Walking on Sunshine, Reflections on research through making and collaborative design

When discussing current design methodology one is confronted with the terms ‘research through making’, or ‘research by design’. What exactly do these terms mean, and how can this methodology be used to explore the collaboratively designing of public space – and the theme of ‘the commons’. What can we learn by implementing this approach, and what are the expected results?
We will investigate these questions by looking at The Hackable City workshop Walking on Sunshine as an example of research through making.


Walking on Sunshine is a collaborative workshop that explores the theme of ‘the commons’ – a system in which all members of a society share resources. These resources are held ‘in common’, thus not privately owned. They are collectively created and shared between a community, and tend to be freely assessable to third parties.

The goal of the workshop was for participants to collaboratively design a piece of sustainable public infrastructure: a sidewalk. The workshop was designed to weigh individual interests against collective ones. This set up aimed to not only explore, but visualise the emerging dynamics between individuals and collectives – within the context of the circular city economy.

In this case, the community was a group of largely eco-minded and forward thinking self-builders from Buiksloterham, a brown field redevelopment project in Amsterdam (Noord). The workshop took place on location, during the period each participant was building their own house. Local public infrastructure was also still in development, and both residents and the municipality were interested in a collectively designing shared public functions. These ranged from the plan for the local park, to the development of shared economies, like car sharing and managing a space for a neighbourhood co-op.

Each of the seven participants was asked to contribute one of their individual resources, in this case green garbage. This green garbage would be recycled to create a hi-tech carbon reducing concrete, and then used to produce a pollution reducing sidewalk. To what extent were residents willing to share and deplete their own private resources for the greater collective, and public good?

The four central research questions, and conclusions, are presented in the previous article: Walking on Sunshine: a workshop about collectively designing public infrastructure. In this article we’ll reflect on the methodology.

Making the commons tangible

Although ideas about the commons have been around for a long time, it can still be a complex and abstract theme, especially in terms of applicability. This is especially true when its definition is applied to the non-digital world. (Most of us can quite easily understand the premise of a digital commons site like Wikipedia.)

An early example of the commons is the principle of European land sharing, during medieval times. The workshop Walking on Sunshine draws on this historical example by modernising the collective approach to managing ‘the estate’. The ‘estate’ has been replaced by sustainable, shared public infrastructure. Because in today’s world we are more comfortable viewing the commons as a digital/cultural phenomenon, from a design standpoint it’s interesting to (re)materialise the commons.

The introduction of a physical sidewalk as the center-piece of the workshop (at a scale of 01:01) is an attempt to do just this. [what did this look like? Briefly describe the physical lay out]

At the start of the workshop each resident was assigned a specific number of sidewalk ‘tiles’, representing the make-up of their household. One concrete tile (80cm x 100cm) equals the average yearly output of green garbage per individual – 100 kilo. Thus, a person with a two person household received two tiles, a person with a four person household received four tiles, and so on.
Each participant was asked to respond to specific questions by physically positioning his or her tiles in a line, in relation to the others.

The sidewalk is a tangible reference point to help explore the workings of the commons – ‘the medium is the message’. The sidewalk can also be interpreted as one giant game board, and the tiles as individual pieces. It is a tactile point of interaction, the place where participants deposit their contributions, and respond to each other’s moves. At the same time, the form of the sidewalk is evolving toward a final incarnation, or design.

As the workshop progresses and new discussions emerge, the sidewalk visually tracks these individual contributions, and the resulting collective ramifications. For instance, if someone decides to contribute less resources, this affects both the length, and the pollution reducing capabilities of the sidewalk. This quick process of action and reaction, catalyses real-time discussions about the implications the commons system, and is a pathway to the final material design.

Research through making

The term research through making has become synonymous with participatory design. This makes it an attractive methodology when exploring the commons – because the commons itself is an essentially participatory system.

Simply put, research through making is a methodology in which every exploration takes a material form. The initial design premise is influenced by both choreographed and spontaneous interaction. In its collaborative form, it describes a group of actors undertaking a process of discovery together. The concluding design both reflects, and is a direct result of this collaborative process.

In this example, research through making serves a double agenda:
– The creation of the sidewalk triggers discussions about, and reveals the underlying tensions between the individual and the collective.
– The resulting collaborative design is a direct reflection/outcome of the negotiation and resolution of these tensions – and documents the decision making process.

When systematically documented, as in the case of the workshop where each step was photographed – it can also provide a document for tracking the evolution of both processes.

