Humanity owes its survival to one particular skill: our knack for constantly reshaping our own surroundings. Along these lines, urban hacktivists leverage minimal effort for maximum effect to change staid and sterile urban pockets into thriving, joyful spaces: Expect playful, creative, and occasionally anarchic surprises with an interactive twist.

Urban Hacks Florian Riviere smart magazine
“This Is Not A Skateboard”
Photo: Florian Riviere

While the future belongs to mega cities, densification nibbles away at available space, making it harder and harder to tweak the environment to our individual needs. In a way, this runs contrary to our DNA and heritage: From roaming Neanderthal to home improvement fiend, we have learned that survival takes constant tinkering and reconfiguration. So, where to direct our creative efforts in today’s “finished” environment?

A self-confessed “urban hacktivist,” and thus part of a growing global trend, French artist Florian Rivière has come up with his very own answer. His – and other urban hacktivists’ – aim is to disrupt aseptic infrastructures and everyday urban routines with lashings of imagination.

Skateboard revisited

Rivière’s “This Is Not A Skateboard“ video, for example, shows how to repurpose a skateboard for use beyond its usual knee-scraping thrills, spills, and skills. Our favorite: Wedged sideways into the back of a bench, it becomes a handy mobile laptop table.

In another example, the Frenchman links the handsets of two opposing phone boxes with tape to remind passers-by of that long-postponed call to friends, family, or distant relatives. Opening our eyes to the city around us, such hacks might turn bricks (of stated weight) into gym equipment, transform traffic barriers into seating, install public book shelves in phone boxes and bricked-up window frames, or delight unsuspecting pedestrians with daily messages assembled from colorful magnetic letters.

Brainstorm online, act local

Deliberately designed to inspire, these local city hacks reach a global audience via the net, which – in turn – adapts these ideas for their own surroundings. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be an obvious correlation between the number of creatives in the city and the frequency of inspired hacks. According to the “Rotten Apple Project” blog, for example, New York City alone boats a few dozen documented examples, yet the people behind it all prefer to remain anonymous, due to the uncertain legal status.

rotten apple urban hacks smart magazine
The fire hydrant chessboard sweetens the wait
Photo: The Rotten Apple Project
rotten apple urban hacks smart magazine
Cold weather clothing bank
Photo: The Rotten Apple Project
rotten apple urban hacks smart magazine
Workout bricks
Photo: The Rotten Apple Project
rotten apple urban hacks smart magazine
Old wheel barrel
Photo: The Rotten Apple Project

At the same time, most hacks do not deface thriving structures, but instead focus on abandoned or fallow ground to redefine urban wasteland and metropolitan anonymity via bold and bright disruptions, often with a practical edge. Delightful and down-to-earth, they help us save time, shorten the wait, awaken our competitive spirit – and often encourage interaction.

Playful traffic light interventions

Moving beyond the grey area of unsanctioned spontaneous projects, in July 2014 smart sparked discussion – and booty shaking – in Portugal’s capital Lisbon with a novel pedestrian traffic light. Whenever it is time to stop, its little red man shortens the wait with some cool moves and grooves! To up the ante, nearby motion sensors capture the dance moves of participating pedestrians and project them onto the traffic light, digitally and in real time. The “hacked” crossing soon became the talk of the town and encouraged 81% more people to stop at the red light.

Dancing traffic light smart magazine
Choose your music and start dancing
Photo: smart
Dancing traffic light smart magazine
The little red man shortens the wait with some cool moves and grooves
Photo: smart
Dancing traffic light smart magazine
The dancing traffic light by smart
Photo: smart
Dancing traffic light smart magazine
The “hacked” crossing soon became the talk of the town
Photo: smart

A slightly different, yet equally above-board traffic light modification proves that urban hacking translates just as well to smaller cities. In the German town of Hildesheim, two students at the College of Applied Arts and Sciences installed the world’s first ever street pong crossing. During the red phase, those who wait can pit their skills against pedestrians on the other side of the street via a touchscreen-based version of the timeless video game classic Pong. Installed directly on the traffic light pole, the self-explanatory 1972 cult game proves popular with all ages and playfully helps to pass the time.

To fully focus on urban interactions, the two students behind it all have now founded their own design practice – and already received requests from several German cities. And while commercial urban hacking along the lines of these last two examples might not exude quite the same DIY charm, it certainly ups our cities’ quality of life with each carefully placed bright new surprise.

Header image: smart