On the 27th of February, CONTRA researcher Cecilie Sachs Olsen participated as a panellist at a digital Urban Lunch Talk. The talk was organized by Urban Europe and was attended by more than 200 participants from around the world. The theme of the talk was how to build transformation capacities through art and design and centred on imagination as a tool for urban transformation. The other two panellists were experience designer, strategist and researcher Bettina Schwalm and engineer and innovations director Bruno Georges. The discussion was moderated by Caroline Wrangsten. Below is a summary of the discussions between Cecilie and Caroline in response to the theme.

Caroline: Our current crisis is not only about the environment and the climate, but also a crisis of the imagination. We seem to be stuck in modes of thinking, having old solutions for solving problems. The future society of tomorrow will most certainly require new ways of dealing with the struggles of sustainability, climate neutrality, and overall justness. Can culture and creativity help us think new thoughts? How? Could art and design lead us into territory where the imagining of a healthier tomorrow is portrayed in a way that open up our minds. Can we truly co-create? What does it take for us as a society to cooperate in creative ways – are we able? We need to emphasize the creative and cultural sectors for the potential of supporting and enabling long-term urban transformation. How do we imagine the life of citizens in the many European cities of tomorrow in a way that helps us deal with urban dilemmas and move forward?

Cecilie let me ask you: Why do we need more drama in urban living labs?

Cecilie: Well, let me start by saying I like the double understanding of the word “drama” in your question. Firstly, we can think of drama as in the sense of tension and conflict “oh, so much drama!” Why is that kind of drama important? Because there is a risk that in response to urgency, experimental processes – such as those promoted in urban living labs –  focus on suppressing disagreement in order to force consensus around the quickest and best solution. In turn, this might promote a view in which Urban Living Labs are seen as transformative only to the extent that they align with efficient and solution-oriented approaches. Within these approaches, contestation and conflict are often conspicuously absent because the underlying rationale is that the best solutions and goals are unambiguous. But this suppression of disagreement might actually compromise the generative potential of urban experimentation.

Making time for disagreement is important because it allows for prevailing ideas to be challenged, it can bring in new perspectives and it engages participants in the debate. If conflict and disagreement is ignored, or even worse suppressed, it might be difficult to reach out to groups who distrust the government, politicians or planners or those that are in strong opposition to certain transformation policies and projects. As a consequence, we might lose the possibility to consider an issues from several perspectives that might broaden our field of action.

And this is where the second meaning of the word “drama” comes into play. Drama – as another word for performance – means “any action that is framed, presented, heighlighted or displayed” – it is the “showing” of a “doing”. Which again means that it is reflexive and self-conscious because you are aware of the act of doing something and then to show doing it. Drama then, provides a space and time set off from the everyday world in which we can look at, reflect on and reimagine this world by cutting out a piece for inspection. By seeing the everyday put on stage it becomes defamiliarized and we get to question things that we would perhaps otherwise take for granted. This might help us look at the world from a new perspective that might ultimately broaden our imagination and scope of action when it comes to how we can address the environmental challenges we are currently facing.

And of course, as global events show, democracy without the scrutiny and testing of its boundaries through conflict will most certainly propagate exclusion, marginalisation and racialisation of space.

Caroline: What is the drive behind your aesthetic take?

Cecilie: I think, in many issues of urban transformation in response to, for example, climate change, we are stuck in a very linear, homogeneous and solution-oriented way of thinking. We are told that we have to be “realistic” or rational and it is hard for us to imagine alternatives outside of the constraints of the given present. But as Einstein famously said: “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them”. Sustainability challenges require responses that are not only characterized by technological advances, but that also mobilize imaginative acts that open new spaces and practices for dealing with the effects of interlinked social and environmental problems. The potential of arts and aesthetics in this regard is that they are seen to open up much needed spaces for creativity and experimentation and to work on an affective, sensuous and emotional level that is often lacking in the more technocratic language of policy and planning.

What I particularly like about art is that it is not telling you how to feel or what to think. You can say that activism is about campaigning for social or political change, pushing through a specific message, and then you have theory/science who analyzes social or political change, where science itself or “the matters of fact” (as Latour would call it), becomes the message. Art to me, is something in between: not telling people what to think, but also not telling people not to think. Rather, art provides a room in which to think for oneself, to draw one’s own conclusions not by finding a given answer but by enabling a different form of inhabitation. It is not about analyzing, dissecting and judging a problem at a distance, but about inhabiting the problem by living through and navigating it. This is particularly important when it comes to handling conflicts. It means that you acknowledge that there are no immanent meanings or pre-given facts, no black or white or definite right or wrong, but there are different perspectives and views that needs to be navigated and negotiated in order to reach a shared understanding or vision. It is about navigating complexity rather than reducing it.

Caroline: You have said the following: “One of the appeals of artistic practice when it comes to urban transformation is that it opens much needed spaces for creativity and experimentation and plays an important role in giving tangible form to the imagination of alternatives outside of the constraints of the given present.” Could you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by that?

