City Garden Quest

Co-Artistic Director Janet reflects on the 5G Explorer programme (2/2).

When Coventry University approached Talking Birds about taking part in the 5G Explorer project, we decided to open the opportunity out to some of our ‘freelance family’ to take part with us. We knew that both Steph Ridings (who has worked with us in both a writing and producing capacity) and film maker Rachel Bunce had been developing projects that might benefit from the use of this kind of technology and so the three of us worked together as ‘Team TBs’ for the duration of the project.

As mentioned in the preceding blogpost, Talking Birds has a history of playing with digital tools on and off throughout our 30 years of operation. Our motivation has generally been to experiment with different ways (to us) of telling stories and getting audiences involved or immersed – to find out which tools are best at what tasks.

Clockwise from top left: Solid Blue, Come Bowl With Me, The Difference Engine, The Whale and We Love You City.

We’ve done this by, for example, testing out the early world wide web with the creation of interactive online artworks like Web Demographic (which would have been a lot more straightforward if social media had existed at the time); using a series of projections onto parts of the theatre set to create an immersive fairground wall of death on stage for one show (Persistence of Vision, at the Belgrade Theatre in 2000), the sensation of looking out of the windows of a revolving restaurant for another (25/7, in an empty shop unit in Priory Place in 2006) or to momentarily turn an underground car park back into an aquarium (Wanderlust, in the South Bay Underground Car Park, Scarborough in 2002); and also by devising Heath-Robinson ways to make our work more accessible, for example by cobbling tech together to deliver captions or audio description to our audiences (which led to the development of our purpose-built in-pocket captioning tool the Difference Engine).

Rachel and Steph try out the City Garden Quest prototype coded by Ash.

Throughout TBs time as part of the 5G Explorer cohort, we’ve continued to negotiate our discomfort with the goldrush ‘race to digital’ by trying to explore ways to ‘bend the tech‘ and imagine a social democracy platform that encourages practical public engagement with the climate crisis. As a company, Talking Birds is big on social and ecological responsibility and how we can use our work and privilege to push these agendas, but how to square tech growth with our values remains a matter for debate.

During the ‘5G Design Sprint’, we developed the idea of City Garden Quest (working title) – a gamified social democracy tool where players work together to tend virtual plants across the city, responding to real-time weather/temperature/air quality/humidity data. The digital social democracy aspect of Quest (partly inspired by Decidem in Barcelona) acts as a kind of rewilding consultation, obliging landowning stakeholders to rewild these spaces in real life. (Think Incredible Edible meets the Knepp Estate meets Islands of Abandonment via a gamified, awareness-raising, mass-participation, tangible, regenerative, climate action platform, if you will…)

One of our inspirations was Rob Hopkins’ Transition workshop methodology, where people work collectively to imagine different futures for real places, ‘creating a longing for something wonderful’ that participants are then invested in making a reality. But also (and similarly) the idea is inspired by the recommendations drawn up by the Citizens’ Assembly that Talking Birds held last year (you can read more about the Assembly, Art for the People, and about the recommendations drawn up by our representative sample of Coventry citizens’ here).

In order to develop and communicate our ideas around the Quest further, the amazing Coventry Creative Coder Ashley Brown worked to build us a mini prototype that could test some of the aspects of the idea; we played a bit with augmented reality on Adobe Aero; and we mocked up screen grabs to help visualise the idea for the sharing event.

Happily, and coincidentally, PoliNations happened in Birmingham during September. The temporary transformation of the hard surfaces of Victoria Square into a much more welcoming, softer green space was a fantastic illustration of how rethinking city centres to include meadow and forest planting would be a gamechanger: for human wellbeing, for biodiversity, and for mitigating air pollution and the heat island effect – as well as sequestering carbon and helping us survive climate breakdown.

Planting at PoliNations in Birmingham

We’ve now reached the end of the scheduled activity for the 5G Explorer project, but with City Garden Quest we have the bare bones of a really exciting concept. Our next steps include a series of conversations with people who know more about gameplay and digital social democracy (if this is you, do get in touch!) – and then we can assemble the stakeholders and resources to start to realise the idea.

It was good to get so much positive feedback at the sharing event at the end of September, and it was fascinating to see the different directions our peers in the cohort had taken. We’d all had the same input – the lightning talks about the technology itself, and about the digital practice of artists who work with tech in different ways; the opportunity to play with some of the technology; and being taken through the design sprint process – and yet (of course) the ideas are all really different, totally brilliant and absolutely reflective of the artists and organisations that created them. However, ‘How green is your tech?’ remains – for us at least – a very knotty issue.

*You may notice (as we just have) that the project is variously referred to as both City Garden Quest *and* Garden City Quest – what can we say? – neither is quite the right name, and it’s very much a working title...


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