Playable City Tokyo

Playable City Tokyo

I was recently one of four British participants selected to take part in Watershed’s Playable City project in Tokyo. Working alongside 7 Japanese counterparts and an awesome support team from the Pervasive Media Studio and British Council Japan, we spent a week exploring the theme of playful welcomes:


In 2020, the world will focus on Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the run up, the construction period and during the games themselves, thousands of people will visit the city who have not been before. With the theme of  a ‘Playful Welcome’, seven Japanese and four UK participants will collaborate and develop playful ideas to connect visitors and local people to each other and to the city, during this exciting time.

…The Playable City Tokyo 2016 Creative Lab and Forum programme is part of the trial research project for the governmental “Basic Policy for Promoting Measures related to Preparations for and Management of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020”.

Further details about who was involved can be found on the Lab’s page on the Playable City website.

It was an intense week with a lovely group of intelligent, observant, generous people all riffing off each other and their surroundings; poking at gaps in language and disjoints between cultures, asking many questions and exploring even the smallest of details alongside the big questions.

Some of the very many things we packed into that too-short amount of time included some of the following…

Looking up

A map-making exercise of the area around the WIRED lab in Ark Hills where we were based. These maps led us to complete creative activities, to seek out the deity hidden in plain view and to chase after leaves. The one I made was effectively a prompt for people to slow down and to look up: a sort of treasure hunt of details and views.

Looking up

We also concocted small games for each other. Jo and I were set the Chopsticks Challenge which comprised several tasks that had to be completed working together elbow-to-elbow to make a pair of chopsticks with our forearms. I’m quite impressed with our portrait of Hilary!

chopstick drawing

As the week progressed we were allocated to different teams and we began the task of a more focussed critique of Tokyo and the processes of interaction and integration we might like to see happen as visitors start to arrive as part of the upcoming Olympic Games.

group sharing

We filled many ginormous sheets of paper with notes and diagrams like this:


(I can assure they all made perfect sense at the time!)

Gradually the concrete room we were colonising became covered in the traces of our thought processes and we began to distil out key themes and assemble them into a proposal for things-that-might-be.

With limited time and resources, prototyping was very lo-fi …but fast, and full of energy. Also little magic moments like this demonstration of a restaurant queue enlivened into a collaborative dance routine by responsive light panels in the floor!

magic moment

Other experiments took place outside.

We only got into trouble with the local security guards twice in the whole week…


As our ideas got bigger they also started to ask more questions about the types of interactions we wanted to nurture, the places we wanted these interactions to happen and how we wanted to mediate these.

Our group repeatedly grappled with the ideas of gateways, rabbitholes and entrances, so when it came time to take our prototyping outside to include real people and places, we chose to take things right back to basics and to do some experiments questioning how the very first invitation might work. What does it take to bring someone over that line between playing and not playing?

To focus in on the invitation we had to choose play that was familiar enough that we wouldn’t need to explain the rules. One thing led to another and suddenly we were armed with a selection of signs and an escalator in the nearby shopping centre.

pick one

Our aim was to use the fixed space and timespan of the journey up the escalator as a space in which to recruit people to playing a game of Rock, Paper, Scissor (or Janken Pon) at the moment that they reached the top.

janken escalator

We tried different signs in the approach to the escalator and also on and alongside the escalator itself, but without much uptake at all. It wasn’t until we ‘rebranded’ the escalator as The Janken Escalator that things started to turn around.

Perhaps not at all unsurprisingly, the real change came when we had a person waiting at the top of the escalator, ready to start throwing shapes. Up until then we’d had a poster with a pre-made choice that the player ‘played’ against by making their choice – and grabbing a piece of paper representing it – on the way up.

Playing with a real person is just loads better!

(c) British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

© British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

Again I think we raised as many questions as we answered, but that’s when you know things are interesting. Alas we were out of time, though, and the following day we were presenting our research to a room full of people before wrapping up and saying our goodbyes.


Also traces

You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here:

It was a wonderful, challenging, stimulating workshop to have been a part of and it’s left me hungry for more of the same. It’s also been interesting to have had the work flow structured by someone else – making me reflect on the processes I would normally work though and highlighting aspects that I find more or less important to me in my practice. For example, in particular I felt the lack of having a specific place to be designing interactions for. What was interesting though was that I also felt the lack of having a technological system to work with too.

