Hyderabad / Mumbai / Delhi

delhiThe inaugural India Gaming Show in Delhi (noisily) showcased a Games sector showing potential for fast acceleration from a low base point – driven by mobile.

Console and PC hardware is still very expensive for many users but the acceleration of smartphone use, especially driven by new data competition (c.f. Jio / Vodafone / Idea) is creating a marketplace of c.300M+ handsets – with lots of room for expansion (only 30% Indian mobile users currently have a smart phone).

Currently gaming is dominated by students, with limited purchasing power, and as many players do not have a credit card payment systems also provide a challenge, e.g. Steam codes in India are requested online but then sent round in person to collect cash.

BUT despite some hurdles in distribution, connectivity and payment infrastructure there is a strong belief that the market will grow rapidly. Game downloads are already significant numbers and there is demonstrable engagement for both global titles and more localised content.

There is also a real corporate interest in e-Sports as an emerging commercial opportunity – does it reach an audience which is highly aspirational in desire to participate but finding barriers to entry in cost / availability of kit?

Visible political support at the show and newly published mapping and statistics on the sector found parallels in the position of the UK a few years back – as culturally and commercially the impact of the Games industry, and significant future potential, began to drive a strategic policy interest and response.

The positive view in Delhi had a physical representation in Hyderabad, where the economic confidence and growth of the city was embodied in major development of office space and infrastructure (as the saying goes count the cranes…)

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Chicago / New York (and so it came to pass…)

uprightA very strange few days in (admittedly liberal) America where an atmosphere of quiet despair and the shadow of political uncertainty infected everything and everyone.

Any vain hope that the presidency would make the man more presidential evaporated as each day generated a new WTF moment, whether blatant lies, “alternative facts”, bizarre ratings obsessions or media witchhunts. All of which diverted attention from an inauguration speech which was singularly isolationist and retrograde, and a series of kneejerk executive orders

The Uber driver I had who’d voted Trump regarded the more outlandish statements as noise to be ignored, he’d bet on an ability to create jobs and opportunity (“the American Dream”) – an interesting insight. Others however were more circumspect, aware that what plays well in America looks very different through external eyes.

We can only hope that wiser heads prevail – both in the US and across the globe.

The picture above is of a work by Annette Lemieux (Left Right Left Right 1995) at the Whitney, taken in April. The one below was this week, reinstalled upturned to signal her response to the election.

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londonSo I’ve been invited to a reception in Washington the weekend of the presidential inauguration…part of me finds the idea interesting and compelling, part of me wants to run a mile. Much like the prospect of 2017 really.

For DIT I’ll travel in the next few weeks to Chicago, New York, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi. Clearly the shift of Brexit another notch from theoretical to actual in March will make for an interesting year.

Playable City will launch Oxford shortly and commence the initiative linking Bristol, Lagos, Mexico City and Tokyo. Hirsch & Mann will deliver the latest commission in early Spring and conversations from Austin to Dublin to Kazakhstan will hopefully crystallize into future activity. The concept seems to have gained significant reach during 2016 and the plan is now to attach significant supporting brand and tech partners across the global network.

And with luck, other new and unexpected things will appear.

On a train last autumn I discussed with a fellow passenger how in the future school kids would study 2016 as a pivotal year, now we begin to find out what comes next…..

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San Francisco / Los Angeles

yoda(To answer the question from the Helsinki blog, no-one talked about it, at all, like the whole of California has just decided to mentally block what comes next…)

A really stimulating visit to San Francisco (including VRX 2016) and then down to Los Angeles. Over the course of the week there were a clear series of messages which emerged as a kind of “state of the nation” thinking on VR:

Weak prospects short term
A universal mantra was that the VR market was some way off any real scale or viability – somewhere between 3 to 5 years. This was due to a series of overlapping issues:

  • adoption data underwhelming – hardware is on the market but adoption has not accelerated (Cost / Content / User experience)
  • no prior use case – building an entirely new market and ecosystem with associated issues from physical equipment to ethical framework
  • lack of compelling content – no content has driven everyday use or consistently overcome the barrier to use (kit / isolation / sickness), partially due to the fact that limited market = limited investment in content

The strategy for market entrants should be one of “survival” until…

Belief in the long term opportunity
Despite short term anxiety there was a consistent belief that the longer term would be exponential growth of a transformative technology – whether AR or VR, entertainment or industrial use.

All of the major technology players are already in the market and invested in future prospects for growth. Interestingly the same enormous DigiCapital market estimate is quoted often, plus the contention that AR will be bigger than VR, and that enterprise use will outstrip entertainment.

Time to experiment
Given no prior use case there is a gap in understanding the visual language of VR, the ethical implications, what is different about content in this form and what makes it compelling, e.g. are cinematic rules redundant but immersive theatre practice helpful?

