Atlantic Cities

San Francisco Is Rolling Out High-Tech Playgrounds for Adults

Travel to downtown San Francisco and you might notice what look like two satellite dishes with groups of people jabbering into them. The bowl-like objects, which face each other at Market Street and Yerba Buena Lane, are actually parabolic acoustic amplifiers – whisper into one, and somebody at the other one 50 feet away will hear it loud and clear.

That's not the only odd thing about this corner. There's also a fence that looks like a whale's ribcage and a bench that plays music when it electronically senses its occupants are holding hands. The whole area has become a pop-up playground for engineers and techies and the scientifically curious, thanks to a new program that turns city-owned spaces into wacky, unexpected funzones.

Or "Living Innovation Zones," to use the name chosen by the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation, a quirky strike force that has "Innovation Fellows" developing creative solutions to everyday problems. (The group made this interactive tool to demystify local laws, for instance, and is working on methods to recycle textile waste). In the case of the aural satellite array now blessing the city center, it seems the "problem" was a piece of public land that wasn't interesting enough. So the city found a partner in the Exploratorium, a science-education museum that's geared toward children, and built this exhibit in an area that's geared toward office workers and tourists.

The idea for the innovation zone came about partly because technology companies constantly bombard San Francisco's government with offers to showcase their stuff on the streets, municipal buildings, and public buses. "City assets are highly admired," says Shannon Spanhake, a Deputy Innovation Officer. These zones are a way of livening up public spaces with what the Bay Area's workforce does best – computer and applied-science stuff – while not spending any taxpayer money on the effort. The city provides the real estate for a year or two, while each zone is sponsored by a company, arts or cultural institution, or you – for example, the Exploratorium is relying on Indiegogo to get the funding to expand its presence.

"We live in this amazing tech kind of city, but when you walk down the streets you don't really feel that," says Spanhake. "This [project] brings that layer of public innovation to that realm."

The downtown zone is the first in a planned run of ten, and is unlike many other public projects in that its content could change according to the public whim, regardless of bureaucratic red tape. "Normally with installations, they go through a design-and-engineering review and then get approval," says Jake Levitas, an innovation fellow. "The LIZ program is designed to allow change over time, so if people don't like one part or another it can get taken out." Or as the mayor's office said last week when it kicked off the zone, the "LIZ will be continuously prototyped with new ideas, adapting to input."

The innovation team says other cities have already contacted San Francisco to see how the masses are engaging with the first zone. The answer is pretty well, according to Levitas. The listening dishes have been "adopted by street performers who quietly strum a banjo on one, while hundreds of pedestrians are strolling past on the other side," he says.

Here's what the zone looks (and sounds) like:

This is a video of the MIT-designed "Musical Bench" that composes music from people's "galvanic skin response":

Not really related, but at the zone's debut there was a pumpkin carved to look like San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee:

Images from the Exploratorium's Living Innovation Zone on Indiegogo and Facebook

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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