Social City


Social city-Renny Ramakers


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. 


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)