Place-making and playfulness

Over the past few weeks I’ve interviewed a diverse mix of fascinating people for my research into technologies for place making. I’ve met designers, engagement experts, public sector directors and community representatives. I’m beginning to understand more about how to engage a community, how to get local people to care about and want to change places for the better.

One of the first things I‘ve learnt is the need to capture the community’s imagination. You have to get people interested and get them out of their everyday routine — something unusual or unexpected, but more than anything something fun. Playfulness has become a key word.

The purpose of my interviews is to understand how future technologies might be able to support the relationship between the community and the designer. One early technology based project (highlighted by Soundings, the consultation arm of architects Fluid) took place in Hackney in 1998. As part of a consultation program for a regeneration scheme a series of lasers were placed on top of the town hall and over a number of nights an interactive spectacle was created. Key to the project was that the exact display was dependent on the community themselves. Rather than a passive piece of artwork, it had interactivity at its core. By moving across the square people would trigger sensors that controlled and influenced the laser display. At the time this used cutting edge technology, but it was all in the name of engagement — and fun.

Some lasers (not the ones used at Hackney Town Hall)

The focus on fun reminded me of Roger Silly — founder of the Bureau of Silly Ideas, an arts company specializing in community engagement. I met him a couple of years ago in a pub in Brixton. He told me about an installation the Bureau had worked on in Brighton. They got a developer to claim that construction had stalled due to the discovery of a giant squid colony. Days later they announced the launch of Europe’s first Giant Squid Farm. The developer invited people to bring unwanted pets and children to feed to the giant squid. It was of course all made up and was revealed as such, but not until it made the BBC’s national news. It was all part of an extravagant plan to get people engaged. It included a giant geyser, a JCB-come-fairground ride pretending to feed children to the squid and a weeks worth of artistic performances. The aim of the project was to use fun and imagination to engage the community in the future of the site.

There’s much more to learn, but already engagement and playfulness are emerging as key parts of successful user-designer collaborations.

Burst Pipe Dream — The Bureau of Silly Ideas