Final Master Project proposal
Outline of my envisioned FMP process
This proposal aims to outline the direction for my Final Master Project (FMP). Firstly, I will introduce RISE, the institute for which this project is being undertaken, and provide an overview of the ongoing project to which my FMP will contribute. Subsequently, I will elaborate on the scope of the design case and solution space and detail my approach and planning for this case. Furthermore, I will articulate the envisioned outcome and conclude with an overview of my exploration of the design context thus far.
RISE and the Social Prosperity Index
This Final Master Project will be done in collaboration with the Research Institute of Sweden (RISE) as part of their Social Progress Innovation Sweden (SPIS) project (RISE, n.d.), that has been running since March 2020. SPIS aims to create a sustainable and cross-sectoral organization in Umeå that can develop innovative solutions to societal challenges. Through this platform, various innovation processes can be coordinated to create synergies and establish an internationally competitive local innovation ecosystem that will help the municipality of Umeå to cooperate more flexibly with different stakeholders in addressing global challenges.
In this project, the Social Prosperity Index (SPI) is used to analyze social progress and well-being in Umeå. The SPI is a tool developed by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) to measure social progress based on several dimensions, including governance, education, social cohesion, health, and environmental quality. The index provides a comprehensive picture of the social situation in a region and can help policymakers to identify areas that need improvement or monitor progress over time. However, the SPI also reflects the values and aspirations of the European Commission (EC) and, indirectly, our values as a European society, providing visions for the future and showing a direction for change.
To make these possible futures embedded in the SPI come to life and part of the public dialogue, Jeroen Peeters, design researcher for RISE, is designing prototypes to convey experiences of possible futures. In a collaborative effort with the municipality of Umeå, this project aims to help policymakers imagine possible futures to catalyze future-oriented policymaking in the region. My FMP will be part of this project and will be done under Jeroen Peeters’ mentoring. He will support me during the semester through weekly meetings and networking opportunities with policymakers of the municipalities of Eindhoven and Umeå. Several other master’s students are also working on this project, creating a shared environment of exploration, collaboration, and exchanging perspectives.
Designing prototypes to experience possible futures
During my project, I will design prototypes for conveying experiences of possible futures inspired by the SPI. Concretely, I want to use the domains and values embedded in the SPI metrics to conceptualize prototypes that evoke engaging experiences of possible futures. To realize the transition from the domains of the SPI to concrete prototypes of possible futures, I aim to use two main methods: sociotechnical imaginaries and prototyping.
Sociotechnical imaginaries are a concept taken from the domain of Science and Technology Studies (STS), and it refers to shared cultural visions, narratives, and discourses that shape the development and use of technology in society (Jasanoff, 2015). They are collective and often implicit understandings of what is possible and desirable regarding (technological) innovation and its social and political implications. An approach focused on sociotechnical imaginaries can help us understand the dominant cultural narratives and discourses that shape city design. By examining assumptions, values, and norms that underlie current practices and policies, we can identify the limitations and possibilities of existing imaginaries. For example, we can analyze how the imaginary of the ‘smart city’ shapes urban development and how it might exclude certain groups and values. For this, we need qualitative data on people’s imaginaries, which we can collect through design interventions, co-creation, and interviews.
I will use an iterative process to further concretize the imaginaries into prototypes. Through testing and refining ideas during multiple rounds of prototyping and feedback, a more robust and well-informed design can be realized to convey an experience of possible futures to policymakers. The prototypes will also be evaluated for their effectiveness in meeting the identified needs and goals. This evaluation phase will involve discussing the prototypes with policymakers and gathering feedback on their experience. The input collected during this phase will be used to refine and improve the prototypes in the next iteration.
In addition to this approach, I will work with Jeroen Peeters to better understand the challenges and needs of policymakers to ensure the prototypes I create can be beneficial in altering their perspective or furthering their understanding of the possible future implementations of the SPI. Specifically, he can connect me to policymakers and experts I can consult.
My project goal is to develop and assess three to four digital or hybrid prototypes that correspond to the domains of the SPI, with a particular focus on active citizenship and traffic deaths. These domains will be explored initially, and later, the scope will be narrowed down to a single domain.
