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Published: 2019-01-25

New research charts an alternative imaginative path for design

NEWS Could a more experimental and imaginative way of doing design help make us better equipped to face climate change, dwindling resources and the rise of fascist movements across the globe? In his PhD thesis, Søren Rosenbak shows how design is able to grapple with our sense of what is possible. He believes that by untapping the creative and inclusive potential inherent in design, we can start to radically imagine what different futures could be like, and begin to put them into existence.

We might not always realize it but when we look around, almost everything in our lives is designed. Our computers, our cars, our tables and our houses. Design is what pushes our boundaries and tells us what life can be like. But design can also contribute to cement bad habits that may no longer be beneficial to us. In his thesis, Søren Rosenbak, PhD student at the Umeå Institute of Design at Umeå University, suggests that we should not be afraid to think differently, and to challenge conventional ways of doing design.

Søren Rosenbak opens up a new way of understanding what design is and what it can do. Through a number of innovative field projects he has aimed to chart an alternative direction in design. The goal is to harvest the imaginations of not just designers but also citizens, from all walks of life.

So, what does this kind of design look like? In one project, aimed at creating new ideas for the "smart cities" of the future, Søren went to Hasselt, the smartest city in Belgium. The city received this recognition based on quantitative metrics such as air quality, energy consumption and mobility. But what if these traditional ways of measuring progress, often relating to cutting-edge technology, is only one way of assessing the "smartness" of a city? Could another way be through the interpretation of lies about that very city?

"I was actually more curious to see what they chose not to measure in Hasselt, like politics for example. To trigger the imagination of the citizens I asked them to tell me a lie about the city. Obviously, the answers resulted in a set of complicated data that is difficult to analyse. This doesn't, however, mean it isn't worthwhile, as every lie contains a grain of truth. In other words, figuring out what the city is not, is another way of figuring out what it is. Based on the interpretations of the lies, a set of participants started prototyping new urban futures for the city", says Søren Rosenbak.

One of these sessions led to an early morning public celebration of a library located in a public space that had an uninviting reputation amongst local citizens. Another session resulted in an effort to make the equally unwelcoming train station area cozy by staging a tea party with comfy sofas, inviting people to discuss the future of the city. These initiatives should perhaps less be seen as fully-fledged design solutions but more as methods for how we can organically generate fresh ideas while at the same time involving the public.

"Today, design processes are sometimes very one-lane, top-down and consensus driven, thereby failing to produce a range of other imaginative perspectives. Part of this comes from the fact that design often is being informed only by citizens who already feel empowered and entitled to contribute. I believe that there is so much untapped creativity and imagination out there. We need to find better ways of unleashing all that potential together".

Realizing that design influences such a big part of our lives also leads to the conclusion that design has the power to change things radically. Design is what makes things possible. Looking at the future, and the way in which our possibilities will decrease, through climate change for example, this sensing of the possible becomes crucial.

"The first step to changing things is to be able to imagine how things could be different. Design has a crucial role to play here, in its ability to not only imagine other solutions, as some theoretical exercise, but to bring them into existence".

Søren Rosenbak was born and raised in the northern part of Jutland, Denmark, and completed a Masters of Arts (MA) in Design at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design (KADK), Copenhagen, in 2013. As part of his Master's degree, he visited Media Lab in Aalto ARTS, Helsinki, throughout the whole of 2012.

Read the whole thesis digitally

About the dissertation:

On Friday 25 January, Søren Rosenbak, Umeå Institute of Design at Umeå University, defends his thesis titled: The Science of Imagining Solutions: Design Becoming Conscious of Itself Through Design.
The dissertation takes place at 13:00 at Umeå Institute of Design at Umeå University
Fakulty oppenent is Andrew Morrisson, Professor at the Institute of Design, AHO (Arkitektur- och designhögskolen), Oslo.

Press photo. Credit: Sara Eriksson