Share your desires——Renny Ramakers(Droog Foundation/Design+Desires)

The city of the 21th century breaths a new urban reality: interconnected, fragmented and in constant flux. This requires different tools for urban planning. Design+Desires provides a cutting-edge toolbox: user-centered urban planning existing of actual desires and needs of city inhabitants. Design+Desires operates as an urban change agent. At the biennale Design+Desires presents the program Social City, curated by Renny Ramakers, head of Droog foundation, that compares Hong Kong and Shenzhen in four installations of Mark van der Net, Jan Rothuizen, the Design Academy Eindhoven and an online platform. With a unique method consisting of data mapping, participatory citizen research and design proposals Social City provides a more flexible approach to urban design, based on the real and virtual experiences of city dwellers.  


The 21th century urban reality

 In just the short amount of 20 years, how people live in cities has completely changed. Digital technology, social networks and globalization are the instigators of a drastically revised city life. The modern urbanite lives as much through virtual as through real relationships. Signs of this can be seen in the self-organization of citizens, the emergence of disruptive platform economies such as Airbnb and Uber and the transnational streetscape. It makes for a city that is in a continuous state of transition, where opportunities and challenges from a different nature arise.

The image of a city as a compact unit has disappeared.  Forget about demographic, sociological and economic macro levels. The city of the 21th century is a network. Or actually: networks that are crawling over and through each other, creating a vibrant and sometimes confusing reality. As new forms of connections other than family, neighbours and occupation are entering the urban scene, it becomes clear that city-inhabitants are not simply divided in homogeneous groups anymore. We now live in a post-demographic time as an international trend watching bureau states. It’s a new reality that has huge impact on how people live and inhabit the city, what they expect from their urban environment and thus will be a crucial and permanent change in the face of the city. 


Between top down and bottom up: filling in the gap 

Since the early nineties Amsterdam-based Droog has been pioneering new directions for the field of design. Early infamous classics like ‘A chest of drawers’ of Tejo Remy and ‘Knotted chair’ of Marcel Wanders redefined notions of luxury , design and beauty, and have had a wide impact on the world of design internationally.

Renny Ramakers, co-founder and head of Droog, explains her journey from product to city design: ’When we started, Dutch Design like we know it now was almost none-existent. I noticed designers that had a more narrative approach in a time where design was just about style and function and we presented them on an international stage. Now 20 years later, you see that everywhere. What was very urgent in 1993 – to show that design was not only about smooth modernism, but could also touch upon notions such as imperfection and the human touch -, now has become almost common sense.’

Droog is a mentality, Ramakers says, and this mentality goes beyond products,. It could be applied to anything, such as spaces, events and city design.  Her aim is to develop new tools, scenarios and models for the future of design and society. In their 22 years of existence Droog has addressed many theme’s, like copying, downloadable design, material scarcity and recently during the Salone del Mobile 2015 in Milan it focussed on screws, hinges and nails,  the smallest functional elements that are usually not noticeable and often invisible.  For its inventiveness Droog won the Milano Design Award for Best Tech. 

In 2011, Droog tackled for the first time city life in Open House, a project about the future of suburbia. On a visit to New York, Ramakers was struck by the plethora of service professions that are so common in Manhattan: dog walkers, doormen, people hired to pack your groceries. Professions that are not taught in schools, but emerge from people’s imaginations and hardships. This observation resulted in a one day event in Levittown, a typical American suburb with no density and low social activity on the streets because everything is only reachable by car . Invited by Droog the inhabitants set up small businesses their houses, ranging from an “attention clinic” to  a “school” where an unemployed teacher taught visitors how to create hobbies. Droog also asked architects to translate these kind of little businesses ran from people’s homes into extensions to the houses which would be needed and to draw a new plan of the suburb based on this new situation.  Ramakers remembers: ‘You could immediately see that it had the power to transform the whole neighbourhood. It created a lot more density, which can cause social activity. People would not always need to use the car anymore. In this proposal we showed how one could make a neighbourhood lively through human interaction and loosening rules and regulations.

Although urban planners do know the new post-demographic reality , confirms Ramakers, it does not get addressed in a meaningful way in urban planning. ‘Urban planners and civil servants are discussing this a lot in public debates but are often missing the translation to doing. And bottom up projects are often small in scale, socially oriented and miss real impact’. So it often ends up in a gap between the city people want to live in and the city people get to live in. There’s a big difference between strategy and tactics, between the professional vision and how people organise their environment, between theory and practice. Citizens are reduced to an abstraction in an urban planning where up till now there is no room for the rich diversity of dreams, wishes and needs of people living in the city. The space in between, between top-down and bottom up, is still vacant.


