Research by Design

How can we harness the creativity of design practices in broader policy processes?

We know the formats that urban designers (architects, urbanists, landscape architects) bring to the urban situation have sometimes created breakthrough solutions that were beyond the imagination beforehand. Examples are the ‘Post-Sandy’ recovery taskforce ‘Rebuild by Design’ in the USA, the imaginative solution for the A2 motorway in Maastricht (NL) or the makeover of the Cheonggyecheon motorway in Seoul, South Korea. Design-led processes bring together people with different interests and rationalities and often result in solutions that can count on broad public support. Yet critics have argued that design-led processes are inherently pragmatic and vulnerable for capture by incumbent parties. Others have argued that the ‘distance to policy’ is the key to success of such practices. Via empirical research we seek to enhance our understanding of the conditions under which design can assist the transformative capacity of cities. 

The challenge of this theme is to open the field of innovative designer practices for improved understanding and the enhancement of its role in policy making, in particular to further non-linear urban change. Crossovers between organisations are crucial for breakthrough solutions in complex urban issues like the energy transition. In finding new solutions we often see a ‘cultural’ moment connected to breakthrough solutions. In such cases politics is not absent but less prominent. How can we explain the success of these design-led practices? How can we harness that creativity? And under what conditions do these alternative processes of city-making present possibilities to think of a new viable democratic governance? 

For more information on this series please contact Dr. Peter Pelzer.



After the 2016 success of the Energetic Odyssey the Urban Futures Studio has taken up the task of evaluating this transdisciplinary project. The paper reports on a two-year experiment to use design and the cultural stage of an architecture biennale to create trust and confidence among a wider set of agents of change. It argues for an empirical turn into the dramaturgical dimensions of techniques of futuring. We follow ‘2050 – An Energetic Odyssey’, a high-tech stakeholder-based installation that visualizes an imagined, decarbonized future for countries around the North Sea. We see the animation as a technique of futuring creating an ‘imaginary’ and reconstruct the process of its emergence and political effect in elite circles of CEOs, politicians, policy makers and leaders from civil society and science. The paper is the first to report on transdisciplinary research by the Urban Futures Studio (UFS) in which academics take an active role in scripting and staging particular settings and processes.

(paper under review)

Contact: Dr. Peter Pelzer.


The Post-Fossil City Contest

In collaboration with the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment and the Municipality of Utrecht, the Urban Futures Studio has launched The Post-Fossil City Contest: an international design contest calling for new visions of the post-fossil future. As part of our Research by Design track, we will closely observe and investigate this process in order to better understand how new imaginaries are crafted and can become embedded in existing political processes.

Read more about the contest here.