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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  1. Reading this post, I remembered the book "Tyranny of the moment" which in brief is presented here:
    I find very interesting the questions you make, and I totally agree with you that we have so many things to learn and discover from the cities where we live in. If we could put in our daily walks / transportation, some breaks of "discovering the lost treasure", alone or even better with friends, then "new" cities could emerged.

  2. It's sad, but also funny and somehow great to see technologies that are so adept at keeping us relatively cut off from local context (so absorbed in screens that contain the world) now helping us reconnect with it spontaneously. Sites like Neighborland and SeeClickFix do this too, with a more practical focus. I'm happy to find tools for simply enjoying the city in new ways. Thanks for introducing them and raising such interesting points.

  3. i have to say that i love getting lost in cities, even when it makes me late, but especially when there's open time for it. for me it's the best way to become familiar with a place and collect good stories.

  4. What does Serendipitor mean about follow a cloud or make one? I don't get that.

    1. Maybe they mean an image of a cloud or clouds? I don't really see another way that doesn't involve evaporation or combustion, both of which sound problematic for a city street.

  5. Is this what the Situationists had in mind?


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