Normally I’d be reciting a mantra of “don’t start with the technology”, but Playable City is ultimately about being playful with the infrastructure of a place (rather than just being playful in a place) and it felt like that was missing a bit from the ideas we explored.

I wonder both how I would approach the brief if I tackled it by myself, but also how we would build on what we did in that one week if we tackled it again as a group.

I think even if I did do a solo project I’d be carrying the Playable City cohort with me: my perception of Tokyo is now mediated through the eyes and experiences of everyone in the group and the things that they shared.


Making templates to make things from

Having arrived at a design for the Where the Sky Widens pods, I’ve been developing it into a template form from which workshop participants can assemble their own pods.

I went back to the 3D design software and re-worked the layout of the parts to try and minimise some awkward and fragile sections. There are lots of steps and software jumps in this, so I had to laser cut the results and assemble them again to check that everything was as it should be.

It wasn’t quite, but those details were easy to fix. (I think they’re fixed, anyway!)

One thing that worked really well was the dumb-bells. I want to transport the templates still attached to the A1 sheet of paper they’re cut into. This means we’ll have to finish cutting out parts of the outlines at the workshops and the dumb-bells make getting scissors right up to the cut line a lot easier.

I also experimented with engraving the assembly instructions onto the same sheets, but this made the cut time waaay tooooo loooooong (time == money and I’ll be lasering a lot of these things!)

Twitter has declared the pods also look like tribolites. It’s not wrong.

Free Longbridge Art Service

Yesterday I joined forces with Hannah Hull to provide a special, for-one-day-only, free public art service for Longbridge as part of our commission for EC Arts.

We struck out down the Bristol Road and found a parade of shops that seem to have been passed by by all the regeneration efforts several hundred metres away and decided it would be nice to give them some attention.

We went into several of the shops introducing our art service and offering to provide creative services, be it drawing, painting, sculpture, performance or socially-engaged interventions.

After more or less discussion, some of the shopkeepers came to the conclusion that they were not in need of our services. We asked them to fill in an entry in our receipt book to certify that “no art is required today”.

For some, this was because they saw no need for any additional art in their life, or because they did not feel qualified to be able to make the decision themselves, instead asking us to return when other family members would be present.

For others, this was because they were more than capable of being self-sufficient in their art requirements. As soon as we introduced ourselves to the staff in the tattoo studio, one man immediately dashed out to a back room and returned with these paintings that he had done:

Next to him was sat a young woman sketching out a Jack-Nicholson-as-the-Joker portrait for what we think was going to be a calavera sugar skull.

We were quite envious of her pro pencil kit and putty rubber.

Of the 8 shops we visited, we ended up being commissioned for art services from 3 of them, and we had such an interesting conversation with a woman in a 4th that we were moved to make an uncommissioned artwork for her:

Next time you’re in a shop in Longbridge, have a think about the person serving you and wonder if they’re really a secret artist.

Of the official commissions we received, there was a strong signage theme. The man in the electronic cigarette shop is unhappy with his boring black front door and wants to paint it up so it’s more catchy.

We measured the door and then sketched out a few different approaches he might consider. Unfortunately we didn’t have much in the way of paint with us, but what we were able to do was set up a potential link with a student at Bournville College who’s interested in doing some graffiti-style work. We all thought this could be a nice pairing!

The man in the tool hire shop requested some designs for a mural on his outer side wall in a style not entirely dissimilar to the signs that could be seen around the shop counter. With added tool-based word play.

We suggested that this might be a bit sexist and sketched up a few variants on the theme that were more encompassing of other types of relationships and gender identity.

Perhaps our most successful commission was completed for Mandy in the convenience store. After a bit of a chat we discovered that she was quite frustrated at always having to direct customers towards the bread. Finding the milk often seems to be problematic too, but we really liked the signs she’d made for the fridges and so we decided to concentrate our efforts on bread wayfinding.

After checking how the sign could be hung from the ceiling, Hannah used her stencilling skills to put together a rather eye-catching three-tier bread sign.

