I think my fascination with cities began with my first trip to London, which came in my late-teens as part of my college course. As a sheltered Yorkshire lass, the buzz and latent energy that seemed to exist in every molecule of the big city was intoxicating, overwhelming, and ultimately addictive. I made it my mission to go back often. When those pesky annoyances known as time and money became hindrances to my London habit, I ventured closer to home. I found Leeds in 2009 and then York in 2011 (yes, I was THAT sheltered). They each had their own kind of charisma and, more importantly to me, stories to tell. As an artist, you are trained to observe things well, so that’s what I did every time I visited a city. I liked looking for the human life and drama in it, the strange secret or hidden connections of things. My work with Playful Leeds asks me to look at the city as a canvas, and opened up a new world of seemingly non-arty topics that still fascinated me.
FutureEverything seemed to be tailor-made for me this year, from the over-arching theme of ‘digital public spaces’ and sub-themes of future cities and creative code down to specific talks about urban ecologies, interfaces for culture online, and what a ‘smart city’ really is. I arrived at Piccadilly Place with an incredibly open mind – I had no knowledge of code, city infrastructure, open data, or pretty much ANY of the topics being discussed over the two-day conference. It might be a blessing that I was too shy to mingle as I may have seemed like a dunce.
The first day was the fullest as unseasonable bad weather hampered my travel plans on the second day. The keynote from Dan Hill set the mood and pace, and was honestly hard to beat. His exploration of space and public use really struck a chord with the work I’d been doing for Playful Leeds. The idea of a smart city is not what we might imagine and is more about the people than the city. Active, engaged people who feel like they want to contribute to their city. The example of ‘Restaurant Day’ in Helsinki was fantastic and all stemmed from people who had personal aspirations but were stifled by heavy, sluggish infrastructure and rules. For anyone who has had an idea for a pop-up or using public or empty space, this will sound all too familiar. The closing talk of the day, Interfaces for Culture, blew my mind. In particular, the tools that Google have at their disposal for their Cultural Institute made me think of how histories, timelines, stories could all be built and told like never before. It was about documentation and preservation. You may think your story is not worth telling but it is. I also loved the potential for fictional storytelling as well, the idea of one big collaborative saga. The online environment is better than ever for social interaction and creativity, it is not a static thing so its content shouldn’t be static either. This level of interactive communication in a physical space would also prove very interesting and is certainly something to consider when making playful spaces.
At what point is public involvement natural or forced? Using digital technology just because you can is dangerous as it could potentially alienate those you actually want to reach. People are not stupid. People are creative and using digital technology in ever more surprising ways. They don’t want facial recognition technology to get in to a block of flats, or fingerprint scanning to pay for stuff. They want something immersive and full of wonder. Digital technology does not have to stay in the realm of scientists and coders and that is perhaps the greatest thing I could have taken away from FutureEverything. Cities have stories and it’s time they were heard.
Amy Evans was part of the FutureEverything Bursary scheme.