Report: Co-Producing Social Futures Through Design Research

During 2015, Guy Julier and Lucy Kimbell undertook a piece of research commissioned by the AHRC called Developing Participation in Social Design: Prototyping Projects, Programmes and Policies (henceforward ProtoPublics) documented on this blog.

Our report, Co-Producing Social Futures Through Design Research (protopublicsreportfinal, PDF, 7.6 MB) published by the University of Brighton (October 2016) summarises the project, its findings and outcomes and makes recommendations for supporting social design research.

Much of the argument is summarised and brought to life in our animated essay (animated by Holly MacDonald).

Report: Executive summary

A key aim of this report is to clarify how a design-oriented approach complements and is distinct from other kinds of cross-disciplinary, co-produced research in relation to social issues.

The starting point for the research was recognition of the emergence of what is loosely called ‘social’ design. Examples are the application of design methods and expertise within social innovation, public services, policy and healthcare. These fields of practice and emergent disciplines exist within a wider context in which design approaches are increasingly visible and integrated into business (e.g. customer experience design), entrepreneurship (e.g. lean start-up) and technological innovation (e.g. agile product development). Within academic research too, efforts to co-produce knowledge with partners, for example in RCUK funded research, have included design researchers within cross-disciplinary teams.

Developing Participation in Social Design: Prototyping Projects, Programmes and Policies was commissioned by the AHRC as a programme of activities and research between January and November 2015. It was led by Guy Julier and Lucy Kimbell with support from Leah Armstrong. The programme followed directly on from the authors’ report Social Design Futures: HEI Research and the AHRC (Armstrong et al 2014). The core aims of the ProtoPublics progamme were:

  • To build capacity and connections within arts and humanities and wider research communities.
  • To try out new ways of undertaking research via design-oriented, cross-disciplinary, co-produced projects.
  • To use the understandings and knowledge produced through the ProtoPublics programme to generate recommendations for the research community and beyond for developing co-produced, design research for societal issues.

Drawing on recommendations made in that report and shaped by findings from other RCUK programmes, ProtoPublics was devised as an experimental programme. The researchers undertook 14 video and blog interviews with key academics and practitioners in this field. These were published on the project website ( to contribute to the building of constituencies around it. A 2-day sprint workshop at Lancaster University in April 2015 brought together 45 academics and practitioners from which 5 projects were selected to be carried out during June-August 2015. The 5 projects that took place within the programme involved 34 people from 14 universities and 4 partner organisations working with 12 collaborating organisations. The researchers undertook continual visits and participation with these projects through their duration. They then ran two follow-up workshops with project participants in September and October 2015 to draw out further findings from the process.

The outcomes of this programme were:

  • New capacities (e.g. institutional and inter-personal connections between fields of practice and inquiry);
  • Insights into areas of social practice (e.g. hitch-hiking or time-banking);
  • New concepts for future experiences materialised in the form of mock-ups of products or services (e.g. a video describing a service for older people); and
  • New research methods (e.g. a kit to engage workshop participants).

Reflecting across these projects resulted in a clearer articulation of how design-oriented cross-disciplinary research results in co-produced, socially-oriented knowledge that shapes and informs change. Design-oriented research mediates between actualities and potentialities; it makes publics and issues researchable; it sets up ambiguous and agonistic spaces and events; and it highlights differences between improvement and innovation.

To further support the integration of this approach into RCUK programmes, there are three recommendations:

  1. Enabling a two-stage research processes: with an alpha stage during which research designs, issues and publics are materialised, explored and defined via iterative prototyping, followed by a beta stage during which more conventional research processes take place.
  2. Recognising and addressing the barriers to HEIs and partners in conducting design-led co-produced research by strengthening infrastructures and improving coordination between them.
  3. Recognising and valuing the hybrid and interconnected nature of the outputs from such projects that engage with different publics.



Interesting design micro-fictions emerge from our 1st co-design workshop

A number of older people and staff from Age UK Lancashire participated in the half-day co-design workshop run at Lancaster. Working in groups, workshop participants looked at policy document extracts on the themes of ageing, ageing in place and loneliness/isolation and responded to these.

A number of themes emerged from grouping our co-designers responses to policy. These themes were then used to co-create design micro-fictions looking at 5 years, 10 years into the future and beyond, which were shared within the workshop.