We’re rather pleased with the results – here’s the sign being installed:

Hannah also took this rather nice portrait shot of our happy customer:

Bread, sign, portrait. Photo: Hannah Hull

All commissions were documented via report sheets detailing client details (name, age, ethnicity); description of art services provided; duration of art service; venue of art service and whether the art service made people happy.

We had a 100% success rate with that last one.

Art service recipients will also be entered into a free prize draw – more on that later…





These events are part of Longbridge Public Art Public (LPAP) conceived by EC Arts for and on behalf of Bournville College. For more information visit

A city kind of a moment

I’ve been going back through my notes from the Guggenheim Lab events and workshops I was involved in last year and following up on various references. Currently I’m digging deeper into triangulation.

A sign of a great place is triangulation. This is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not.[source]

The video below is an extract from William H. Whyte’s ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ and at 42m29s there’s some discussion and examples of triangulation. The whole video’s worth a watch if you’ve time, though…

William H. Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – The Street Corner from MAS on Vimeo.

I’m thinking of some of the urban spaces I encounter on a regular basis and wondering what sort of triangulation + mayor combination it would take to inject some social life into them.

I’ve been tempted before to adopt a non place and make it the subject of my projects until it becomes adopted by a wider community, this film has added fuel to that fire.

What space would you target?

Museum Camp: interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens

On Monday I attended Museum Camp. As with MuseumNext in 2009 it was a) rather marvellous and b) a stimulating place to discuss ideas that relate directly and indirectly to my practice. Thanks to all involved!

Hello. We are interested in Museums and we want to think about...

I hadn’t intended to lead a session, but as a spur-of-the-moment decision I offered to instigate a session on ‘interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens’. This was largely from a desire to carry on the conversation that had begun with my recent residency at Coventry Artspace linking in with Heritage Open Days, but also fly the flag for this other face of digital that perhaps institutions aren’t aware of.

I was really happy to see so many people come along to take part in the session. Sitting-on-tables-or-the-floor room only! This post is intended as a reference for those that were in the session and those that weren’t able to join us: pulling out the main areas of discussion and linking to some of the examples mentioned.

I started off by talking a bit about my background and why I was interested in interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens: my journey through gradually more expanded forms of people+place and then influences from pervasive games (I like this definition) and the hackspace/makerspace movement.

I sat on a table and waved my hands a lot as I talked about two recent digital installations that encapsulated a lot of stuff I’m passionate about: making people look up; affecting how people interact with a space; instigating collaboration; making people think and speculate and do experiments to try and find out.

Trapeze Monkey from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Secret Police Disco from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Rebecca Shelley took some comprehensive notes on the conversation that followed as has been kind enough to share them, so here’s where we went from there…

But how much does it cost and is it something we can realistically implement?

Your local hackspace as a resource for know-how and possibly people with skills looking for an interesting project to use them on:
Coventry: Tekwizz
Hackerspaces wiki (includes a listing of active spaces around the world)
Hackspace Foundation has a UK list

Not got a local hackspace? Why not host one?
Museum 2.0 post
At the time of MuseumNext 2009 The Life Science Centre in Newcastle had got a long way towards planning to host one, not sure how far they got with implementing it.

Arduino is the platform I use: a small computer but also a community that shares a massive amount of information. A standard board costs about £25 and a lot of the sensors are available now as things aimed at a hobbyist market. It’s probably people’s time that’ll be the main expense.

Sensors include distance-measurers, motion sensors, noise detectors, humidity sensors… You can link up sensor inputs to a variety of different outputs, with some decision-making in between if the result is this, then do this.


Later on we reminded ourselves that the behaviour or effect we wanted to induce should lead the design, rather than the technology.

Use what you have in terms of resources and the space.

Low-tech is as valid as high tech.

Other technologies you can harness

Magic vests, silly hats and balloons.

Secrets, missions, games, small groups of people who are in-the-know and pantomine (as seen with the Secret Police Disco as people who had found it tried to enable others to make the discovery too).

How do you set/stage the space?

How you describe what’s going on and the process by which people enter that activity (or not).

Do I see it as performance? No – mostly because the idea would terrify me! – but I do see it as performative sometimes, and I’m interested in spectacle and different types of audiences that observe it.

