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Happy City Night

The Guggenheim Museum, New York City November 2, 2013

When Charles Montgomery implored a roomful of black-clad urbanists to choose an experiment—have their picture snapped with a stranger or suffer through a simulation of a tightly packed train while wearing a sensor cuff—he divided the room into two types: those who hate cameras and those who hate crowds.

The experiments served as the gimmick behind Montgomery's launch of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. In his introductory remarks, the author cited his experiences as a team leader in New York for BMW Guggenheim Lab's "Participatory City" effort as inspiration for the book. The two-year exploration of urban trends also hit the streets of Mumbai, and Berlin, attempting to home in on what makes for happy populaces—as well as what makes them miserable.

Visual interpretations of the takeaways—boiled down to 100 ideas, from "activist citizens" to "local food" to "maker movement"—appeared on video screens and poster boards that circled a second-floor gallery. But attendees paid them little mind, clearly more in the mood for a party than an exhibit; and, indeed, Montgomery seemed more intent on echoing the Lab's experimental nature than really examining these trends in any depth.

Forty-five minutes later, Montgomery presented the unsurprising results of his unscientific forays: Strangers who had smiled together for the camera and shared exchanges about their day were found to be more optimistic than those who had not participated in the photo experiment. And heart rates accelerated as the conditions in the tent that represented a subway car became more uncomfortable.

"The data confirms what we already know," admitted Montgomery, somewhat sheepishly, before adding that "this clearly isn't meant to be peer-review-quality research." There's no question that the night was fun, even exhilarating. But, as with the book, the promise of true inquisition went unfulfilled. One suspects that the Lab's findings might merit more than these rather superficial treatments—but then again, maybe not.