September 19, 2017

Liesbeth Huybrechts & Veerle Van der Sluys. On Interventions and Institutions

by Z33

Small-scale citizen or professional initiatives can play a role in shaping to our cities. Without a profound research into the role of the small-scale in city-making, it might be easily romanticised or not taken seriously.

Text Liesbeth Huybrechts & Veerle Van der Sluys.

Many perspectives exist on how research through design can contribute to creating alternative futures for our cities. One of these focuses on how small-scale citizen/professional initiatives can play a role in shaping to our cities. Without a profound research into the role of the small-scale in city-making, it might be easily romanticised or not taken seriously. Our research units, Social Spaces (LUCA School of Arts, University of Leuven) and Spatial Capacity building (ArcK, UHasselt), investigate how research through design can support these small-scale initiatives to form, consolidate or challenge institutions in the city space in order for them to become an active part in designing our future cities. We will briefly address some viewpoints on this issue, to then discuss how the TRADERS research on interventions has enriched the position of our research units in this debate. We will end with a reflection on our contributions in this field and the challenges we face.

The need for institutions

TRADERS researchers are active in the areas of architecture, urban planning, participatory design (PD) and participatory arts. In these contexts, the relationships between small-scale initiatives in city-making and existing institutions have been subject of discussion.

When referring to the institutional in architecture and urban planning, Ampatzidou et al. (2015, p. 70) talk about the ways in which the governing and administrative institutions of a city can open up their infrastructures for citizen collectives to work further and improve upon them. They also address how legal or administrative practices can be opened up to be used by these collectives to shape the city. Ahrensbach & Beunderman (2012, p. 89) discuss the potential of what they call ‘the civic economy’ or citizens who organise themselves in new types of collectives, commons and organisations. They see a role for design to contribute to the challenge of practice in all sectors of society in order to support this alternative economy. They articulate a need for policy-makers, designers and large economical players to welcome leadership and initiatives from a wider range of people than the ‘traditional’ institutions and to tap into local capabilities and opportunities.

PD is an approach that foregrounds the political goal of democratising design by giving users more control in the design of technologies or processes (Bratteteig & Wagner, 2012). In this context several discussions are taking place on how to enable new types of institutions to develop. Teli (2015) enters this discussion with a plea for designers to find allies in the ‘Fifth Estate’, a social group of highly skilled citizens, often the drivers behind civic initiatives such as co-working spaces. He argues that with them as partners, design researchers can look for the practical means to support and conduct projects that contribute to (digital) social innovation. Kyng (2015) talks about the need to build the ‘middle element’, or structures that are able to sustain democratic control beyond initial design and implementation phases. To support the sustainability of small-scale projects and initiatives that grow from collaborations between designers and (collectives of) citizens, he suggests a need to set up a new, maybe even permanent organisation, an institute, that sustains the results of participation.

In the literature we can distinguish three approaches to dealing with institutions: the consolidation, challenging, and formation of institutions. Obviously, tensions may exist between the goals in setting up permanent organisations (e.g. Kyng, 2015) versus creating a fertile ground for a diversity of civic initiatives to flourish (Ahrensbach & Beunderman, 2012), which make the debate surrounding institutions a controversial matter.

Forming, consolidating and challenging institutions via interventions

Exactly because of the controversial character of defining relations between small-scale initiatives and institutions, the TRADERS case-study in Genk pays explicit attention to ‘capacity building’ by means of small-scale initiatives in order to form, consolidate and challenge institutions. We rely on Gordon and Baldwin-Philippi (2014) who describe the process of capacity building as people who collaboratively (1) reflect on spatial issues and (2) develop confidence in their own ability to act on those reflections. We started a Living Lab, called De Andere Markt (The Other Market) to explore the future of work in the city of Genk, and which would constitute the hub for the central case study of Pablo Calderón Salazar’s PhD trajectory.

In this case study, the capacity-building process that we develop with small-scale initiatives has three levels of influence: the individual, the collective and the institutional. Small-scale initiatives that impact work in Genk are, for instance, neighbourhood shops, urban farmers or designers working with refugees. These often grow from individual or collective interests, skills or talents. The Living Lab has done efforts to bring these initiatives together in more visible collectives and to enhance their potential impact on a larger city scale. To achieve this we have involved them in different types of dialogues that contribute to different forms of capacity building. These dialogues focused on the capability to collaboratively visualise existing challenges and opportunities for the organisation of these collectives in the city (strategic and connecting dialogues, referring to the practice of ‘consolidating’); to collaboratively reflect on the current organisation in the city (questioning and agonistic dialogues, referring to the practice of ‘challenging’); and to take future-oriented action together, making use of design language (expressive dialogues, referring to the practice of ‘formation’) (Huybrechts et al., 2016).

