much in the community.

To paraphrase game studio SlingShot, building on existing infrastructure gives us a level of access and street level integration we could never normally afford. Whilst private investors work out what that means for them, we should also consider alternate futures for these very public objects.



A project to photograph every box:
The letter box study group:
Tool for finding post boxes:
How well mapped are post boxes on OSM:
Historic postal service, core to Pynchons novel (thanks to Tom for the recommend):


Who Cares About TV Bins?

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Who Cares About TV Bins?

Ben Barker

13th August 2013


We’ve talked a lot recently about changing peoples relationships with street furniture, but does it really matter whether people notice bus stops and bins?

The Hello Lamp Post project is often rightly talked about in the context of the internet of things, and as we said the other day it’s hard to imagine working as a designer right now and not thinking about objects with embedded networks and systems, whether that’s glance-able communication in lamps or a domestic operating system. The internet of things is a term for objects that are the visible part of a wider network.

The streets are busy with drains, billboards, phone boxes and adshells, each with their own associated systems, yet rendered largely invisible by their ubiquity. By building a project on these objects we draw attention to the mechanics of the existing systems and explore the potential for their re-appropriation, particularly digital. For Hello Lamp Post we were able to place one-off instructional publicity on addshells around the city that contained the unique reference number specific to that location, promoting our own system by hightlighting the existing one.

Re-appropriation is a common theme in the digital world, the internet is built on it. The web API is in many ways a sanctioned form of hacking, taking a useful part of one system to build or improve another. Playing that out on objects (and systems) and in a public and physical space gives us a chance to probe what that feels like to a new and wider audience. This created a lot of confusion over the project; are the Royal Mail responsible for the talking post boxes, or were the council trying to deflect attention away from high bus fares? This is partly evidenced by the UKIP comment under the Bristol Post article. The result of an audience unaware that individuals or organisation outside the council have the right to affect their city. Noticing these objects is about bringing digital reappropriation to the physical city, encouraging people to dream up their own uses of public space rather than feeling all they can do is challenge the services imposed on them.

Which brings us to Renew, of TV bin fame, who in London have been trialling (and have sort of stopped) using your smart phones MAC address to store personal locational data for more targeted marketing. They are allowed to do this partly under the proviso that 5% of the time the screens are used for public service information, which it seems largely means showing a digital clock (in a place that has a really good regular clock).

When people critisced us about surveillance culture under a poorly informed Daily Mail article they were doing so because it is what they are primed to expect, impositions with dubious motives. The objects on our streets walk a line between public and private (as do a surprising number of the streets themselves), and through Renew they seem to have won consent to be digital agents operational in the memory dimension. These objects have been reimagined according to financial concerns, not the moral or public good; to be clear, these are no longer bins. We are so surprised this is legal, that we hardly have the tools to rebel. We need to be armed not only with outrage at the intrusion but with the opinion that every financially motivated imposition is a missed opportunity to enhance the city we live in. Services on our streets are always in change, post boxes and pay phones are becoming antiquated, but there is a real and exciting potential for these spaces to become something else, something human, something exciting and most importantly, something for us.


We launched Hello Lamp Post.

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We launched Hello Lamp Post.

Ben Barker

15th July 2013

We’re live! A thoroughly enjoyable 6 months of work culminated yesterday in a high-tea fuelled launch on College Green. The first conversations with Bristol’s street furniture were held in a marquee in front of City Hall.


It was great to see so many faces from the duration of the project again. We had play testers and sponsors, judges Imogen and Clare and even Bristol’s Mayor George Ferguson texting lamp posts. A massive thanks to you all for testing, talking about and guiding the project. Our biggest thanks however, are reserved for Clare and Verity at Watershed. This project’s realisation is as much due to their hard work and enthusiasm as ours and we’re extremely grateful.

Even at less than 24hrs old we’ve had nearly 900 responses, and people all over Bristol are getting involved. We’ve had people sharing historical facts on City Hall, thanking lamp posts for helping with their fear of the dark and reminiscing about their experiences in Bristol. A select few from the last hour are below:

What’s your favourite memory of Bristol?
Watching the old Wills buildings being demolished at 6am many years ago

Have you been waiting here long?
I have not been waiting long for a bus … But it feels like i’ve been waiting all my life to talk to a bus stop.

I was thinking of taking up a hobby – do you have one?
I love to play cricket. I’m not sure bridges can play cricket though!


We also have a beautiful miniature of our eponymous lamp post and 4 of his co-stars in the foyer at Watershed. Come down and have a chat to them and learn more about the project.



Keep an eye on the website for a snapshot of what people are waking up and talking about. As the project evolves we’ll be learning how people use the system and tweaking as we go, the most exciting thing of all is we only have a hunch how people will play. There’s lots of potential for different types experiences, such as branching narratives and objects with specific agendas so keep looking for new things to talk to and visiting old ones. We’re just getting started.

There are more images in this set.

An Update on Hello Lamp Post

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An Update on Hello Lamp Post

Ben Barker

21st June 2013

This week we’ve put up the holding page for Hello Lamp Post and as the counter tells you, we’re less than a month from launch. We thought it would be worth talking about what we’ve been up to and what we’ve been finding out.




One of our key challenges has been communcating the idea, both the mechanic and the sense of fun we hope it will bring to all types of player in Bristol. So as a recap here’s our most recent attempt at explaining the project.