Further grouping of the design micro-fictions were grouped revealed a number of interesting themes (i.e. communication, transport, independent living and health economy) and technologies (i.e. Skyping and holograms, self-drive cars, pop-up community buildings, escalators at home/garden and several more) relating to ageing in place and social isolation.

These will be explored in the next series of co-design workshops in Falmouth next week. img_0045 img_0078 img_0102 img_0146_0 img_0148_0 img_0211 img_0215_0 img_0223 img_0232 img_9977

A Q&A between Sue Ball and Guy Julier


This ‘conversation’ is a summary of discussions between Sue Ball and Guy Julier in March and April 2015, culminating in their live Q&A at the Lancaster ProtoPublics workshop. This blob is a a redaction of material exchanged between them during that period. The Q&A is structured around two projects that Sue has been engaged in which raise different issues.

Sue Ball  is Director of Media and Arts Partnership, Leeds, a  public art consultancy that doesn’t do ‘landmark sculptures’ or public artist community engagement programmes. Rather it works closer to complex, sometimes design-led, urban regeneration processes. She was Director of Pavilion in Leeds 1996-2000 and has worked on cultural strategies for engaging citizens in Rochdale and Oldham and with town teams in Scunthorpe and North Allerton.  Sue developed a body of work to support interdisciplinary learning, including cross disciplinary peer review and action research, in the ‘making of place’ (2009-10), and to explore  ‘the act of listening and our sensory relationships with the city’ (2010-12). More generally, she has worked between the development sector, local government policy, creative practices and academia (though she has never worked in academia).

Sue and Guy Julier worked together as directors of Leeds Love It Share It, 2008-10, a registered Community Interest Company that continues to operate as an open forum for ideas, debate and action in Leeds, aiming to create new visions for how Leeds could be in the future through research into community skills, social networks and the use of local assets.


Banging Heads Together:  LLISI

GJ: In Leeds Love It Share It (LLISI) there were seven of us as company directors:  ourselves, Paul Chatterton and Rachel Unsworth from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, the architect Irena Bauman, Katie Hill from Design at Leeds Metropolitan University and Andy Goldring who is CEO of the Permaculture Association. We were motivated by a critique economic and cultural direction of Leeds and its leadership and the challenges of the triple crunch of climate change, global economic crisis from 2005 and Peak Oil.

Early meeting of Leeds Live It Share It, Community Interest Company

Early meeting of Leeds Live It Share It, Community Interest Company

We went very quickly from being about manifestos and ideas to actually getting involved in a community-based, publicly funded project. Sue, you raised nearly £100k for it from the then Regional Development Agency, Yorkshire Forward (YF), and the Local Entreprise Growth Initiative (LEGI).  I think there were a number of challenges:

  1. Interfacing between diverse interests/stakeholders/organisations such as YF, LEGI, LCC, neighbourhood, interest groups, regeneration and health arms length organisations while carrying forward an explicit political agenda that was critical of neoliberal status quo held by dominant power interests in the city;
  2. Learning to work cooperatively in a cross-sector team with different expectations of research practices and outcomes.

A number of other questions arise here. Was it knowledge-focused or were we looking at producing something more tangible? And if it was knowledge-focused, what were some of the conditions that facilitated this? How did we construct these conditions?

SB: We came together informally to develop interdisciplinary praxis as an independent think-tank, to forge a new set of alliances to challenge regeneration planning and policy orthodoxies in Leeds City Council, and to create an open learning environment through practical engagement that offered up our collective practice and processes for broad external review and critical peer appraisal. Some of this was published as a paper in City Journal and as a extended working ‘toolkit’ document (2011).

Due to my previous interest in structuring open reflexive interdisciplinary learning, there’s couple of things that I brought to the table that facilitated knowledge generation I feel.

In terms of the policy context, political leverage and sector buy-in (whole systems appraisal), you mentioned my producer role in raising funding. As important it was to secure buy-in from mainstream commissioners of regeneration services such as Leeds City Council and the Regional Development Agency, in a way that was participative and permissive. A positive attribute of the RDA funding was that there were no specific outcomes required, only a report. The offer from our side was to include them in the process of the research and to allow them to interrogate it as an embedded participant, which offered reciprocal benefits. A further merit of their investment was their badging of the scheme and the honorific value of association which prompted higher status policy-related conversation at city and regional level in response to on-the-ground community-facilitated regeneration in East Leeds.

