Future tense: How might design futures methods enable place-based systemic change?

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: The Centre for Environmental Policy


New approaches to problem solving are required to enable fundamental change at every level of society if we are to tackle interconnected "wicked-problems" such as climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality (Worldwatch Institute 2013, Capra and Luisi 2014). The definition of sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations" (Bruntland, 1987) directly translates into the urgent need for modern urban lifestyles to reduce consumption by ten times (Charter and Tischner, 2001). Achieving the quantitative indicators for sustainable development is a process wrapped up in broader behavioural and cultural change (Lockton, 2015) and will require new methods, tools and narratives (Beddington, 2010). Design can "change existing situations into preferred ones" (Simon, 1999). More recently, design expertise has been advocated as a "social resource for enabling local innovation which designers are enablers of collective cycles of generating and exploring alternative futures" (Jégou and Manzini 2008, Manzini 2015). Urban sociology, a field within social theory, provides a fluid understanding of cities as "place-based" sites of social encounter and division, as fields of politics and power, as symbolic and material landscapes (Tonkiss, 2005). Lefebvre's (1991) treatment of space as a socially constructed product can provide a meaningful way to tackle the complex web of wicked-problems through locally contextualised approaches that focus on the role of actors (both individual and institutional) in the process of creating change. To address these challenging holistic concepts, this proposal draws upon systems change, design thinking, and futures studies and takes a place-based approach enacted through an action-research methodology.

The research proposal is situated in the context of my work as senior designer in the System Innovation Lab at Forum for the Future, and builds on previous experience in critical design as architectural designer and urban researcher. The aim of the proposal is to develop a formative assessment of how design futures methodologies can help catalyse place-based systemic change. I am proposing to explore this through two work streams conducted under an action-research methodology. The methodology, which has been described as "the study of a social situation with a view to improving the quality of action within it" (Elliott, 1991), is the most appropriate as it builds on my current work at Forum, and seeks to further develop participatory design futures methods.

Work Stream (WS) 1: Interdisciplinary literature review (year 1)
Research question: How might the fields of design methods and futures studies provide approaches to systemic change at a local level? Proposed outputs: An assessment of current methods from the fields of design and futures and their use case potential for enabling systemic change at the level of place.

Work Stream 2: Place-based action-research (preliminary case studies in year 2 and in-depth case study in year 3)
Research question: How might design futures methods support actors in developing practices for place-based systems change?

Proposed outputs: A series of preliminary case studies and one in-depth case study, developed through an actor network (Binder et al., 2011) approach which examine the roles needed for systemic change and the different types of emergent relationships needed to broker new practices and sustain the change. It is envisioned that a series of place-based design fictions (which could take the form of scenarios, prototypes, concepts, visions) will be co-developed through this process.

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
1917835 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 03/02/2023 Corina Angheloiu
Description My research seeks to contribute to social learning theory and advance current knowledge on how intersectoral and cross-organisational communities of practice develop and mobilise knowledge. Since the advent of this concept, research has predominantly focused on their role in social learning within organisations or within well-defined professional boundaries such as teaching or nursing (Collins & Ison, 2009; Li et al., 2009; Pelling et al., 2008). The present research explores how a global (CoP members work and live in 20+ cities across 14 timezones), interdisciplinary (their background ranges from urban planning to community development), multi-sectoral (roles span private and public sector, as well as academia and civil society) community of practice can be cultivated, its enabling factors and limitations. Emerging findings point that although the CoP is successful in enabling skills development and reflection, considerable barriers emerge when trying to integrate newly acquired practices and skills back into organisational contexts. Communities of practice need to become a recognised part of professionals' work and resources such as time need to be allocated to ensure the learning feeds into organisational strategies and not just personal development.