There was consistent agreement on “if it’s not 10x better in VR then don’t use VR”, and also that a sense of presence was important, rather than just viewing (“who am I in this scene?”). On narrative there was less agreement from it’s “like jazz” – e.g. there is an underlying form but room to experiment – to fixed linear as your point of control of the story.

Whilst very few games or content pieces have made any money there was a consistent belief that small scale funded experimentation right now was vital to the growth of the industry in the future – and a willingness of some key players to put resource into seeding new ideas.

One of my highlights was at Oculus, using the Touch to “pick up” and manipulate objects whilst talking to someone I could see in the same virtual “room”. That connection and dialogue was interesting in immediately immersing you in the experience in a way that I haven’t found with other content.

And “time to 50 tattoos” is my favourite new measure of audience engagement…

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helsinkiA different (significantly colder) city and a very different show – even though ostensibly the area of focus was identical.

Slush in Helsinki still manages to protect its founding student cooperative ethos, even as it reaches 17,000 people; it’s quite a feat to retain a very distinctive culture within a large show – and Slush succeeds, feeling open, inclusive, stimulating.

At a networking event someone put their finger on the difference between Web Summit and Slush – in Lisbon it felt too much like the start ups were collateral and not central, in Helsinki it is the reverse.

I noted last year that Slush also manages to retain a clear longer term view on societal impacts with some very stimulating discussion on the possibilities, opportunities and impacts of design and technology within a context of governance and global development.

I wrote my Lisbon blog in the wake of Trump (and continuing shadow of Brexit) and it’s interesting how those themes of the responsibilities of digital platforms have turned into a healthy public conversation. Albert Wenger, early Twitter investor, VC and author of World After Capital was particularly good on this as part of a more fundamental economic transition, an article by Om Malik in the New Yorker on Silicon Valley’s “empathy vacuum” also touched a very similar nerve.

And so now to America, interesting to see what this discussion feels like from Silicon Valley…

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lisbonTo Lisbon for the first iteration of Web Summit in the city. The event is now gigantic, c.50,000 attendees, but what was happening beyond the Summit was of most interest last week.

As noted elsewhere I’ve become increasingly cynical about the tone of start-up events, often representing the triumph of hope over experience; where value is measured by VC investment rather than output, and the vision is delivering marginal lifestyle efficiencies as opposed to real world impact (it was described as “dystopian” by another contact). There were some honourable exceptions but this all appeared a bit of a digital bubble when related to the political and societal fractures being played out in the EU and US.

The inside / outside fracture was visible in the response to the election of Trump in the US. Apart from howls of disbelief there was very little acknowledgment that digital may have a role, and responsibility, in these seismic shifts. However, as the days have passed since it is interesting how this conversation has rapidly developed:

  • That the tech giants will struggle to hold their position of “platform not publisher”, and are feeling pressure regarding the veracity (facebook) or tone (twitter) of content (also c.f. Uber or Deliveroo on workers rights)
  • That the echo chamber of social media is self-reinforcing, algorithms delivering only content which matches to your world view thus exacerbating polarising forces.
  • That the demise of quality journalism and trusted news sources impacts on reasoned argument in favour of headline clickbait – factual, exaggerated or otherwise.
  • That normalising abuse gives rise to a tolerance of racism, misogyny and outright lies from public platforms

2016 will be a year studied by future children in history lessons, and part of that shift feels like a pivotal point in the maturing of the digital world from outsiderdom to social dominance – with the responsibility that entails, wanted or otherwise.

To end on a more positive view, the statement of intent by Lisbon in enticing Web Summit from Dublin is emblematic of sustained support for the growth of a new digital economy in the city. With other highly effective players, such as Beta-I, supporting development, the Lisbon scene has moved a long way forward over a series of visits since 2013.

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Playable City Award 2016 – winning commission

stop-smileA belated note on the 2016 Playable City commission.

With a working title of Stop Smile Stroll, the project will focus on pedestrian crossings – co-creating playful interventions with local residents (e.g. it might be a disco one minute, something more reflective the next) and then building in a reactive element to city data (e.g. pedestrian flow, traffic flow, weather) to create an interestingly responsive city system.

The winning team is Hirsch & Mann  based in London and increasingly recognised for their interactive work, for example they have just installed pieces within the Google Pop Up Store in Spring Street NYC.

With the Playable City team, Hirsch & Mann will iterate the idea from here and build a prototype for installation in Bristol first at the beginning of 2017, then touring to other Playable Cities worldwide.