Mapping of Richmond Hill assets

Mapping of Richmond Hill assets

We initially structured the 12 month research programme that included review and appraisal days. These were held quarterly and were programmed by the team to allow thinking and work in progress to be presented and debated. These sessions brought policy makers and service commissioners together with member of the Richmond Hill community, activists and academics within a broad constituency of stakeholders to consider how land, property, skills and network capacities at a local level could be appreciatively re appraised to generate forms of sustainable resources and assets. These sessions enabled the LLISI team to reflect on research methodologies, visual communication tools, and learning derived from field studies, and to finetune delivery according to emergent opportunities. This structure also built trust with local people and councillors who initially viewed LLISI as yet another set of professionals landing on the community.

Summary of Issues Arising from LLISI

  • how to declare the intention of the broker (issues of neutrality?)
  • that funding and agendas drive outcomes/outputs (hard negotiations to secure permissive flexible funding)
  • should deliver locally, act locally, but understand policy and include policy makers (whole system appraisal)
  • bring different stakeholders together into structured dialogue to unlock their own internal dynamics and resources (infrastructure development)
  • visual communication is key – how to develop well researched (often visual) data and information in a form that works for the end-user as advocacy/lobbying material, or to articulate systems and what’s happening now and next steps
  • need to challenge commissioners and funders to re engineer funding programmes that recognize changing conditions – bring them in as co-producers
  • co-production elements stitched in were very beneficial – how to structure reflective learning environment
  • connected community practice with academic input, but at times this did feel awkward
  • important learning and formative experience for all LLISI members.


Dodging and weaving:  Warwick Bar

GJ:  I’m a bit of a fan of dodging and weaving as a research method. This means that you adopt an open and flexible approach to developing a practice and accounting for it, producing or prototyping innovations along the way.

You’ve been working with developer ISIS Waterside Regeneration on their Warwick Bar scheme in Digbeth, Birmingham since 2010 where I think a lot of this attitude has been employed in your way of practising. Can you tell us a bit more about this project?


SB:  I’ve been working with developers for about 10 years now and in particular Isis Waterside Regeneration and developer Mike Finkill. Warwick Bar is 2.8 hectares, with 43,000 sq ft of lettable space, and about 15 mins walk from New Street station on Birmingham in Digbeth, post industrial & heavy manufacturing base. In 2010 there was only 20% of the site occupied. I was invited to work with Mike and I requested that we should start by working closely with the commercial agent Colliers International. I organized joint visits to Glasgow Spiers Lock and other sites where there was a different more proactive relationship with tenants. We developed a number of ways of re-activiting the space such as small physical interventions over time, responsive relationship with tenants and Open Doors events to wide constituency of arts, third sector, community people to welcome ideas for usage.

The commercial agents default setting is to focus on forcing up the commercial value of property. But we developed a Meanwhile Licensed Use of 45 days to enable R&D activities, which levered a 6 month business rates ‘holiday’ on each industrial units (3 months on offices). I took the units under license through Art in Unusual Spaces CIC, of which I’m a Director, and the savings were transferred to me which I used to commission artists and cultural activity. Up to last year, I leased units under 45 day license and through this internal economy, commissioned a wide range of arts and cultural agencies to use the units and public spaces such as Companis, Cathy Wade, Homes for Waifs and Strays, Flatpack Cinema etc.  I also wrote a Meanwhile Use Policy, which was adopted by the Client, that all empty units should be offered up through the website for meanwhile use.

GJ: This sounds a bit less experimental than the LLISI work?

SB:  I think working closely with developers certainly was less ‘activist’ in its roots, but within the project there were several gaps and openings to develop new processes and relationships. I’d summarize these as follows.