Design+ Desires: a research program for user-centered urban planning

 So according to Ramakers, we should see the city differently: as an organisation of a diversity of needs and desires. That’s why in 2014 she started the Design+Desires program. With the motto ‘How dreams, passions and needs of city dwellers can shape the city of the 21st century’ the program sets out for an user-centered urban planning for a city on human scale. Through a range of design projects, educational projects, academic research, exhibitions, citizen surveys, debates and  expert meetings, the multiannual program wants to tackle existing problems in the city and creating new opportunities, both in theory and practice, with the ultimate goal to create an alternative model for urban planning. Critical to their research is to establish intersections and interconnections amongst what used to be distinct demographic categories.

Ramakers gives an example of how the thinking in desires instead of social strata and generations can produce a different perspective which creates new opportunities for connecting. ‘I live in quite homogeneous neighbourhood in the city centre of Amsterdam. Although from different ages, most inhabitants here are  Dutch native. I think that a more interesting mix of people is possible. If for example a higher educated immigrant comes to the Netherlands, due to lack of income he will never end up in my neighbourhood, while he could have the same desires, and needs as the native doctor that lives next door to me’. And so it can be more productive to look at the needs and interests of people than simply to plan a nice mixture of social housing with more expensive houses.  


Why, why, why: the challenge of knowing what people really want 

Designing a city through desires may create new chances, it certainly isn’t an easy task. People usually don’t know what they really want, says Ramakers. She illustrates this with an example of an project Droog did in the multicultural neighbourhood Tarwewijk in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. A freshly renovated place, but the neighbourhood seemed dead. Behind closed doors on the other hand, there was a buzzing scene of unofficial little businesses. Inhabitants knew exactly where to go if they wanted their phone fixed or car washed. Ramakers was struck by the gap between the potential of the neighbourhood and what was actualised. When the team started a conversation with the inhabitants about making this lively economy visible, a real eye-opener followed. People in the neighbourhood were totally fed up with all the design and art projects that were happening and benefited everyone but the neighbourhood itself. Ramakers tells: ‘It was a shock when people told us “We don’t trust you architects”. So Droog took budget from their project to let inhabitants come up with their own plan. That was a very insightful process states Ramakers: ‘People came up with a plan, but it wasn’t very interesting or creative. They came up with a playground for the children, while the problem that really played at that time was the culture clash between immigrants who lived for years in the Tarwewijk and new groups of immigrants.’

For that reason, in the Design+Desires program, the questioning process of what people want goes deeper than the initial surface. It’s not only about what people want in practical terms but about connecting on a emotional level. Therefore, not only the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are involved, but also the ‘why’ question, which gives the tools to really discover and pinpoint shared desires. Actually, it’s more a process of asking the why-question over and over again. If people for example want to have a better connection from a to b, they might answer that the road is now too dangerous or the bus stop is too far away. Of course, one could make the road more safe or replace the bus stop, but you could also ask why they need to use this connection. In doing so, Design+Desires collects new insights, which could help solving problems in unexpected ways.


Unique method

To get insight into the many changes taking place at the micro level in urban life, Design+Desires has developed a unique method which combines three techniques: data mapping, active participatory citizen research and innovative design solutions. A combination which hasn’t been done before and thus is a ‘learning by doing’ process.

At the biennale this method is used to compare the cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong which each other on needs and desires. How will the two cities that stick together but have a very different heritage – the one firmly rooted in its history as a British colony, the other grown out of it’s village-jacket – look if they are mapped and tackled according to the user-centered design method?


Hard maps 

‘It’s interesting’, says Mark van der Net who is involved in the Design+Desires program to develop the data mapping’,  ‘technology has caused a new urban reality, but also provides the tools to tackle it. It’s now actually precisely the right moment for this. There is no time in history where we have had so much insight in the ideas and interests of people.’

Van der Net, who concentrates in his work on smart urbanism in using big data to give people ownership of the city and empower them to create private or public projects without being dependent on government organisations or companies, explains how data have become the ultimate tool to measure what desires and needs are buzzing in the city: ‘We maybe call the input of social media “hard mapping” but it’s no longer abstract data, it’s basically us. People really express themselves through social networks. Data now has a very human side: it’s not just numbers anymore, but also pictures, or patterns how people move in the city’.

Although data mapping might not be new as a tool for urban planning, the Design+ Desires program explores new sides of it. It’s all about qualitative data mining of emotional data instead of quantitative data. And not only is the input of social media used to discover focus points of desires and needs, which might be of interest to look into. But the technology is also explored artistically to higher levels.

For Van der Net this personal side to data is crucial to develop a richer understanding of the real intelligence of big data. ‘What are we really seeing if you look at data? Maybe it’s not as much in what we see, but it’s more the gaps, what is missing in the data. It’s important to realize that not the whole world can be captured in data, but admittedly, the way you can enter and analyze very complex situations with data nowadays is spectacular.’


