Hacking the City: Prototyping Innovation in San Francisco

A resonant image from renowned street art Bansky reads, “You Don’t Need Planning Permission to Build Castles in the Sky.” Unfortunately you do need a permit—at least if you’re going build, place, or draw just about anything in the streets of San Francisco from a chalk drawing on the sidewalk to a lemonade stand, and most certainly a castle.

What would happen if someone could lift those barriers for a day and make room for creativity to populate the streets? The San Francisco Urban Prototyping Festival posed this question and on Saturday, October 20th showcased more than 20 urban experiments curated and incubated over four months and displayed in the streets of the South of Market.

The featured projects emerged from an open call and a 48-hour makeathon, where prospective participants responded to a creative brief calling for projects that activate the everyday landscape of the city, from bus stops to utility poles to alleyways, using both digital and physical components.

The results include installations that address pressing social issues (like the PPlanter, a hybrid garden-urinal that crowd-sources information about demand for its services), provide alternative techniques for data collection (a DIY Traffic Counter tracks valuable information car and bike traffic on the cheap), and create opportunities for playful interaction (Shared Cinema, a video jukebox app, allows passersby to use their smart phones to vote for YouTube videos to be projected on blank walls).

The Expo itself is an experiment in prototyping. What happens when you turn a tunnel into an immersive audio visual space? What happens when you move a modular stage through back alleys? Who will participate? What ideas will emerge a high-powered line-up of urban changemakers, artists, and civic leaders come to the table?

UP:SF also tested the strength of cross-sector collaboration. What does it look like for non-profit organizations like Intersection for the Arts and the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts to partner with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, global design leaders from IDEO, and real estate developers from the 5M Project?

Sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness rather than permission, but this unprecedented collaboration has allowed these experiments to take place above the radar. The UP:SF expo is one way to help generate momentum for public experimentation that empowers citizens to re-imagine their city.

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