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Pulling on the Threads of Civic Imagination

Threading the Needle

What kind of experiences do we want to create when designing cities? Answering that well starts with a new kind of design practice. Capturing subjective experience provides us with one of the most accurate means of modelling the future, and the world we want to live in. In a time when cities are being shaped by technical innovations and understood through complex data analysis, storytelling provides a much-needed antithetical approach. It does not attempt to create the same abstractions of the world as some of our quantitative counterpart techniques do, reducing reality to lines, numbers, planar surfaces and binary conditions. Instead, the description of an experience is a mirror to reality, its precision born out of its inherent ambiguity, breadth, and greyscale. Data analysts can only dream of such resolution!

Stories can be drawn as a line through space and time, threading together the narrative of our everyday lives. Creating these threads of experience allows designers and planners to work toward a world that fits desired outcomes, driven by a clear story of what the future looks and feels like, and a common consensus of where we’re heading. These threads become design blueprints, an informational backbone allowing us to strategically choreograph spaces, services and interactions as holistic systems that tie together our experiences.


So who are the protagonists? Telling these stories forces us to dig a bit deeper and understand for whom we are designing. All too often, we target the average user, a generic human being that probably doesn’t exist, treated like a Vitruvian man yet built up out of assumptions. Instead, embracing the inputs of our subjective experiences acknowledges that we are all different, and that our worlds can be designed to respond to our ranging needs and desires.

Equally, our protagonists may not be human; following the journey of a migrating bird enables us to critique design for the preservation of natural habitats. Similarly, as technology advances at a scintillating pace, digital creatures from municipal robotics to AI assistants are developing into characters with a place in our world. Following their narratives will allow us to define our relationship to these creatures, our interactions with them, and their integration into our human environments. Consciously choosing and researching these protagonists reflects the value we place on them, and the empathy with which we treat them as characters within our world.

Tomorrow’s Headlines

We have the opportunity to take a suite of alternative formats more seriously, ones that are not typically seen across traditional design and construction processes. Postcards, newspapers, film, amongst others, are prevalent artefacts that we readily consume, already being used to tell stories of events, memories, encounters, and imaginary places. Let’s use them! These formats are perfectly suited to narrating the future – they transport us to alternate realities so that we can see where we’re heading. Their familiarity and digestibility make them perfect communication vessels, as well as powerful participatory tools, for those who cannot draw or read a floor plan can certainly tell a story of their hopes for the future.

Stories of subjective experiences provide us with a fishing net for capturing the layers of complexity that shape our lives; visualising these creates tangible previews and shared visions of a better world; and writing tomorrow’s headlines gives us a trajectory from which reverse-engineering the future can begin...