During the Grand Depart, thousands of journalists stay at Dutch hotels. Many of them find a 'Bedtime Story' on their pillow. In this last chapter, we explore our playful cycling city.
From A to B, from 1 to 3;
Cycling gets us where we need to be
But choose to see differently, if only for one day
observe how we act, explore
and realize it’s play
The finish line awaits beyond the horizon, your time trial is nearly complete. You’ve entered the final chapter of our Bedtime Stories. One more time, I’ll be your guide through the biking philosophy of Utrecht, the city you’ve been in for the past few days.
Soon, after the ink of your own stories about the Grand Départ dries up, you will again become a traveler. Traveling, in the strict sense, means to move from one place to another. However, it is not the distance, time or direction that matters here, it is how you choose to get there. In many ways, getting from A to B is much like playing. There are rules to follow and break, challenges and rewards to take.
Last month, media scholar Dr. Michiel de Lange (Utrecht University) published an article on the importance of play. “The truly smart city is a playful city.” Smart cities that are technology- driven to produce solutions for urban problems do not take the interest of citizens into account, he claimed. The use of play gets people more involved. Some games provide insight into rules, procedures and parameters, others encourage players to develop team strategies and mutual trust to build.
Traveling through the streets Utrecht, you might have discovered some playful elements already. There’s a giant teapot on the roof of shopping mall Hoog Catharijne, more than 7 meters high. The roof of an old brick building near the train station contains an UFO, with a diameter of 12 meters. In the Lange Viestraat, there’s a crosswalk in rainbow colors, supporting the LGBT community in a playful manner. And last but not least, there are colorful statues of our very own Nijntje (abroad better known as Miffy) all over the city. Utrecht is also a key player in producing actual games on a global level. Dozens of young game studios are housed and supported in the Dutch Game Garden (across from the Jaarbeurs). From here, these studios create the world-renowned games we have all played on our gaming consoles, ipad or smartphones.
Are our bikes suited for playing games as well? If you’re anything like me, you’ll remember games you used to play as a child, slaloming through the road surface markings. Are there any versions left for grownups?
Meet Thomas and Bas of Front404 (front404.com), an Utrecht-based artist duo. Front404 is about getting people out of their daily routine. Using playful interaction they offer new ways of looking at the world. One of their projects makes clever use of the bike, connecting it to Oculus Rift VR-goggles. In Citytrip you navigate through a computer-generated city in virtual reality by pedaling and steering, as if you were really there. Searching for an interface that could offer more realistic motion control, Thomas and Bas felt the bike had a lot to offer: “It is a familiar way of moving for most people, resulting in a more intuitive, fun experience.” Citytrip has its own laws of physics and is hence not a simulation; if you pedal hard enough, you’ll fly through the air.
Playfulness does not only occur in virtual reality, though. The Utrecht sound collective Soundlings (soundlings.com) recently developed Songcycles. Each bike is provided with a sound speaker and makes its own distinct tone, while its rhythm is linked to a universal clock. As such, when two or more bikes encounter each other, they seamlessly blend into one harmony. Joining or leaving this cycling orchestral group changes the music.
For one last example, we head for the Utrecht Science Park, where most of Utrecht’s research and education takes place. On its campus, an official time trial bicycle race took place. To make up for the lack of high mountain stages in The Netherlands, it was held inside a parking garage, from the entrance to the roof (with a steepness of a 6 percent gradient). Former professional cyclist Thijs Zonneveld won the race.
Like Michiel de Lange said, the use of play gets more people involved. The examples given clearly show you how imagination and new experiments lead to a renewed interest in the bike, time and time again.
Dear protagonist, together we’ve seen wonderful projects. Now time has come to park your bike for the last time.
Everywhere we went, we saw examples of involvement. Citizens of Utrecht are involved in measuring the NO2 levels of their own environment (KNMI). They are encouraged to share their frustrations and actively search for new solutions (Happy Biking Project). And playful ideas like Citytrip and Songcycles invite them to discover the potential of the bike anew.
The bike holds a key to Utrecht’s success, though it’s not really the bike itself. Better maintained roads, more efficient traffic lights, more parking space; these improvements do play part in the fun of biking. But the real underlying strength is the bike as framework for new collaborations, new experiences, new discussions and ideas. The bike causes us to meet, talk to and watch out for one another. Smart cities are not about innovation for the sake of ‘the new’, they’re about needs, desires and ideas that formulate a question, whether or not new technology is the answer. The bike is a great enabler in this conversation.
I wish you well. Thank you for letting me be your narrator during the past four nights. Best of luck, and save travels.
And they lived healthier ever after…