In partnership with RISE, the prototypes will be presented to the Eindhoven and Umeå municipalities as a reference point for policymakers, encouraging discussions on how policies can be improved to support sustainable city development. Ultimately, the aim is to create decision-making tools that aid policymakers in making informed decisions that promote the sustainable development of their cities.
Examples of related projects
In this section, I would like to provide examples of similar projects that have utilized prototyping experiences to explore possible futures. These projects demonstrate the potential of using design interventions to help stakeholders visualize and engage with the complex challenges of urban sustainability. By presenting possible futures in a novel format, these projects help inspire new ideas, challenge assumptions, and facilitate more informed decision-making.
With the increasing feasibility of electric aviation, it is essential to examine its differences from traditional aviation and the implications for its societal role, as well as the necessary legislative and political considerations. The Volta project by Jeroen Peeters serves as a valuable precedent for the goals of this project. Volta is a fictional website and app for booking electric flights. In booking a flight through Volta, an implicit vision for the future is communicated through the booking experience, providing a platform for public discussion about how to design and implement electric aviation. The interface can be seen below.
Climate CoLab is a project of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence that aims to use collective intelligence to create plans for achieving global climate change goals that are more detailed, actionable, and effective than any that would have otherwise been developed. It is an online platform that uses crowdsourcing and collaboration to develop climate policy proposals. Using a simulation of the world’s physical systems, users can create and test different policy scenarios and see how they would affect greenhouse gas emissions and other indicators, as can be seen in the image below. A similar tool could be envisioned for social prosperity, allowing policymakers to use data-enabled simulations to learn about the impact of proposals.
Approach and timeline
My envisioned process is organized into several phases, which are outlined below. However, this timeline is still in its preliminary stages and will be subject to modification as the project progresses.
Narrowing down the design context and exploring the challenges and needs of policymakers (2 weeks).
- March 1 - March 4: Conduct initial research on the challenges and needs of policymakers in the areas of active citizenship and traffic deaths.
- March 6 - March 10: Schedule meetings with Jeroen Peeters and policymakers/experts to further understand their needs and challenges.
- March 13 - March 17: Analyze the findings and narrow down the design context to a specific focus area.
Collecting imaginaries through design intervention, co-creation, or interviews, and based on the categories of the SPI (3 weeks).
- March 20 - March 31: Conduct design interventions, co-creation workshops, or interviews to collect imaginaries from relevant stakeholders in the specific focus area.
- April 3 - April 7: Analyze and synthesize the data collected from the design interventions, co-creation workshops, or interviews.
Exploration of design materials and media for conveying experiences (2 weeks).
- April 13 - April 20: Brainstorm potential design materials and media for conveying the experiences of possible futures.
- April 10 - April 14: Select and prepare the design materials and media for the next phase.
Iteratively prototyping and evaluating experiences (5 weeks).
- April 17 - May 19: Conduct multiple rounds of prototyping and collect feedback from relevant stakeholders, refining the prototypes based on the feedback.
- May 22 - May 26: Evaluate the prototypes’ effectiveness in meeting the identified needs and goals.
Evaluating results and sharing work with stakeholders (3 weeks).
- May 29 - June 2: Evaluate results with Jeroen Peeters and involved experts.
- June 5 - June 23: Document the design process and outcomes and prepare the prototypes for presentation to the municipalities of Eindhoven and Umeå.
- Present the prototypes to the municipalities of Eindhoven and Umeå and gather feedback on their usefulness in informing policy decisions.
This proposal details my Final Master Project, where I will design prototypes that evoke an experience of possible futures. The main objective is to develop decision-making tools to aid policymakers in promoting sustainable city development. The project’s scope and collaborative context have been described, along with the envisioned results. The process has been divided into several phases: exploring challenges and needs, collecting imaginaries, prototyping, evaluating results, and sharing the outcomes. By presenting possible futures in a unique format, the project aims to encourage new ideas, question assumptions, and facilitate informed decision-making toward more sustainable and equitable futures.
Ajuntament de Barcelona. (n.d.). Barcelona Superblock | Barcelona city council. El web de la ciutat de Barcelona.
Bohlmeijer, L. (2022, July 9). Het neoliberalisme is in wezen antidemocratisch, zeggen deze socioloog en historicus. De Correspondent.
Circle Lab. (n.d.). Seoul becomes a sharing city.
Detroit Agriculture. (n.d.). Keep Growing Detroit.
