A while ago I received a letter from a girl, a Holon resident, where she told me that on their free time she and her friends hardly ever go out: they stay at home, chat on Facebook and WhatsApp, and keep chatting on their mobile devices even when they meet face to face. Her parents, she wrote, keep nagging her to go outside and play – like they had used to do back in the day – but there is nothing to do outside. “Maybe at City Hall”, she was asking, “you would think of a place where we could play outside?”

This letter, which follows other requests of the same nature, has reaffirmed my longtime feelings and thoughts: the virtual world cannot be the only option. Even in our digital era, people are still seeking social connections, yearning for unmediated face to face encounters. A study has been published recently on the importance of social connections in the maintenance of mental and memory-related skills at an advanced age. If social interaction is beneficial to this extent with adults, then clearly it is crucial for children, who are constantly developing physically and mentally. Prolonged sitting in front of screens is undoubtedly one of the causes of early age obesity, which has become worryingly prevalent.

An American study has identified 200 social street games in the United States in the 19th century, compared to today’s 30 at best. Apart from the physical activity, the benefits of outdoor play lie at their contribution to the development of social skills, leadership and cooperation skills, and to the understanding of rules and boundaries.

Drawing inspiration from Children’s Games, I believe people in general, and children in particular, should regain their hold of the squares. This can be done by using innovative technological means which are suitable and attractive for today’s younger generation.

In my vision I can see a square, our Mediatheque Square for example, which is active throughout the day and changing according to the different crowds.

This way, for example, in morning hours the stone floors show different shapes, while music plays in th background (possibly only through headphones that are connected to a mobile device), and a virtual guide conducts a gym class for senior citizens. Later in the day, in late morning hours for instance, the floors of the square turn into a giant Checkmate board, and pensioners meet in order to enjoy this challenging thinking game. During afternoon hours, the square can become a playground for parents and young children, who gather and play age-appropriate games. Obviously, evening hours are dedicated to teenagers, when the square turns into a colorful disco party. One of the advantages is that players get to customize a certain area of the square using their mobile devices: they get to choose games and activities according to their preferences. Visitors can watch and participate, and enjoy newly discovered connections with members of their community.

כנס ערים חכמות ברצלונה 2014

The technology is already here: the challenge is to implement it according to our needs. Of course, the project is yet in its conceptual stage, seeking a technological/entrepreneurial partner, but I believe that in this case we can harness technology, which has long been notorious for making us alienated and estranged, for the purpose of promoting the opposite process of bringing people together and strengthening the sense of community, while breathing new life into the town square and the public space it provides.

What do you think?