Cecilie: Artistic practice can make things embodied and felt. I mentioned earlier this idea of inhabiting a problem rather than standing at a distance and analyzing it. There is a lot of talk about what the future would be like, and a specific focus on predicting and controlling the future through scenarios, models etc. We are all the time faced with ideas of what the future would be like – as if it is a given. But for a lot of people these visions and future scenarios are really opaque and it is hard for them to figure out what it would actually be like to live in it. So, moving from these remote, opaque futures and trying to make them familiar to people so that they can inhabit them and figure out for themselves what those futures would mean for them. And this is not just to accept these futures that are presented to us, but also a way to question them: would this future work for me and my life?

I used to live in East London, in one of the poorest multicultural boroughs, and there was this commercial there for a future shopping mall that was to be built in the area. The images were only depicting white-middle class people, that stood in stark contrast to the people that were actually living in the borough. But these people felt helpless because the future was presented to them as if it already existed and those white-middle class people had already replaced them. So an important role of the arts here, is to question what futures are presented to us and who these futures are for. I believe that by questioning and giving tangible form to the future, we might be able to make the future more inclusive, diverse and open-ended, rather than given, fixed and exclusive.

Caroline: ”Our current crisis is not only about the environment and the climate, but is also a crisis of the imagination.” – to cite the new ENUTC call text. Imagination – when mentioning this expression, it is easy to attach to it positive feelings, and we may all start to envisioning, fantasizing and dreaming of a bright, sustainable urban future, right? But what do we mean with imagination, and how can we be concrete here, in terms of actions and getting practical? Maybe it is easier to just stay imagining, rather than to be practical about it, am I right?

Cecilie: So, what is the imagination? I would say that the imagination is a mediator, or a form of interplay, between material and perceptual worlds. The imagination is where tensions between the world as we know it and the world as we want it pull and attract, it is where things, discourses, subjects and objects are framed, contested and brought into being. So again, this idea of imagination as a site of tension is important: because this makes imagination something else than just daydreaming. It is not simply an escape from the real world. Instead, it is a tool for questioning the world as we know it by imagining the world as we want it. And this tension has a generative potential that makes us want to change something to get to the world as we know it. So, I do not think it is very helpful to set up a dichotomy here between the imagination and the concrete and practical. The imagination is concrete and practical. The imagination creates the conditions for concrete, practical and material interventions in the world. In order to create change we would have to be able to imagine it first and we have to create the desire for this changed world – and this desire is created in our imagination.

Caroline: You research the role of artistic practice in forming societal imaginaries. What does it mean to materially make and shape urban space, lives and communities?

Cecilie: As I said, I do not see the imagination and the material world as opposites or as divided but as inherently entangled. They inform each other. Theatre makes visible to us how our material world is constructed: what you see on stage is not the real thing but a representation of the real thing. This makes you question what you see on stage and comparing it to your real life: would I act like that if that happened to me? Is the actions of this character credible? By foregrounding its own constructedness the theatre enables a critical scrutiny and reflection. It provides a space for the audience to observe ourselves, and others, in action. At the same time it reminds us that the world is not given or existing as something external to us, but it is something we constantly contributes to shape through our actions in it. This, in turn, points to our agency of making change happen. As the famous geographers David Harvey has said: “if the world is imagined and made, it also be reimagined and remade.”

Caroline: In light of this, could you please state a DO, or DON’T (warnings) in processes for development or implementation?

Cecilie: DO: make room for diversity, plural knowledges and explorative processes that are open-ended and not necessarily directed towards a pre-defined goal, this might enable us to explore not just the solution to the problem at hand but also to get a better understanding of the problem itself. DON’T: decide in advance what is open for debate and what is not, allow for unexpected perspectives to enter the arena, even though they might seem irrelevant at first, they might broaden our scope of action.

Caroline: Urban Europe is launching a new call focusing on building urban transformation capacity through art and design. With such new calls and the new discourses within the New European Bauhaus, are the funding systems good, could it be easier to apply and take part of research funding from an arts and design perspective?

Cecilie: The main problem with many funding calls today is that they often demand the researcher to outline concrete outcomes of the project, they are not so good at accommodating the kinds of explorative processes that I have been advocating today.

Caroline: Many participants listening in today want to join this new call with their ambitions and ideas. What advice would you give them?


1. Find a good consortium of people that you want to work with, that you share a certain curiosity and interest with.

2. Don’t be afraid of challenging the structure: Urban Living Labs are often expected in the call we answered to, but we proposed the Drama Lab instead as an innovation of urban living labs.

3. Be true to your own passions and interests: what are YOU passionate about exploring? If it comes from your heart, rather than your mind, I think you will make a better research project.

Caroline: What would you like to see, if you could choose, totally freely, as outcomes from research projects in this new call. What beautiful urban future would you like to see researched?

Cecilie: What I would like to see is research projects that focus on how we can build and accommodate a diverse, not homogeneous, future. A future with room for differences, disagreements but most of all with room for imagining yet another future – to realize that no future is ever fixed but always open for contestation and this way to insist that nothing is ever fixed or given but could always be something else.

Caroline: Thank you so much for your inputs.

To see the whole talk, take a look at JPI Urban Europe’s youtube channel: Urban Lunch Talk #21: How do art and design unlock the full potential for urban transition? – YouTube


Comments are closed