European Platform Urban Greening. (n.d.). Paris to convert 70,000 parking spaces into more urban greenery and asks residents what they want to do with the freed space.
Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S. (2015). Dreamscapes of modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the fabrication of power. University of Chicago Press.
Leys, C. (2001). Market-driven politics: Neoliberal democracy and the public interest. Verso.
Research Institute of Sweden (RISE). (n.d.). SPIS: Social Progress Innovation Sweden.
Stengers, I. (2011). Cosmopolitics II. Posthumanities.
Taşan-Kok, T., & Baeten, G. (2011). Contradictions of neoliberal planning: Cities, policies, and politics. Springer Science & Business Media.
Appendix A: Additional methods and approaches
This project is done within the Transforming Practices (TP) squad of the faculty of Industrial Design at the Eindhoven University of Technology, and as such, it will be done using this methodology in mind. TP is based on the idea that change and transformation in complex social systems, such as cities, require a deeper understanding of the underlying practices, values, and beliefs that shape these systems. Specifically, the approach considers five fundamental principles:
- Complexity: Understanding and dealing with complex systems while giving space to different perspectives.
- Situatedness: We act in specific contexts and aim to address the global locally.
- Aesthetics: There is beauty in experience, from small details to complex systems.
- Co-development: Learning and inventing a common game through iterative practices of learning, co-creating, and researching.
- Co-response-ability: We must take responsibility together and envision a world based on equality, honesty, choice, and sustainability.
The Transforming Practices approach involves engaging in a collaborative and participatory process of inquiry and exploration, working closely with stakeholders and practitioners to understand and potentially transform the practices that shape our lives and environments. This approach is particularly relevant in the context of designing for cities, where complex social systems and practices are intertwined with physical infrastructures and technologies and where issues of social and environmental justice are at stake.
Philosophy is meaningful for design because it encourages designers to reflect critically on their work, offers conceptual tools and frameworks for analysis and understanding, and fosters creativity and imagination.
Firstly, philosophy can help us identify and critically examine the underlying ethical and value assumptions that shape city design. For example, we can ask whether the dominant model of urban development is compatible with principles of social justice, environmental sustainability, and human flourishing. By engaging in philosophical debates about what constitutes a good life and a just society, we can imagine alternative futures where cities are designed with different priorities and values in mind.
Philosophy can also help us reflect on our methods and approaches to designing cities. For example, we can ask whether our reliance on quantitative data and technocratic expertise is sufficient to address cities’ complex social and environmental challenges. By engaging in a philosophical debate about the nature of knowledge, evidence, and expertise, we can imagine alternative futures where city design is based on more participatory and democratic processes, where diverse perspectives are valued, and where local knowledge is incorporated.
Finally, philosophy can help us cultivate imagination and creativity when designing cities. By questioning the nature of beauty, meaning, and experience, we can imagine alternative futures where cities are not just functional but also inspiring and meaningful places. For example, we can explore different aesthetics and cultural traditions that might inform city design, or we can imagine how cities might be designed to foster a sense of wonder, awe, and connection with nature.
Appendix B: Exploration of the design context
Cities are complex systems that have a significant impact on the lives of those that inhabit them. How we design and structure our cities shapes the distribution of resources, opportunities, and power and can have far-going social, economic, and environmental consequences. As cities are living communities meant for people, they should be designed and managed with the well-being and flourishing of their residents in mind. Their design should include considerations such as social inclusion, public health, but also environmental sustainability. As such, thinking critically about designing and structuring our cities as living communities is vital.
Why cities need to transform
Over the last decades, neoliberal governance has led to the rise of market-driven urban development (Leys, 2001). In many cities, neoliberal policies have led to the privatization of public assets and services, such as housing, transportation, and public spaces, which has often resulted in the prioritization of profit over public interest, leading to social exclusion, gentrification, and environmental degradation (Taşan-Kok & Baeten, 2011). The emphasis on deregulation and free markets has weakened social welfare programs, and labor protections (Taşan-Kok & Baeten, 2011), resulting in growing uncertainty among urban residents as wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a small elite, while many citizens struggle to meet their basic needs. Furthermore, the emphasis on neoliberal policies has contributed to the deprecation of democratic decision-making processes in urban governance (Bohlmeijer, 2022). The reliance on market forces has often led to a sidelining of public input and participation, limiting the ability of citizens to shape the future of their cities.
