This App Helped Me Get Lost in My Own City—And Discover New Places Along the Way

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“Follow a yellow car until it goes out of sight,” My phone instructs me as an icon of a car followed by a timer appears on the screen. No, I’m not in some sort of spy movie. Instead, I’m using an app designed to help me explore parts of my home city that, until this day, I barely even knew existed. 

The app is called “dérive,” pronounced “dér-riv-ea,” and using it involves following a set of random instructions written on virtual cards. Doing so is supposed to entice the user into going places or taking routes within a city that they’d usually ignore. For me, that meant following cars, looking for shaded lanes, and sitting for two minutes while waiting for a man in a red hat to pass by.

While using this app, I did indeed find myself wandering through areas and neighborhoods I wouldn’t have gone to normally. Essentially, the game encouraged me to get lost in a familiar place.

However, you don’t necessarily need an app to “dérive” in your city. The app I was using is based on the theory of dérive developed by the French philosopher Guy Debord. In his 1967 paper describing the idea and purpose of urban exploration, he described dérive as “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”

Designing the process to be done by one or multiple people who would create a deck of random actions beforehand (like “turn left”), Debord intended the practice of dériving to be a new way of exploring cities and understanding why they lead where they do. Or as Debord put it, allowing people to “be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”

If you’re not sure where to start, the dérive app offers localized decks of cards for different cities. You can even make your own deck for your urban area if there isn’t one already or attend a Dérive workshop to help crowdsource new decks. 

The app’s website also shows a live sequence of the types of cards users are shown right now. Someone just drew a card that says, “Take a left turn and search for something sweet.” Who knows, maybe today is the day that person will discover a whole new world just a few blocks away from their front door or, more likely, just get a little bit lost.