I tend not to emphasise art (it’s scary to a lot of people!)
I tend not to emphasise technology (it’s scary to a lot of people!)

Can you pique people’s curiosity? Reward those that seek out the hidden things?

The Heritage Open Day event that Trapeze Monkey and the Secret Police Disco were a part of had a short paragraph and the end of the heritage-orientated handout that said I’d been in residence and things were ‘available for discovery’.

Question from Nikki: How does this sit with pedagogical aims of institutions? Does it matter if only a small number of people make the discovery?


How do you connect these experiences with the outside?

One participant talked about experience using gamification, linking in to people’s online social networks and harnessing the technology people carried in their pockets.

Another reminded us that not everyone has smart phones and I reminded us this was a session about non-screen-based approaches!

We then talked about the urge to share stories/experiences and possibly also how to close the feedback loop and do something useful with the contributions coming in from social media (or I might be conflating that with later discussions).

Education and fun

I noticed a few undertones that seemed to suggest these two are mutually exclusive…
(I disagree.)

Flows of visitors

Institutions are aware that visitors tend to stay in the areas that are more populated. Can we use interactive installations to draw people into the less well-trodden areas?

We talked about conferring agency, and how this brings people back if they can see their actions are having a direct effect on the space.

Someone talked about the audio piece Shhh… at the Victoria and Albert Museum and how it had enabled things like men transgressing into the ladies loos.

Can I give some examples of exemplary projects?

Um, this threw me a little as I think this is what I’m trying to move towards understanding through getting more of the museums’ points of views. I fell back on describing things I had encountered that had resulted in me having a powerful experience.

Symphony of a Missing Room, Lundahl & Seitl part of the 2011 Fierce Festival Hannah Nicklin’s thoughts and a This is Tomorrow article.

Ran on blindfolds, binaural recordings and the gentlest of touches leading you down the rabbit hole.

We talked again about spectacle, and returning to see what things look like from the outside. Also buying in to an activity and submitting to the experience.

Blast Theory were mentioned as the technology big guns. I’d seen some of their control room for I’d Hide You. It’s a lot of tech!

Reminded me to say that things will go wrong. Embrace it! (And design for it!)

This linked us back to an open approach and fostering a sense of agency and ownership – you can playtest your prototypes and people will appreciate it, it doesn’t matter if it’s not polished and flawless.

Hide&Seek’s Sandpit approach (and use of low tech).

I also mentioned the previous week’s Heritage Sandbox showcase and the Ghosts in the Garden project at the Holburne Museum. Smartphone technology wrapped up in an intriguing interface and an engaging narrative.

I’m totally into this as an approach and have used cardboard and simple electronics to replace touchscreens and turn using what’s basically a satnav into a team activity for 5 people.

Worried about a lack of budget? Cardboard props are great because they flag up that this is something running on imagination-power and you can do anything with that!

A Song for Skatz: using The Anticipator from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Hello Stranger

Workshop with Kio Stark.


  • Approach a stranger.
  • Ask if they will help you with a project and answer a question on camera.
  • Ask them what they are afraid of.
  • [interact]


(Of course the most intimate and revealing was off-camera.)

What are you afraid of? #1 from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Collated results from all of the stranger-finders


  • City as potential interactions and potential for interactions.
  • Rules are unwritten …but can be bent.
  • Interactions with strangers as a mechanism for connecting to place.
  • Strangers are good for your brain. New people; new ideas.
  • The importance of interesting things (points for conversation) happening in public places.
  • The importance of providing spaces for strangers to interact.
  • How the rules are relaxed in transitional spaces (train stations, elevators etc).
  • The unexpected works!
  • The value of conversation.
  • The value of making interactions where there was none before.


  • How does it change things if we go about the city knowing we are somebody else’s stranger-in-waiting?
  • Can we lower the barrier to interesting interactions?
  • What would a signalling system look like to enable others to see if we were open to new encounters or not. (update 03/10/2011: This question’s been bugging me as being too obvious, so I’d like to use it as a starting point Signtific style to get somewhere else.)
  • Thinking there’s an empathy barrier analogous to an enthalpy barrier. What novel catalysts can we provide to lower the barrier?