Cities need to change because the current trajectory of neoliberal urban development is contradictory, unsustainable, and threatens the well-being of urban residents and the planet (Taşan-Kok & Baeten, 2011). Cities are responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Therefore, cities must adopt more sustainable and inclusive urban development strategies prioritizing social and environmental justice over economic incentives. Moreover, cities are at the forefront of many pressing global challenges of our times, including inequality, poverty, and social exclusion. The well-being of urban residents depends on the ability of cities to address these challenges effectively and to foster vibrant, inclusive, and thriving communities.
Challenges for change
Although policymakers and citizens have become increasingly aware of the need to change, many challenges remain. Philosopher Isabelle Stengers would argue that the main reason why changing our cities is difficult is because of what she calls the ‘dominant cosmopolitics’ (Stengers, 2011). This term refers to the dominant ways of thinking about the world and our place in it, which are often rooted in capitalist and colonialist values. Dominant cosmopolitics prioritize efficiency, productivity, and profit over social and environmental justice, resulting in cities designed primarily to serve the interests of the powerful rather than the needs and desires of all residents. Stengers would also emphasize the importance of collective action and experimentation, arguing that changing our cities requires collaboration and experimentation among diverse groups of people, including residents, policymakers, designers, and activists.
Another challenge for change is that the dominant ways of thinking are, by default, resistant to change, particularly when it disrupts people’s daily routines or threatens their economic interests. It is also hard to imagine a radically different future and whether it is desirable, making it difficult to build public support for radical changes in city design and policy (Jasanoff, 2015). The structure of city government also works against radically new ideas. City governance is often bureaucratic and fragmented, with different departments, agencies, and interest groups responsible for various aspects of city life. This can make it challenging to coordinate and implement radical changes that require collaboration across different sectors, which is especially true for novel processes such as co-creation with citizens or other forms of participation (Jeroen Peeters, personal correspondence). Finally, a lack of the right expertise might hold cities back. Radical changes in city design and policy often require specialized expertise, such as knowledge about sustainability or design. Cities may lack the necessary expertise or resources to implement these changes effectively.
The role of policymakers in addressing these challenges is significant. Policymakers can shape the regulatory and institutional frameworks that guide urban design and planning. They are in a position to establish incentives that encourage sustainable and inclusive urban development, and they can create opportunities for public participation and engagement in urban decision-making processes. Policymakers can also mobilize resources and engage partnerships to support innovative and experimental approaches to urban design and planning that prioritize community well-being.
Cities worldwide are already taking steps to become more social and environmentally just in several domains. In this section, I want to highlight these domains and some examples of cities that have transformed or are in the process of doing so.
- Implementing car-free zones: Many cities are creating car-free zones in their city centers to reduce air pollution and create more pedestrian-friendly areas. Paris, for example, has announced an ambitious plan to remove 70% of its on-street parking spaces by 2024 as part of the city’s efforts to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and carbon emissions and to reclaim public space for pedestrians, cyclists, and other users (European Platform Urban Greening, n.d.).
- Promoting sustainable food systems: Cities are implementing programs to promote sustainable food systems, such as urban farming and community gardens. For example, Detroit has implemented a program to convert vacant lots into community gardens, providing fresh produce and helping to revitalize blighted neighborhoods (Detroit Agriculture, n.d.).
- Creating green spaces: Cities are creating more green spaces, such as parks and green roofs, to help reduce urban heat islands, provide habitats for wildlife, and promote mental and physical health. Barcelona has an ambitious plan to create a “green ring” around the city, transforming entire city blocks into car-free zones with new green spaces, urban farms, and community gardens (Ajuntament de Barcelona, n.d.).
- Promoting social cohesion: Cities promote social initiatives such as the sharing economy, which is aimed at reducing consumption, promoting social cohesion, and creating more sustainable and equitable communities. For example, Seoul is promoting car-sharing, bike-sharing, and tool-sharing, as well as community gardens and sharing libraries (Circle Lab, n.d.).
These examples show that a combined effort of radical policy and citizen involvement seems vital to successfully transform our cities. It also illustrates that an important shift in the right direction is already happening, and we must explore how we can catalyze this movement and take it a step further.