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The idea behind Volkswagen’s The Fun Theory program is simple: reward socially useful behaviors by making them into opportunities for play. Or, to quote a great sage, “You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”

The Fun Theory first appeared on our radar back in October of 2009, when it funded the conversion of a public stairway in a busy subway station into a giant piano keyboard to encourage people to take the stairs instead of an adjacent escalator.

Shortly thereafter, the program produced The World’s Deepest Trashcan— a public rubbish bin that senses when an object is discarded and plays a delightful sound effect suggesting an impossibly long Wile E. Coyote-style fall, followed by a distant crash. The idea here is to encourage people to put their litter in the can by making the act of throwing something away rewarding in a visceral way.


Next came a glass bottle recycling bin that doubles as a whack-a-mole-style video game, with six different bottle openings, flashing lights, sound effects and a scoreboard.


Recently, their open contest was won by US citizen Kevin Richardson. His idea? Use a robot speed patrol camera in reverse-reinforcement mode: Record the license plates of those driving within the posted speed limit and automatically enter them in a lottery, with cash rewards funded by speeding tickets.

We’re unsure, as of this writing, if Volkswagen intends to continue The Fun Theory awards program, or not. We certainly hope so. It’s been a great source of inspiration to many makers, and a great source of funding for some clever projects that otherwise might never have been realized. And—just incidentally, of course—we think it’s done great things for VW’s PR, too. Congrats, Meine Damen und Herren.

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If you have a suggestion for a company to be nominated for “Best Education / Outreach Program,” or one of the other three 2011 Makey awards, please send us an e-mail or leave a comment, below.

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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Comments

  1. It certainly put a smile on my face.

    But I’m also interested in contrarian points of view, and the first thing that came to my mind is, what good did these projects actually accomplish?

    How many man-hours of work was lost with people playing on the stairs, or even in getting from one end of the street to the other two seconds slower, multiplied by tens of thousands of people? How did that compare to the benefits obtained, or did people just realize they were running late for work and step on it one street further?

    Does it become boring after a while to hear the same notes played in the same order every day you walk on the steps, or hearing the same drop sound of the trash bin? What about when everyone drives just under the limit to participate in the lottery, and so those who do accumulate the lot will do so by accident and the whole system becomes unjust, or the average speed drops so low that it starts to hinder traffic throughput?

    In my opinion, fun lasts while it lasts, and people realize that they aren’t getting any real gains, so the system becomes counter-productive – a vanity that goes out of fashion.

    Or maybe you just need to keep innovating it? Change the distraction?

    1. The point, largely, is to encourage creative thinking about social
      problems. And I think the program has undoubtedly done that. While
      particular projects may be more or less successful in promoting more
      desirable behaviors, and one can argue at length about what “more
      desirable” behavior really is, there seems little doubt, in my mind,
      that this program has succeeded in its goal of encouraging
      outside-the-box thinking. Lots and lots and lots of apparently clever
      ideas turn out to be bad ones, but every so often one works, and the
      trick is not just having better ideas: It’s having more of them.

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