The relationship between activation energy (Ea) and enthalpy of formation (ΔH) with and without a catalyst, plotted against the reaction coordinate. The highest energy position (peak position) represents the transition state. With the catalyst, the energy required to enter transition state decreases, thereby decreasing the energy required to initiate the reaction


After the workshop I stopped to help a man measure a bit of sidewalk that was longer than his tape measure.

Bat gloves in progress

Last Autumn I started playing around with Tony Messina’s Simple Bat Detector circuit. I made a few boards and got as far as sticking one of them in an mp3 player armband …before the local bat population went into hibernation!

After being in the park one evening recently with bats swooping low overhead, I decided it was time to dig out the circuits again and get them tested and used.

Over the winter I’ve only been able to test with the ultra-sonic rangefinder I use in my sonar goggles, so I knew the circuit works, but I needed to see if it worked with airborne moving targets!

Simple bat detector

I rehoused the armband detector into something more sturdy and finally managed to coordinate with dusk and dry(ish) weather the other night to give it it’s first testing in the field.

It works!

I wandered around the park the other evening and found a bat flightpath that was conveniently located above a bench. I was able to use the detector to pick up a few clicks each time the bats zipped past. A really nice moment of making the invisible audible. If you know what I mean.

Bat gloves in progress

Meanwhile, however, I’m really unhappy with the crystal earpiece as the interface through which to experience this somewhat magical thing, so I’ve been working with some soft circuit techniques to develop some bat gloves.

There’s still a lot of sewing to do and, I expect, quite a lot of testing down at the park as well, but I’m really happy with the early experiments and how these transform the whole interaction.

That’s all I’m going to say for now…

On making things

I came across this short documentary this morning:

We Make Things. from Ryan Varga on Vimeo.

Here are my resonant points:

  • Technology as the tools we use to communicate with other people.
  • Making technology accessible is: looking at something, knowing it, understanding it, taking it apart, putting it back together, remaking something new.
  • Understanding the technology as having come from somewhere: as having an origin, as being made.
  • I do a lot of work with technology, but I’m not actually interested in technology – I’m interested in people.
  • Technologies of various kinds have the power to change our relationship to the world, to other people.
  • Not having to allocate technology to an expert. Community is the biggest thing that’s motivating. The tools themselves are boring.
  • Development practice in some ways is as meaningful politically as protest and voting.
  • The maker movement is portrayed as something that’s new, but it’s not: it’s a return to knowing how things work.
  • We’ve been through this era where things got kind of abstracted and sealed off, where we weren’t looking at them. [The technology inside things.]
  • It’s very hard for people to connect with a mentor – with a master, if you will – and the information share from generation to generation …we’ve let technology get in between that.
  • The separation of language and action. When we describe something linguistically, it’s very easy for us to form what that thing is and it doesn’t necessarily resist us very much. When we make something, the thing we make doesn’t always do what we want it to do.
  • When we’re doing critical making we’re not doing craft. We use making, not to come up with some kind of object for display, and not to come up with some kind of product to be sold, but as one way of guiding a shared experience. So we make together, and we think together, and we talk together…
  • The MakerBot is something that’s like, even though it’s digital, it’s kind of pulling us back to that to that time before the Industrial Revolution where people truly took time to figure out how things were made and what they were made from.
  • Objects with no traces of their production process are the wrong goal.We need to figure out ways to see the traces.
  • The great revolution: it’s not going to be people actually doing, it’s going to be that people understand what people that do, do

Those ideas around traces of the making process and understanding the origins of technology were in my head as I walked around Eastside this afternoon collecting data for Uncertain Eastside.

Blood. Sweat. Tears. Data.

It’s important to the work, and to me, that the two GPS units are carried around the city by hand, and that I push myself physically to do this (I do two circuits back-to-back, 7 and a bit miles). That those screens of numbers, of data, have an origin in human toil.

broken shoes

Disintegrating shoes (after a day gathering data around Nottingham)

update: And then, as if to prove the point, I processed the data from the day’s walking and got this, so I’ll have to do it again:

:( That's 7.32 miles I'll be walking again next week, then... #badGPSday

The rain eased.

Google Earth view of the first 3 circuits of the area around Curzon Street

Google Earth view of the first 3 circuits of the area around Curzon Street

Poised. Waiting for the rain to ease.


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