Visual Conversations on Urban Futures – PhD Research

It all started with a quote from Bruno Latour’s keynote speech at the 2008 Design History Society conference:

“In its long history, design practice has done a marvellous job of inventing the practical skills for drawing […]. But what has always been missing from those marvellous drawings (design in the literal sense) are an impression of the controversies and the many contradicting stakeholders that are born within with these.

So here is the question I wish to raise to designers: where are the visualization tools that allow the contradictory and controversial nature of matters of concern to be represented?” (Latour, 2008)

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Visual Conversations on Urban Futures

An outline of my research

Visualisations of future cities contribute to our social imaginary. They can, and have been used as speculative objects for imagining new possible ways of living as communities (Dunn et al., 2014). However, future cities are usually represented through coherent scenarios that only tell one story (or one version of it), and rarely express the complexity of urban life.

How can the diversity that characterises the city be represented in visions of future that give voice to different, diverging ways of living and experiencing it? How do these visualisations contribute to inclusive design and research actions aimed at envisioning, prototyping, and reflecting on possible scenarios for liveable cities?

My research focuses ways of visualising possibilities for life in future cities that include and valorise plurality and agonism (DiSalvo, 2010), rather than present (as it usually happens) only one story. For a lack of existing terminology, I am calling this approach Visual Conversations on Urban Futures (VCUF).

Although there are no definitions or structured descriptions of Visual Conversations on Urban Futures, some prototypes can be found in design, art, and architecture. These examples show the great variety of methods and media that can be adopted in participatory processes of imagining futures cities. As part of my study, I am collecting historical and contemporary examples of multiple voices debating possible urban futures in an online archive (

As a designer, I have chosen to adopt an action-research methodology (Kock, 2012; Rust, Mottram, & Till, 2007) to conduct, document reflect on a series of design experiments (Eriksen & Bang, 2013) that help me understand what does it mean to make pluralism explicit when producing visions of urban futures.

The two main design experiments are:

  • the Atlas of Imaginary Future Cities, developed as part of Liveable Cities Future Visions research challenge: an example of making divergent visions readable and explorable.
  • The Sharing Cities case-study, that reflects on ways to use visual methods to involve a heterogeneous group of stakeholders in reflecting on the possibilities and implications of thinking of their city as a sharing city (participatory scenario making).

My research is conducted as part of the Liveable Cities program. The contribution that I am hoping to bring to Liveable Cities is at the same time in contents and methods. It is about contents as it directly contributes to the research challenges my design experiments are conducted for, and about methods because it suggests and documents an alternative approach that could be adopted elsewhere.

Visual Conversations on Urban Futures could offer a significant contribution in the early stages of processes of building scenarios for possible futures. Manzini and Coad (2015) describe scenarios as communicative artifacts produced to further the social conversation about what to do. This way of imagining futures is ultimately about building alternatives to the dominant order by making possible what apperar(s) to be impossible (Lefebvre, 1970, cited in Buckley & Violeau, 2011).

While in times of urgent change seeking clarity and agreement might seem a much preferable route, I argue that articulating divergence is a necessary step to explore truly radical solutions. Stepping back from a solution-oriented approach allows us to critically question the present and the underlying assumptions of current research and political discourse on growth and sustainability.

Related projects:

An Atlas of Imaginary Future Cities

As part of my research on Visual Conversations on Urban Futures, I am building an Atlas of Future Imaginary Cities, as a way of visualising the imaginary cities built in a series of Future Visioning workshops we conducted in the Liveable Cities project. The Atlas of Future Imaginary Cities is…

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Visual Conversations on Urban Futures goes to DRS2016

In June 2016 I presented my research at the Design Research Society conference in Brighton. You can read my paper “Visual conversations on urban futures. Participatory methods to design scenarios of liveable cities” on ResearchGate. Abstract Visualisations of future cities usually depict coherent scenarios that rarely express the complexity of…

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Sharing Cities at the 1st International Workshop on the Sharing Economy

This is an early presentation of our Sharing City project at the first International Workshop on the Sharing Economy (Utrecht, 2015) Lancaster as a sharing city from serena pollastri   Lancaster as a sharing city: an interdisciplinary exploration and thought experiment Serena Pollastri, Rachel Cooper, Chris Boyko, Stephen Clune, Claire…

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Diverging Utopias. My Presentation at USS2015

This is a presentation of my research I gave at the Utopian Studies Society conference in Newcastle (June 2015) Diverging utopias: designing conversations on futures and cities. from serena pollastri Abstract The way we live is designed by the material world that we designed: a world we were born into…

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Sharing Cities Workshops (Lancaster and Birmingham)

    The sharing economy has become an incredibly popular topic in the last few years. A large number of non-academic publications have been produced, mostly to celebrate and discuss the benefits of internet-mediated forms of commercial sharing (e.g. books such as Sharing is the new caring, Whats mine is…

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Liveable Cities + Phd Research

This are some notes I wrote when I began my PhD. Please have a look at this page [Insert Link] to see a most updated version of my research.   In May 2013 I started my Phd at Lancaster University (ImaginationLancaster), with the Liveable Cities project. Liveable Cities is an…

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