Codes can be found around the city that are normally used to identify public objects for maintenance and monitoring. With Hello Lamp Post we use these codes as identifiers in a city wide network of objects. These codes allow you to either ‘wake up’ a sleeping object or learn what other people have been saying to one that is already awake. Will it be pleased to see you? Irritated at having been left in the rain? Or will it tell you a secret? Each exchange will last for a few messages and you will be encouraged to come back and talk to the object some more another day. The more you play, the more the hidden life of the city will be revealed. Objects might even start to get attached to you if you talk to them a lot.



There is also a trailer that we hope gives people a sense of how the interaction will feel and what the cumulative effect of it will be.


Playtesting and the Mechanic

We don’t want to give too much away about the content, but a lot of our work has focused on the balance between giving the objects personality, and their responsibility to convey the personality of the people of Bristol. We started off building quite characterful objects with recognisable personalities, but we quickly realised that acting like a logic system is more honest to what they are, the personality comes from the people on the system.

At an earlier playtest we explored the idea that people would speak to the whole of Bristol through the objects, not just the object they were stood in front of. Though this meant there was a lot more content to explore, the disconnect from place and narrative – one of the core aspects of our proposal – was lost and the players told us that. So on the second day of testing we moved back to the much more object-centric conversation which vastly improved the experience, though the cost is that people see less user content. Thanks to everyone who helped with playtests, we’ve learned a lot from your input.



At our most recent playtest we settled on mechanic that is mix of the both object specific content and ideas from other parts of the city, so we can facilitate a city wide communication as well as location specific ideas to emerge.




Tom expands on what this play testing does and our overall process:

It’s one of continual prototyping and slow evolution. We’ve always had the basic idea of what a conversation should feel like – but it’s turned out to be the details of the implementation that’s most important. So we’ll explore what a conversation might feel like first with pen and paper – drawing up flowcharts, sample dialogue – and once we have some logic laid out, we’ll code it up and see what it feels like when it’s in your hand, on a small screen – and see what all the edge cases we hadn’t thought about lead to! And then we’ll iterate on that.

We playtest it a lot: both with friends and colleagues in the studio, but also on site in Bristol. We’ve tried it with several groups down there over a number of visits, and it’s been really interesting to see how they’ve responded to it; each time we go back, the new improvements lead to even more useful feedback.


An Internet for Things


Another point that comes up a lot in discussion is around the Internet of Things. In someways this wasn’t a huge part of our thinking – the idea grew from a desire to record and encourage sharing of experience in the city. Yet as designers practicing today, we were inevitably influenced by the IoT (and for me a big part of my design education was with Alex and Tinker). Though the project arrives at a time when the IoT is being talked about more and more, the challenge with Hello Lamp Post has been almost an opposite. Rather than giving networks more human and tangible presence, our objects were already there, integrated into the city and with their own stories, our challenge was to create a playful, human network for them to live on.

New Models of Education

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New Models of Education

Ben Barker

10th May 2013

More pictures here

El Ultimo Grito’s workshop programme Pilots is an undertaking at the Stanley Pickering Gallery that explores new forms of design education. The imperative for this discussion is the changing role of education in an open-data society. If you can learn anything on youtube, what is the role of the educator? Though it’s harder to learn a critical practice with embedded social and system thinking on youtube, it is unclear how long this will remain true. Identifying what institutions and educators roles are now and in the future is key to retaining the viability of a formal education. People are approaching this in variety of ways, a course in Australia recently structured lessons around googleable vs non googleable questions.

It’s a question we explored with Matt last year, and led to us creating a film for the design department at Goldsmiths exploring the value of the University education they offer.

As design becomes less production-focused and increasingly embedded in policy formation and social change, El Ultimo Grito believe design education models will be applicable as new models for education as a whole. You only need to see the quiet, design led revolution happening at gov.uk to know design’s role in society is changing.

Given the increasingly co-designed, agile nature of design practice, what can education learn from industry? Moreover, if we are now regularly seeing flexible, user-lead design processes being put into practice, have we reflected that back on our educational structures?

A defining moment in my university education was a realisation that the teaching I was receiving was as exploratory as my attempts to make sense of it. Our tutors would often acknowledge that lessons were based on a hunch or an experiment. I liked knowing I was both the experiment and the scientist, learning and helping shape my learning. In many ways they are just actions in the same cycle; explaining things helps you understand the gaps in your knowledge. It’s not the only feedback loop inherent in a good design education but I believe it’s the most important. The first time I tried teaching was the moment I realised what I had learned.

Russell talks about the changing relationships with users in his work at GDS:

“But it’s not an agency-type relationship where someone distant and important has to ‘approve’ everything. This is mostly because our chief responsibility is to our users – they approve our decisions by using or not using the services we offer them. Or by complaining about them, which they sometimes do. Also, because you just can’t do agile with a traditional client-approval methodology.”

If all stakeholders in education saw the course as an on-going investigation, with everyone equally responsible, it would increase the sense of ownership for everyone. In primary education the Harris Foundation takes students from around London Boroughs and asks them to design their own education, they call it a step change in student engagement, motivation and learning. The Kunskapsskolan in Sweden also looks at a student lead, deconstructed curriculum and is now the second most popular education provider. The Dirty Art Department at The Sandburg institute looks at an open course model in further education, asking students to define their own ambition and the course. There are plenty of other good examples in this report from Innovation Unit.

Even in the creative sector, it’s surprising how often students feel they are being taught at. As designers, if we are to question how organisations behave, and evangelise a responsive, open process, we need to make sure we’ve checked how we’re engaging our students and teachers in the learning process.

Our session at Pilots was lead by Daniel Charny and we modelled three approaches based around time, place and resources. The project is on going and there’s a really good write up here on the intentions: