polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Learning to Get Lost in Cities

by Anja Wolf

AWOL helps users lose their way. Source: Local Travel Movement

When I was younger, I spent many hours browsing through my grandparents' encyclopedia to discover things I didn't know existed. Today I turn to search engines to find information as quickly as possible. This is more efficient, but it doesn't offer the same sense of wonder in spontaneous discoveries. If you don't type something you hope to find, the page will remain blank. We tend to start out knowing what we're looking for.

If we need to know the direction from point A to point B, we can easily find it on Google Maps or on GPS-equipped phones. This is very practical, but perhaps a bit boring. Should we always know what we're looking for, or where we want to go?

Easy access to vast quantities of information has increased the value of the unknown, and technology is emerging to meet this need. AWOL, for example, is a package of algorithmically generated routes that help people get lost in cities. It even includes a nonworking compass. There is also the web service GetLostBot, which tracks the places you visit over time and offers alternatives when they become too repetitive. As for apps, Drift facilitates getting lost in familiar places, and Serendipitor helps with finding things by looking for something else.

Serendipitor helps you find what you weren't looking for. Source: Inventing Interactive

These kinds of tools can help us find unexpected information and unknown places that we might not even think we would appreciate. They can even influence the ways we access and use urban space. At the same time, isn't it a bit sad that we should need our phones to show us how to be spontaneous?

Perhaps we're beginning to see our cities with new eyes, as full of potential for aimless treasure hunting with or without the help of technology. There remains so much we don't know about the places where we live, so much to discover. Moving outside our comfort zones and forgetting what we're looking for may help us find new pleasure in city living.

Anja Wolf, originally from Sweden, studies landscape architecture at the College of Art in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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