Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The designers of the TetraBIN want to turn chucking garbage into a game with purpose.
Back when paper was still a thing, before “gamification” was said to be the future of most necessary tasks, office workers made sport of at least one mundane activity. Crumpled memos were free-thown into waste bins with the athletic attention a player might direct to an actual hoop. “He shoots, he scores!” these paper-pushers of yore would cheer, before swiveling back to their typewriters or boxy old desktop computers.
The imagination and fixity of location required to play this game is perhaps harder to find in today’s paperless open-office environment. Playable versions of humdrum tasks, objects, and spaces are in large supply; it’s just that architects, designers, and urbanists tend to conceive of them for us, sometimes with small, behavioral “suggestions” folded into their conceit.
The 21st century version of trashketball, for example, is the TetraBIN, a street-side garbage can that turns the act of chucking refuse into a semi-digital sport. Created by the Australian design firm Sencity, the insides of the four-holed receptacle are lined with sensors that activate an LED-wrapped exterior. If you aim your garbage just so, at the right moment, you can “push” Tetris-like blocks into position, or feed a dog a bone, depending on which Nintendo-style game the can is set to.
The bin can also alert owners of its fill level and allow customized messaging on its LED screens; one of the TetraBIN’s designers, Ivan Chen, tells me that he could see the bin used for informal polling (Mets fans, throw garbage in the right slot; left for Yankees.) They may also eventually be hooked into an internet of things, sharing use data with other sensor-enabled objects in the urban environment and transmitting it back to some centralized mainframe, for some yet-unclear purpose.
The main idea here, say TetraBIN’s creators, is to get people discarding of trash properly, rather than onto the street. In that, it may be very successful; playing the one at display at their Brooklyn offices made me want to do it again. Chen says that when he and Sencity’s co-founder and CEO Steven Bai tested one Tetris-style bin in Sydney, children fell so deeply in love that they ran around gathering trash to toss inside. (NB: The video embedded here shows the 2015 version of the bin; it’s since become even sleeker.) Now Sencity is further developing the product at a start-up accelerator in Brooklyn, and hopes to attract interest from public and private playful waste-solution searchers in New York City. The city itself, Chen says, could buy a few and pay for them by selling the ad space.
“We want to turn cities into joyful playgrounds, to motivate more positive behaviors from everyday people,” says Bai. “We see New York City as the perfect place for the bins, because it’s at once a flashy city, but a lot of its infrastructure is outdated.”
This, it must be said, is not a new notion: Back in the 1970s, Baltimore, for example, launched a zany “Trashball” campaign starring its famously irrepressible Mayor William Donald Schaefer; the Trashball TV commercial jingle is still lodged deep in many a Baltimoreans’ brain. There are lovable aspects to well-intended ideas like these and other “playable” urban interventions (see “StreetPong” for crosswalks; musical staircases; talking lampposts; twisty slides on bank towers; public fountains that can be digitally manipulated into a game of Snake). A pop of color and 8-bit nostalgia can turn grumpy commuters into slightly more less-grumpy participants in the urban experience.
TetraBIN actually has a practical function, too, which is nice. (It’s not clear if its environmental benefits pencil out, however, since it does use electricity; Chen says his company is looking into solar-powered options).
However, these designs deserve some side-eye, too. As my colleague Feargus O’Sullivan wrote last year, a “playable” object is “a distraction with a subtle but coercive edge,” designed to channel behavior in specific directions. Cities are already brimming with such nudges, but “there’s still a clear honesty of purpose, say, to a sign that quite simply reads STOP,” Sullivan writes:
They’re commands—useful ones—and if people choose to rebel against them, it’s clear that they’re being childish and irresponsible. Playable infrastructure, on the other hand, assumes we’re all idiots who cannot be influenced by anything but the desire for distraction.
There is also something sad about enforcing an element of play—paid for, perhaps, by a corporate sponsor—on an object for which regular people dreamed up a sport all by themselves.
I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon, nor to trash TetraBIN and its earnest inventors. I had a lot of fun testing the product, and I have no doubt children will go wild for it (Chen says elementary schools in the U.S. and Canada have expressed interest). But regular dumb trash cans deserve love, too; so do low-tech crosswalks, sidewalks, and public squares. Don’t cities invite imagination and play as they are?