How to get lost in your own city and find mindfulness

7 mins
15 Sep 2022
How to get lost in your own city and find mindfulness

Derivé makes the urban spaces you know and love a new adventure, with all the mental and emotional benefits of getting outside

image CHUTTERSNAP via Unsplash

words Eve Walker

Mindfulness doesn’t always need to be done quietly in a room with a diffuser on. You can transport yourself into meditative states while doing the most mundane of tasks – from cutting vegetables, to cleaning your room, to taking a stroll in your favourite park. It’s more accessible than the world of wellness today would have you believe, and this tip starts when you open your front door and step out.

There’s a whole school of thought dedicated to mindful walking: meet psychogeography, AKA the study of the geographical environment “on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”, which is what the Dérive app builds itself upon.

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Here’s how it works. When going for a stroll in your city, you can open the Derivé homepage and be presented with random “cards” with various tasks to complete. Each has a countdown until you’re given the next instruction. Tasks range from being as simple as “turn right”, to telling you to “Wave and smile at the next surveillance camera”, to encouraging you to create an emotional connection with the environment by taking “the first left and find[ing] something your grandmother would find beautiful”. It’s an opportunity to experience spaces you may feel familiar with in a whole new, exciting way.

Though nifty and in digital form, the concept that the app is inspired by is far from new. It actually dates back to the theories of the Marxist organisation Situationist International, who played a prominent part in the 1968 uprisings in Paris. Not only did the group coin the term psychogeography, but Situationism introduced the roots of performance art and installations, exploring the way surroundings could be used to send a clear message to viewers. They proposed the dérive – translating to ‘drift’ in French – as a tool for liberation from everyday life. By strolling in a playful way free from routine, it becomes easier to ground yourself with the smells, the sounds, the buildings, the people, the streets, and the situations you likely wouldn’t encounter with your headphones in on your commute to work or walk to Aldi.

Often, tasks on the Derivé app are centred around interacting with people, with instructions like; “walk south and wait on the first corner until someone passes. Record where they came from”. These instructions help create connections with strangers, allowing users to escape the loneliness of the city.

After a while using the app, it’s hope is that you will learn how to seek out these playful moments on your own. It’s an opportunity to leave your airpods at home, and pay attention to the world around you (maybe it goes as far as eavesdropping on conversations, we don’t judge!). You’d be surprised how much richer your everyday life becomes without a buffer.

To find out more about the Derivé app and what it has to offer, Woo speaks to Chief Creative Officer Eduardo Cachucho, and Chief Operating Officer, Babak Fakhamzadeh.

How do you think urban exploration can improve our mental health?

Babak Fakhamzadeh: In my mind, the connection is through awareness, self-awareness, and mindfulness.

We live in a world where we are disconnected from the physical. Bringing ourselves back to what is tangible, and what surrounds us, allows us to be better equipped to understand our role, and our position, in physical space. This provides us with a better grasp of the links we have with the built-up area around us, deepening our understanding of ourselves.

How important do you think it is to connect with your city and the people in it?

Babak Fakhamzadeh: It’s essential. One of the major downsides of modern society is that we become further and further removed from those that live in our vicinity. As a consequence, the physical social cohesion of public space deteriorates.

By connecting with the people around us, we strengthen the social ties, and create the opportunity to improve the physical wellbeing of ourselves, as well as the experience physical space can provide for those that inhabit it.

What inspired you to create the app?

Eduardo Cachucho: The most important element of the Dérive app for me was to create a framework for questioning our urban realities, to understand it through experience – to move away from the idea that you need a degree to be able to question your own surroundings. This is something I believe the Situationists were very aware of, that the concept of the dérive gave as much agency to an every day worker as to an academic.

Babak Fakhamzadeh: For me, it was originally about facilitating an alternative method for discovering physical spaces, and building a platform that allowed others to create opportunities to ‘play the city’. But, over time, the anti-capitalist thinking of the Situationists has also rubbed off on me in terms of how I think about the app, and similar projects I keep myself busy with. The Dérive app is one of the tools allowing users to take a step back and identify their role within these capitalist frameworks, and how they have agency to step away from them.

Alongside the app activity, there are IRL workshops exploring the Dérive. What has the response to that been, and are there any more plans in the future?

Babak Fakhamzadeh: The workshops have been great. We enjoy it, and participants are universally positive, both about the components of the workshop, and more so about how these result in them discovering their cities in ways they did not know before.

Originally, workshops were two full days, but who has time for that now? The most recent in-person workshop in 2019 lasted a full day. The most recent online workshops happened last September, and earlier this year, through short sessions over a period of a few weeks. For those, the responses were also positive, but for us, comparing these with in-person events, they were really just weakened versions.

What is your favourite task card created on the app?

Babak Fakhamzadeh: Tasks that nudge you out of your comfort zone, and tasks that get you into experiencing something unknown are my favourite tasks.Something like “Take off your shoes and feel the dirt with your toes.” or “Venture into a building, see how deep you can go.” are great examples of this.

I don’t use the Dérive app myself very often, primarily because I believe I have internalised its underlying way of thinking quite well. When I explore a city on foot, I tend to continuously ask myself many of the questions that are also in the app. I end up walking a lot, forget about most ‘big’ tourist attractions, and discover all sorts of less obvious, more quirky aspects of the city.

What has urban exploration taught you?

Eduardo Cachucho: There is absolutely always something unknown around the next corner. This is something magical about urban, and even rural spaces around us - we always expect to know what will be next, but are constantly surprised by the reality that confronts us. In many ways Dérive app is less about finding those surprises and more about understanding why they are surprising and what we can do with those new experiences. Do we integrate them into our lives, or challenge them with a counteracting performative engagement?

Learn more about the Dérive app and how to download it here

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