The research also proposes an evolution in the scope of urban resilience capacity building to address the gaps identified by the IPCC Cities Research and Action Agenda (2018) concerning the need for systems approaches to understand and address urban challenges. This is achieved in two ways: firstly, through the developing and testing a framework for curriculum design that focuses on systems approaches; secondly, through the exploration of the interplay between individual and collective learning outcomes (Diduck, 2010). While the review of existing urban resilience capacity building programmes and their curriculums reveals that they predominantly focus on individual learning outcomes, as such, this research seeks to explore what is different when a capacity building programme is designed to enable ongoing collective learning through the social learning approach of a community of practice. Emerging findings point to the need for capacity building focus on trust and relationship building, as well as power dynamics, rather than solely focus on knowledge transfer or skills building.
Exploitation Route The capacity building framework and associated tools and methods are already being put in use by the International Urban Resilience Academy and are informing the design of their urban resilience capacity building programmes for mid-career urban professionals (researchers, practitioners, policy makers). As part of the collaboration with the International Urban Resilience Academy we are hoping for this to research to also contribute novel insights on capacity building needs as part of the IPCC Cities conference in late 2021.
Sectors Education,Environment,Other

Description As the research is action oriented (supported by an action research methodology) the impact to date consists of the development of a new capacity building framework to support urban resilience curriculum development aimed at mid-career professionals. This has directly informed the design of the 2020 capacity building programme of the International Urban Resilience Academy and the tools and methodology will be used for future programmes as well.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Education,Environment,Other
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Collaboration with the International Urban Resilience Academy (Southern Denmark University) 
Organisation University of Southern Denmark
Country Denmark 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution As part of this collaboration I am leading the design and facilitation of the Bloxhub Summer School on Urban Resilience 2020, as well as an associated protocol for data collection (interviews, participant observation, summer school outputs).
Collaborator Contribution The partner organisation is in charge of organising all the logistical aspects of the summer school, the curation of a programme of international experts as speakers, as well as running the recruitment process for the summer school in oder to meet out key diversity targets of professional, sectoral and location diversity.
Impact This study seeks to further investigate the theory - implementation gaps identified in the literature within the specific discourse and practice of urban resilience in Copenhagen. It builds on the potential for urban resilience to encompass a process of socio-political negotiation between the trade-offs required in imagining (what resilience and for whom?) and implementing (when, where, how?) actions towards a 1.5C world. Outcomes - The study aims to explore the following questions: • How does the current urban resilience system implement resilience actions in Copenhagen? • What are the main gaps in theory and practice? • How do different actors and knowledge communities produce and validate knowledge within the urban resilience system? The main objective of the study is to investigate the implementation gap between current strategies, policies and interventions in the urban resilience system. A secondary objective of the study is to investigate the ways in which different knowledge communities develop and validate knowledge about urban resilience, and their drivers and barriers. Multi-disciplinary collaboration - disciplines involved: engineering, urban planning, systems thinking, design, futures studies, political science, sustainability, urban sociology
Start Year 2019
Description Conference presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Panel presentation on urban resilience capacity building, which led to a number of further inquiries about the research and potential collaborations
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/newsroom/events/2020/03/urban-resilience-in-a-context-of-cli...
Description Presentation and panel at COP25 side event, Madrid 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The session aimed at discussing and understanding challenges and opportunities for building capacities for urban resilience transition; responding to the Cities-IPCC call for fostering dialogue between practitioners, policy makers and researchers; to develop and promote peer-to-peer learning across regions, sectors and disciplines. The session will report the results of the first edition of the BLOXHUB Summer School on Urban Resilience that brought together 26 practitioners, policy makers and researchers and 30 lecturers from 30 countries, in Copenhagen in September 2019; as well as the preliminary results of the current research on capacity building and skills development needs, led by the University of Southern Denmark, in collaboration with researchers from Imperial Colleague London, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University IUAV of Venice.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.sdu.dk/en/om_sdu/Institutter_centre/SDUCivilEngineering/iura/Teaching+and+Education+Acti...
Description Research podcast - Urban Resilience Dialogues 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I have started a research podcast about urban resilience, which to date has 3 episodes which have been listened over 250 times.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://medium.com/urban-resilience-dialogues/podcast/home
Description Your Europe, Your say panel speaker 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Panel speaker as part of the Your Europe, Your Say conference, the key youth conference in the run up to COP26
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.eesc.europa.eu/en/agenda/our-events/events/designing-systemic-change/programme