Soft maps

What makes the method of Design+Desires progressive is that it not only adds a layer of big data , but it also connects and feeds hard data mapping with soft data mapping. A technique, almost invented and certainly perfected by Dutch artist Jan Rothuizen. With his maps existing  of drawings and words of distinctive places in the city in which factual information, historic facts and in the moment impressions form a combination between an objective and subjective experience of the space, he was the perfect candidate to add another research instrument to the toolkit of Design+Desires.

In the work that Rothuizen presents at the biennale, not only his method becomes clear but also the added value of the soft mapping technique. As a first step, Rothuizen is creating so-called judgemental maps, open source maps where people can add their subjective experience of the city. Rothuizen uses it as a quickscan: ‘Judgemental maps are not subtle or correct – nothing subtle about stating ‘this is a babyboomerneigbourhood, or this is where all the black people live’- but if it’s a good map, people will certainly recognize how they experience the city on a daily basis’. Rothuizen not only creates online judgemental maps, but presents them also in the exhibition at the biennale where visitors can fill them in. It’s an subjective layer which certainly will add some context to the findings of the big data.

Design interventions

The combination of the big data and the citizen participatory research give each other strength and context in mapping out city inhabitants desires on many levels and thus form the multi-layered starting point for the third component of the Design+Desires method: the design interventions. With creating innovative products, places, services and atmospheres, the linkages between them and people, and the linkages between people themselves, that react on the input of the desires, the opportunity for a city that is more in sync with its inhabitants is created.

For the biennale, students of the Design Academy Eindhoven and Poly-U in Hong Kong, will interview citizens In Hong Kong and Shenzhen and come up with design proposals to answer the call of the expressed desires in the hard and soft maps. Not an easy task, says Ramakers. To really nail a desire you have to think beyond spatial dimensions. ‘I want to bring in ideas that are already present in the design world for many years, but are new in urban planning and architecture: working with narratives and concepts. If you work with architects most of them immediately think in buildings, in spatial dimensions, instead of talking to people. A good example was the desire that popped up in an earlier project of the Desire+Desires program “I need a place where I can cry”.  The first thing is  to think of is to design a space. But you could also ask why you want such a place. It turned out that out that these people in were quite lonely. The next thought could be to design a community center, which is off course still too obvious. It was all about the fact that it was a city without any density. You could only meet somebody by car. One of the ideas that came out of this project really nailed it though. There were big plots that surrounded the houses and if you would design the borders of the plots for common use where people could meet and do activities together, you would in fact create a strong answer to the expressed desire.”


To a democratic city model

The objective of the design solutions is in the first place to improve city life and to find solutions and opportunities that can be implemented in the existing daily environment. The next step is to upscale all results towards a larger infrastructure, in collaboration with city-planners. It’s in the bits and pieces of information, the hard and soft data and the solutions, that the Design+ Desires program hopes to reach it’s ambition: to create a conceptual model for a (partly) self-organizing micro city, arising from an unbiased assessment of latent needs of a diversity of individual citizens, their desires and dreams.

This end goal will become closer through the fourth dimension that will be presented in the Social City program at the biennale: a virtual platform in which the democratic city based on desires will take shape for the first time.

Participants take online multiple choice questionnaires about all kinds of aspects of living in the city on topics such as leisure activities, work, health, mobility and relations. Questions range from ‘In which kind of house do want to live?’, ‘What kind of nature do you want in the city’, but also politically coloured questions as  ‘How many refugees would you let in your city?’. Based on your answers, an avatar is created which is placed in your own house in an city which is basically a constant machine of counting desires and changes shape as desires are added. The constant data source of the virtual platform makes for an lively research environment and discussion platform.

With Social City, Ramakers not only presents a way to make visible and address the changed urban cityscape, a cutting-edge methodology and questions about the distinction of the virtual and real and the upscaling of individual desires to city level, she also makes sure all the input directly feeds back into the Design+Desires program, that with every project, symposium and debate grows towards becoming a catalyst for urban planning on a human level.


Colophon Social City

Curator: Renny Ramakers (Droog Foundation/Design+Desires)
Assistant curator: Suki de Boer (Droog Foundation/Design+Desires)


Installations Hong Kong and Shenzhen

Mark van der Net (OSCity)
Jan Rothuizen
Students of Design Academy Eindhoven and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (supervised by Ester van de Wiel, Imme van der Haak, Fanny Hofstra)

Social City platform
Concept:  Renny Ramakers (Droog Foundation/Design+Desires) and Mark van der Net (OSCity)
Implementation technology: Mark van der Net, Eugene Tjoa
Implementation editorial concept: Renny Ramakers, Suki de Boer, Edith Gruson (Pro Arts Design), Judith Lekkerkerker (Ruimtevolk)
Editorial team: Renny, Ramakers, Mark Minkjan, Giulia Cosenza, Yaolan Luo
Graphic Design:  Thonik

Spatial Design: Edith Gruson (Pro Arts Design), Giulia Cosenza, Yaolan Luo

Production: Haochong Luo (Garden Party Design Studio)