Star Light, Star Bright: How Playable City Oxford came to shine

In 2016, I read a fascinating (though now disputed article) about a Canadian boy discovering the location of a potential ‘lost’ Mayan city. He’d correlated the known Mayan cities, against their known star constellations and reached a potentially groundbreaking conclusion. Despite being disputed, the publicity crystalised a thought that had been burgeoning across all our international collaborations: That despite our cities’ light pollution, the night sky constellations we see over heard offer us a constant familiarity — until you are in a new city, in a new part of the world.

Earth from the International Space Station. Photo taken by Mark Vande Hei @Astro_Sabot, from aboard the International Space Station. Dec 20, 2017.

A Winter’s Tale

The call for the Smart Oxford Playable City Commission spoke about creating connectivity, and using IoT, and smart infrastructure. A project for Oxford in the winter. A city that has huge flood-plains, and anticipate flooding each year. An outdoor, public installation in a UK winter city where it is dark from 4.30pm and sunrise isn’t until after 8am. At the time of year when our streets are at their most deserted.

I love a challenge like this: Hellion Trace have collaborated on projects in cities all over the world for years, each time looking for unique elements of the local, cultural identity and rhythm of a city.

For Oxford, responding to the their theme of ‘Shared City’, I wanted to make a piece that was about the connections between us as individuals achieving something together, strangers meeting in the winter darkness to create light and connection. I wanted to celebrate the history of scientific and academic discovery, of the European Space Agency on the Harwell Campus and yet reach beyond the quads and the city centre.

Today we can pre-map our journeys in great detail, walk around the city we are planning to visit in advance, plot travel times, find quiet routes, and cycle routes and even routes that smell nice: All of this digital (and paper!) infrastructure is almost omnipresent but still relies on us having access to a device. Often when we are abroad, we take the time to look up and are unsettled by a lack of familiarity overhead. The stars that we see in the night sky are so specific to each location. They are part of a city’s uniqueness that hides in plain sight, above our heads.

‘The stars that we see in the night sky are so specific to each location. They are part of a city’s uniqueness that hides in plain sight, above our heads.’

So just as looking up is an important act in helping citizens re-imagine their relationship with a city, we also know working with strangers creates a feeling of camaraderie and shared memory, and using light in a beautiful and engaging ways can help to reduce anti-social behaviour and change wayfinding in cities. Even whilst city lighting often masks the night sky, we all seek those moments when we suddenly see the starlight, shining bright.

Star Light, Star Bright

Star Light, Star Bright will be spread out across diverse sites in Oxford, both in and outside of the tourist and university areas. Encouraging citizens to come together and map star constellations from the night sky above Oxford, this is a project designed to reach the edges of a city and all its’ demographics. With an intuitive and accessible entry point (stand on a light: it turns on) Star Light, Star Bright creates an immediate opportunity for serendipity, collaboration and spontaneity: each constellation needs more than one person to activate it to create the ultimate beam of light. We have designed Star Light, Star Bright to be democratic and citywide, demonstrating a shared city. It is a rapidly shareable activity that fits our visual world, easily captured for social media. Continued curiosity is encouraged; follow the map, hunt them all: Find all the constellations in Oxford. Look how the stars shine for you.

Star Light Star Bright, winner of the Smart Oxford Playable City Commission, will launch across Oxford in January 2018 and run for 6 weeks until the end of February 2018. 

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