still from digital animation 2050 — an energetic odyssey
Animation still from '2050 — An Energetic Odyssey'

Research in the Urban Futures Studio is devoted to the study of positive, sustainable, and meaningfully democratic futures and of ways to get there. In this light, we investigate the ways that ‘futuring’—the active social creation of (imagined) futures by a wide variety of actors—makes future worlds. Conducting transdisciplinary research, we attempt to understand how social practices can make it (im)possible to imagine alternative futures. Drawing from a widely interdisciplinary collection of social-constructivist research, the UFS is primarily concerned with representations and imaginations of possible, plausible, and desirable futures. Our research engages with the question how imagined futures (Beckert, 2015) and sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff, 2015) shape sociotechnical, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic development, and with questions around the formation of these imagined futures.

We believe in the power of the (collective) imagination, and believe this collective imagination is discursively, materially and dramaturgically enacted in practice. To that end, we study ‘techniques of futuring’, ‘practices bringing together actors around one or more imagined futures and through which actors come to share particular orientations for actions’ (Hajer & Pelzer, 2018: 222). Using this lens, we attempt to better understand how societies and communities prepare for the future, and how we can use this understanding to build a more sustainable world.

From this socio-theoretical perspective, research in the Urban Futures Studio always revolves  around several pragmatic questions:

  • How can we open up a democratic space for meaningful political debate about possible sustainable futures?
  • How can we use futuring methods, both existing and newly developed, to work towards positive and sustainable futures?

Simply put: how can we use our plural perspectives on futuring for sustainability?

Research themes
Urban Futuring

With more than half the globe’s population living in cities today (and many more expected to live in cities by 2050), cities are a constitutive part of the future. Whether cities are built in sustainably, whether they are livable and comfortable, whether they prosper and empower - it all matters for the urban future. And, by extension, to the search of positive sustainable futures. Moreover, because urbanization necessitates innovative social arrangements, cities tend to be sources of social innovation in myriad ways.

In the Urban Futuring cluster of research, we research how innovative practices in cities can lead to the social innovations that are necessary for a sustainable future. Here, we interrogate how the materiality of design and urban planning shapes ways of living in cities and neighborhoods, and how urban forms of futuring can embed more sustainable forms of living. This research focuses on how neighbourhoods for the future look and how we can fruitfully experiment with cities . But it also explores the potential and pitfalls of contracting for cities and infrastructures as an efficient means of futuring towards a more sustainable world.

Research projects

Climate Futuring

Through fears about climate change, climate has become the most visible global concern about the future. The uncertainty about how climate change will unfold has brought the future back into sharp focus as a necessary field of empirical study and political activism. How futuring can help us to make more sense of the climate crisis.

In the Climate Futuring cluster, we research how representations of climatic futures shape climate policy, perception, and politics through shaping visions and expectations of climate futures. In this cluster, we attempt to rethink how we utilize knowledge about climate change societally. We investigate how different climate-related techniques of futuring, ranging from climate modelling to artistic representation, create particular visions about the future, and how values and epistemological lenses shape climate research. In the climaginaries project, we explore innovative and creative ways of envisioning how a post-fossil world might look, and the means through which we can get there. Through ethnographic observation of scientific practice, Dreaming the Designer Climate investigates how climate engineering becomes a viable scientific dream to technologically avoid the worst excesses of climate change. Modelling Through Design, finally, asks how model practices represent plausible and desirable climate futures.

Research projects


Futuring for Democracy and Governance

The Urban Futures Studio is not just committed to a sustainable future, but also to a democratic one. As such, this cluster researches several aspects of democratic decision-making and practices, ranging from the material to the deliberative. Futuring is a core part of democratic deliberation and decision-making. Sketching different futures, making particular visions of the future resonate, embeds and enacts different imagined futures. The settings for deliberation, the material structure of the world, the way policy, governance, and participation are practiced, the way knowledge and technology are mobilized and embedded: all these aspects co-determine whether futuring is meaningfully democratic.

Here, we research different aspects of democratic deliberation and antagonism. In different ways, we look at ways to make futuring as an activity accessible to more possible agents of change. The research project Experimental Governance looks at the way experimentation can democratize decision-making while simultaneously stimulating sustainable developments. ReSET investigates whether or not renewable energy benefits energy democracy, equality, and energy independence—and how to strengthen energy democracy. Research into soft spaces and in-between dynamics charts how decision-making and governance often happens in informal settings, with the aim of making those ‘soft spaces’ more accessible to democratic decision-making. Similarly, we also investigate how to innovate in public participation, how to strengthen participation.

Research projects


Futuring in Education

The core commitment of our conception of futuring is empowerment. This empowerment concerns the inclusion of more agents of change in climate debate, urban development, and democratic deliberations, but it also entails rethinking the role of knowledge and education in society. To us at the UFS, this means that we attempt to rethink the place of academic education in society. This includes, but is not limited to, an attempt to truly teach inter- and trans-disciplinarily, repositioning academia as part of society, and empowering students to conduct their own futuring exercises.

In the process, we experiment with and research new educational methods such as a mixed classroom including both master students and policymakers, interdisciplinary courses on futuring for sustainability, and a yearly summer school (open to both students and professionals) in collaboration with the Utrecht University’s strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability also called futuring for sustainability. In all these courses, the central aim is to empower students to think about both the path dependency and changeable nature of the future. To empower them to participate in futuring.

Research projects

Maarten Hajer on 'soft spaces' (Innovatie Estafette)