How are these two agendas reflected in the workshop Walking on Sunshine?

Firstly, it’s important to ask the question who are the actors. In this case, they are the same members of the community asked to donate their resources– as opposed to professional urban planners and designers.

Because municipalities continue to focus on bottom-up initiatives and solutions, local communities are more frequently asked to play a role in devising solutions for organising shared/public space. Here, the ‘actors’ take on the role of the designer. The design of the sidewalk is produced by choreographing a new type of interaction for this group, who are already active in the neighbourhood.

Secondly, research through making allows you to do two things simultaneously: research a specific topic, and produce a design. In order to achieve this, certain parameters must be set from the get go. These parameters will, of course, have to be tailored to deal with each specific premise. Establishing a set of guidelines allows for spontaneous interaction, within the boundaries of the workshop. It is the responsibility of the designer to ensure that the guidelines are both ample, and restrictive enough to help answer the question(s) to be tackled.

The central aim of the workshop Walking on Sunshine was to show how levels of individual contributions, consequently affected the collective/public good.In order to achieve this a simple system was devised:

At the start of the workshop each resident was assigned a specific number of sidewalk ‘tiles’, representing the make-up of their household. One concrete tile (80cm x 100cm) equals the average yearly output of green garbage per individual – 100 kilo. Thus, a person with a two person household received two tiles, a person with a four person household received four tiles, and so on. Additionally, residents who volunteer to maintain the local park each received a green ‘park tile’ (made from the green clippings from the park.)

Each resident was asked how much of their own green garbage he or she would donate toward the creation of the sidewalk. One by one they lined up their tiles, representing their individual contribution, the floor.

Almost immediately, the length and the pollution reducing power of the sidewalk had been determined. This represented version number one. In the following rounds, participants were asked more specific questions about the circumstances under which they were willing to contribute. For instance, would they contribute more if they received monetary compensation from the municipality – or would they contribute more (or less) if participants we’re given the option to ‘personalise’ their individual tiles. Each question, whether it ‘d be about compensation, profit sharing or managing decision making, resulted in a next version of the sidewalk – until the exercise was complete.

Throughout the workshop, the sidewalk functioned as a tangible catalyst by giving complicated questions material form. It morphed and evolved depending on each individuals reaction to the question, and the real-time behaviour of the other participants. This is something that can not be achieved by relying on traditional research methods like questionnaires. Research by collaboratively ‘making’ promotes interaction, and depends on this interactive to generate a conclusive design. Perhaps add one or two examples of how the specific choreography or dramaturgy of your project led to particular insights / discussions?

For instance, when participants were asked if they would keep profits earned for themselves, or pool their profits, the group responded unanimously that all profits should remain collective – and decisions about how it could be spent should also be made collectively.
Because the sidewalk illustrated that they had amassed a 425,00 euro investment, plus 306kilos of carbon storage, a realistic conversation about how to invest this money flowed out of this decision.

The last phase of the workshop shifted from questions about monetary vs. non-monetary rewards, and sharing reward, to questions pertaining to identification. Could personalising your own tile(s) also be considered a kind of reward?
Participants given the opportunity to ‘customize’ their tiles (with a marker).
Things got especially out of hand when one resident drew an ‘anti-sustainability logo’ on his tile. He explained that even though he was in favor of collective approaches, building houses was his main focus; and that the neighborhoods highly sustainable principles had begun to irritate him. His personal views clashed with the rest of the group, which led to a heated discussion about how to make decisions about ownership vs. content.

Conclusions and results

As mentioned earlier, the design is the result of both choreographed, and spontaneous interaction. For this reason, predicting the end design is essentially impossible – making research through making an exciting and alluring process. The outcome is always a result of interaction, as participants work together toward a common answer or goal. Inevitably, if the workshop Walking on Sunshine were to be repeated with a different group of actors, the result would also be different.

Regardless, we can expect to gain specify insights by utilising methods like research through making. Most importantly, visualising the relationship between theoretical situations and their physical manifestation. In this case, researching the commons as a viable underlying system, and as a means to collaboratively designing public space. Unlike answering a questionnaire, participants ‘moves’ are determined and influenced within the live context of the group exercise, where action and reaction define the process.

Keep in mind every situation is unique. Imagine the possibilities if this workshop were to be repeated in more communities, and the resulting designs implemented throughout the city. Infrastructure could become a kind of map the allows us to read into the citizen driven processes that created it.