  1. Licence Innovation Another innovation in licensing was to develop ‘nomadic leases’ which offered a 10 year licence to agencies that wanted land for growing and cultivation, without this lease security, they can’t fundraise. We might have to move within the site if development take place. For instance Edible Eastside.
  2. Meanwhile Use as a Strategy I’m critical of meanwhile use, short-termism and hidden economies of the pop-up. This license and use demonstrates an alternative and a win-win situation for both the client and cultural economy. The site was only 20% occupied four years ago – now almost 100% with no hard marketing needed – mostly word-of-mouth testimonials.
  3. Judicious Interventions Starting out, I went out to connect with the Birmingham cultural sector and met with Ikon Gallery who were looking for a mooring for their 3 year arts/youth programme Slow Boat. We jointly developed a mooring space that in turn created a more amenable public realm. The public realm and canalside locale was used for summer and winter events drawing in audiences from Digbeth and the city. We have developed a very collegiate culture of co-operation onsite and this has been achieved in part by responsive intervention and also by encouraging all tenants to open their doors and programme for the public events in the summer.
  4. Dense Networks Warwick Bar/Minerva Works is now a densely interconnected complex of design, architecture, arts, fabricators & printers (commercial and not-for-profit) with Clifton Steel steel sheet producer as its anchor tenant. Key arts agencies for Brum include Vivid Project (digital media/film); Grand Union (VA), Styrx (VA), Homes for Waifs and Strays (Live Art), Centrala (Polish cultural centre) who now play host to national festivals such as Fierce Live Art; Flatpack Cinema and Supersonic experimental music. This is all organized internally and supported by Colliers as site managers.
  5. Independent Review and Appraisal With the client, I commissioned an independent report in autumn 2014 by Dr Rachael Unsworth at the University of Leeds on the characteristics of the regeneration of Warwick Bar which were framed up as ‘slow architecture’ in that we are creating a structure or ensemble of structures gradually and organically with regard to sustainability criteria, as opposed to rapid construction to achieve short-term goals. We define structures as systems, governance, relationships and value here.
  6. Policy and Future Proofing We are using the report now as a provocation to the city and Digbeth in the face of HS2 major investment and being tactical about the future, we are supporting the setup of the Digbeth Business Investment District in ways to ensure the representation of micro and small businesses that predominate the manufacture and cultural sectors in the area.
  7. Linking to HEIs Now the 43,000 square feet of lettable space is almost fully occupied, I am building on what is there by developing a partnership with Birmingham City University’s Cross Innovation Unit to support the emergent intra-trading and collaboration that happens onsite. Again it is the diversity of companies, commercial and not-for-profit, around manufacture, fabrication and creative/digital agglomeration, with the collegiate culture, that underpins emergent trading/sharing activity.

Issues arising

  • Creating and building densely Interconnected networks (infrastructure) which self generate and have their own sense of future ambition (beyond my/our involvement)
  • Creating permissive and responsive governance and policy that is ‘porous’
  • How to get it right for now but plan for the future and avoid short-termism
  • How to find the right balance between creativity of emergence and stability of design
  • How to prevent a ‘toolkit approach’ when processes are scaled up or transferred.



MAAP online portfolio




Celia Lury: Developing participation in social design: suspending the social?

Celia Lury, ESRC Professorial Fellow and Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick, made a provocation presentation entitled ‘Developing participation in social design, suspending the social?’ at the AHRC ProtoPublics Sprint Workshop on the 16 April. She has very kindly shared the slides from her talk with us here: Social design

Helena Almeida, Inhabited Painting, 1975.  From Celia Lury, Provocation for ProtoPublics, 16 April, Imagination Lancaster.

Helena Almeida, Inhabited Painting, 1975.

Twitter record for ProtoPublics including workshop

Before, during and just after the ProtoPublics workshop there was activity on twitter, mostly by researchers invited to attend and/or by the organisers (Guy Julier, Leah Armstrong and me).

During the workshop at Lancaster on April 16-17, some of these people were live tweeting including with photographs. So I thought I’d do a grab from Twitter in order to preserve these dialogues.

Protopublics – Twitter Search 20150422

ProtoPublics Sprint Workshop

The ProtoPublics Sprint Workshop took place at Imagination Lancaster on 16-17 April.  A group of 45 researchers- crossing disciplines and practices- got together to test out and explore new methods of ‘doing’ socially engaged design research. Here are some photographs to document the day.

ProtoPublics Sprint Workshop Program

ProtoPublics Sprint Workshop Program

Our principles for the workshop: Agile; Participatory; Collaborative; Creative; Reflexive

Our principles for the workshop: Agile; Participatory; Collaborative; Creative; Reflexive

Participants were asked to arrange their 'assets' on the tables to connect and expand upon our core themes: mobilities; civic participation; health and well-being; public space.

Participants were asked to arrange their ‘assets’ on the tables to connect and expand upon our core themes: mobilities; civic participation; health and well-being; public space.

From this collection of assets, participants could identify interests, priorities and expertise of others in the workshop.