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Copenhagen / Malmo / Lund / Gothenburg

the-bridgeAn accelerated round trip through Denmark / Southern Sweden punctuated throughout by examples of long term, design thinking: from the explicit future city focus of initiatives in Copenhagen like Design To Improve Life or Copenhagen Solutions Lab; to the more subtle realisation that every company I met in Gothenburg seemed to have a post grad working as a fully integrated part time employee, as a function of their University course; or the communal culture of the MECK building (an ex-submarine factory) in Malmo centred around the canteen and shared spaces, and part of the industrial reinvention of the docks.

Whilst seen as typically Scandinavian these qualities of form and function as applied to societal change, and imbued with a sense of communality and fairness, were refreshing when viewed from a year in the UK which has seemed to be characterized by a narrative of short term impact and no substance.

I was excited to be taking a train over The Bridge bridge between Copenhagen and Malmo, but unfortunately the flat Scandinavian light gave the view a rather grayscale feel (above)….

[An addendum – in Lisbon I saw John Maeda give a talk. He defined “design thinking “as “inclusive thinking” – which resonate with the above]

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Technology & Playable City

robotWe define Playable City as re-using the fabric of the city to create unexpected interactions, which surprise and inspire new thinking. We also aspire to create work which is as open and democratic as possible. There is nothing in that which demands a use of technology, but in practice a look at the impacts we are expecting makes it inevitable – and is the clue to the resonance of the Playable City idea.

By definition an interaction, especially an unexpected interaction, requires an understanding of position, location or movement – whether wittingly or unwittingly our Playable City “participant” must trigger the response. This conscious and unconscious input and output requires a sophisticated communications network, and the combination of technologies and simple systems to achieve our desired effect.

And in combining this network demand with projects which are integrated into the city, and targeting the widest possible audience, we frame our activities within a “smart city” landscape – the city as sensor network, the flow and interactions of citizens creating data impacts and active responses.

Within these terms we deliver work which is both there to be enjoyed, but which also inspires a new way of thinking about the future of the city – and by being rooted in place that framework is adaptable to the technology ”landscape” of any city, from Lagos to Recife to Tokyo.

It is this resonance which allows a project like Hello Lamp Post to be both an interesting diversion and a cipher for a world of connected objects, the internet of things; it allows Shadowing to be a fracture in the everyday, and also emblematic of smart city infrastructure, and of surveillance; it allows our conversations in cities around the world to both be about playful cultural interventions and also about city issues from mobility to transport to city discovery.

Playable City has evolved to become an interesting hybrid. We are concerned with the environment of the future city, and with technology as an enabler of purposeful citizen engagement. But we are also as focused on the person-to-person connection as the person-to-city, and thus any technology employed must not create barriers or exclusions.

Our model generates a productive collaboration between city, citizens, creatives and technology and it is that “people-centred”, service design ethos which underpins our thinking on technology. It is an important tool, a fundamental enabler, but it is always appropriate and invisible – the mechanism to achieve a desired impact, not the driving motivation.

[And with the 2016 Playable City Award call now closed and 80+ entries received from 34 countries we start the exciting process of shortlisting…]

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Playable City Award 2016/17

tokyo metroThe 2016/17 Playable City Award is now open for applications, an international call for ideas with a specific focus on journeys. As cities grow and populations increase, how we get from A to B affects a city’s liveability, well-being, and economic development. Transport and mobility is a key concern of cities across the world:

  • The average commute time in Lagos is four hours
  • The Tokyo railway system carries 40 million people a day
  • Bristol residents spend an average 127 hours each year stuck in traffic
  • More than 600 cities worldwide have a bike-sharing program.

From bus rapid transit systems to driverless cars, city bikes to traffic jams – transport infrastructure and efficiency is a key investment area of the smart city. But, how people feel about their journey, how they use the time and how they connect with others, is often overlooked. A Playable City approach to urban journeying will start new conversations, imagine new futures and make new connections – person to person, person to city.

The theme is broad and open to interpretation: a winning idea might address waiting, navigation, location or transit. It might connect people on public transport, use city bike infrastructure or explore transition situations – from physical crossings to transport interchanges.

From Bristol to Bangalore, Mexico City to Sao Paulo, cities across the world have articulated demand for Playable City projects which explore mobility. We will select a strong and surprising winning idea with the ability to scale, capitalising on global interest in Playable City to build a project with international potential.


The 2016/17 Award will be split into two stages:

  • The successful idea will be awarded a £30,000 Research and Development commission to thoroughly develop and test a prototype.
  • Using the growing international Playable City network of cities, partners and funders we will then take the prototype to final product and create a global roll out plan for the winning idea.

The award will be open to artists, designers, architects, technologists and creative practitioners who can demonstrate a history of delivering high quality, innovative practice.  By definition any application will need to demonstrate a universality to allow it to make sense and deliver impact in a wide range of city environments.

Closing date for applications is 5th September – full details here: https://www.playablecity.com/awards/award-2016/

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