Pablo has focused on the reflective level by giving form to — the above mentioned — dialogues through interventions that challenge the existing organisation of the city. With a cargo bike retrofitted with a DIY printing press, he enters public space and asks people to describe their skills and how they can contribute to give form to alternative futures for work. They express this in a few key words, which are printed on a poster to then be photographed. The story behind these words is registered via a podcast. This results in a series of posters and podcasts — a collage of more than 150 citizens’ skills — that are displayed online and in the Living Lab venue.


After two years of TRADERS field research in Genk, we can observe roughly two ways in which these interventions supported small-scale initiatives taking part in city-making, especially at the level of challenging existing institutions.

1.    Many of the existing institutions in the city are linked to traditions of public services, political ideas (e.g. party unions) or economic markets (e.g. car production). Via the interventions with the cargo bike, their repetition over time and distribution in space, a much richer diversity of cultural practices, interests, etc. have surfaced. These practices slowly started to network in new types of collectives that form the base for a greater diversity of potential urban institutions around food, energy, making, etc. that challenge the existing ones.
2.    The speculative character of the stories resulting from the interventions and the collation of these speculations in collages, allow citizen initiatives to frame their own story in a greater discourse on alternative futures for work in and beyond Genk. This has allowed not only to consolidate the existing city landscape, but has also given depth to the new types of institutions that need to develop in the city space.

Our experience with interventions in participatory design and work has evidenced that interventions mainly focus on challenging institutions and are ephemeral and often unidirectional in character. Regular analysis of our fieldwork showed that research through design processes can enhance the value of this approach, by seeing it as one part of a complex ecology of dialogues between small-scale initiatives and large-scale public and private partners. It is through this variety of dialogues that strong visions on the future of work and potential urban institutions start to emerge, critically connecting existing work traditions with speculations on alternative futures. In order to achieve and connect this variety of dialogues, we feel that PD research needs to investigate and dive deeper into a practice of ‘institutioning’ as a dynamic way of forming, consolidating and challenging institutions. This practice can provide support so that these strong visions of the future become reality. •

The article was originally published in a book ‘Trading Places – Practices of Public Participation in Art and Design Research’ (DPR Barcelona), published in September 2017. ‘Trading Places’ rethinks, develops and tests design-driven practices and methods to engage with participation in public space and public issues.
The book follows ‘TRADERS – Training Art and Design Researchers in Participation for Public Space,’ an EU-funded project (2013–17) that focuses on developing a methodological framework for participatory work in public space projects. Z33 House for Contemporary Art is one of the cultural and academic partners of the programme.
DPR Barcelona: Traders – Practices of Public Participation
TRADERS programme (2013–17)

Ahrensbach, T., & Beunderman, J. (2012). Compendium for the civic economy. Amsterdam: TrancityxValiz.
Ampatzidou, C., Bouw, M., Van de Klundert, F., De Lange M., & De Waal, M. (2015). The hackable city: A research manifesto and design toolkit. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Creative Industries Publishing.
Dindler, C., & Iversen, O. S. (2014). Relational expertise in participatory design. Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers, 1 (pp. 41-50). New York: ACM.
Gordon, E., & Baldwin-Philippi, J. (2014). Civic learning through civic gaming: Community PlanIt and the development of trust and reflective participation. International Journal of Communication, 8,  759-786.
Huybrechts, L., Dreessen, K., Schepers, S., & Calderon, P. (2016). Democratic dialogues that make cities ‘work’. Strategic Design Research Journal, 100-111.
Bratteteig, T., & Wagner, I. (2012). Disentangling power and decision-making in participatory design. Proceedings of the 12th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers, 1 (pp. 41-50). New York: ACM.
Teli, M. (2015). Computing and the common: Hints of a new utopia in participatory design. Proceedings of The Fifth Decennial Aarhus Conference on Critical Alternatives, Denmark, (pp.17-20). Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.
Kyng, M. (2015). On creating and sustaining alternatives: The case of Danish telehealth. Proceedings of The Fifth Decennial Aarhus Conference on Critical Alternatives, Denmark, (pp.5-16). Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.



Liesbeth Huybrechts (b. 1979, Leuven, Belgium) is Postdoctoral researcher in the area of Participatory Design, Human-Computer Interaction and spatial transformation processes in the research group Arck, University of Hasselt (B). She is involved in the Living Lab The Other Market, a space for reflection and action on the future of work.  She is also part of the research project Traders dealing with Participatory Design and Art in Public Space (Marie Curie ITN. Together with Thomas Laureyssens, she designed the frequently used participatory mapping tool MAP-it. As a freelancer she is active in exhibitions, workshops and writing. In the past, she taught in the Social Design Masters, Design Academy Eindhoven (NL) in the Interaction Design Department at LUCA, KULeuven (B). She co-founded the research group Social Spaces, which explores the social qualities of design and art.


Veerle Van der Sluys (b. 1968, Gent, Belgium) is vice dean research of LUCA School of Arts, Belgium. She has an interest in interaction design, playful design and the interplay between design and technology. She has been involved as coordinator and researcher in several national and international projects e.g. Traders, JamToday, PLAI and GameHUB. Veerle Van der Sluys holds a PhD in Physics from the University of Gent (B).