From this collection of assets, participants could identify interests, priorities and expertise of others in the workshop.

From here, participants self-organised into groups to discuss common interests. They were encouraged to move between groups over the course of the two days before fixing on one group with which to put forward a research project pitch.

From here, participants self-organised into groups to discuss common interests. They were encouraged to move between groups over the course of the two days before fixing on one group with which to put forward a research project pitch.

The workshop ended with creative project pitches, some of which took us outside the Imagination Lancaster building.

The workshop ended with creative project pitches, some of which took us outside the Imagination Lancaster building.

Video Interview 12: Nicola Hughes

Nicola Hughes, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government, took part in the final provocation discussion with Cat Macauley, head of user research and engagement in the Scottish government at the ProtoPublics sprint workshop. In this video interview, Nicola describes the changing approach to policy making in the UK and articulates the role for design and designers within this.

Video Interview 11: Sue Ball

Sue Ball, Director at Media Arts Partnership (MAP) in Leeds, gave the first provocation paper at our ProtoPublics Sprint Workshop on 16 April in Lancaster, which took the form of a conversation with Professor Guy Julier. In this short video interview, filmed directly after the provocation, Sue elaborates on the strategies she has used in working with local councils and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to deliver social change.

Interview with Justin Spinney, Cardiff University


Justin Spinney is lecturer in human geography at the University of Cardiff. In this interview, which we conducted over email, he reflects on his work on mobilities and transport, his application of ethnography in relation to design research and the groups and communities he would like to be able to engage with more through his work. 

Tell me briefly about your current or previous research.

The main project I am currently working on is the cross council funded Cycle Boom project. Working across 4 UK cities this project seeks to build up a better picture of cycling in older age with specific reference to the ways in which urban design and new technology (such as e-bikes) can get more older people enjoying cycling. A particular focus for me is ways in which we can understand and measure affect and emotional experience and design environments which promote positive affect rather than simply minimising negative affects.

In addition to this I am also working on a project on HGV design. HGVs are over-represented in collisions with cyclists and pedestrians on European roads, partly because of mass and speed but also because of a design which gives very little direct visibility. I am interested in the effect on drivers of new visual safety technologies – do they for example create ‘sensory overload’ possibly making driving less safe? In addition, I am interested in the passage of new EU safety regulations to modify HGV design, and the ways in which this is being shaped by different stakeholders.

Previous research has looked at the materialities of parenthood, in particular the ways in which objects such as buggies and slings shape the experiences, identities and mobility patterns of new mothers.

Can you identify a group/institution you have not previously worked or collaborated with, but think it might be helpful to do so?

I would very much like to work with car/motorcycle/bicycle manufacturers to look at the possibilities of creating a new kind of ‘bicycle’ which would deviate from the normalised bicycle and encourage more people to cycle who do not currently identify with it for various reasons. Another group who I believe are very important are design students. So to forge partnerships with the RCA, Coventry and Loughborough would also be very productive.

How can we think about mobilities in radical ways?

I believe we need to think through mobility in two inter-related ways. Both of these relate to the ways in which mobility is represented and normalised as this and not that. In much of the Global North we have currently normalised driving because of what it offers us in relation to the ways in which our lives are currently configured. Driving does indeed have many benefits. The challenge is to transfer (through design) the best of these (comfort, care, convenience) to a new breed of ‘vehicle’ whilst leaving the worst (pollution, congestion, harm, sedentarism).

In doing so we are not only attempting to shift the practices of mobility, but also the meanings of mobility. For non (or less-motorised) transport to be successful requires a shift in meanings that is rooted in the alternative practice and representation of mobility. We need positive role models for alternative mobilities rather than the discourses of eccentricity which emerge around new forms of mobility (think Segway and Sinclair C5!).

One of the goals here is to develop more inclusive forms of mobility. Our current vision for cycling in the UK for example currently excludes many people on health, social and cultural grounds. A different approach to design that facilitates new forms of practice and meaning can also engender a more inclusive and equitable politics of mobility.

What are the limits of considering affect in your research field?

Two of the questions I am currently grappling with in the EPSRC Cycle Boom project are how do affects arise and how can we measure them? One of the limitations is how to understand something which has multiple and fleeting influences – it is impossible to isolate ‘variables’ as such so the best we can do is ask participants to relate particular experiences to phenomena. The picture this gives however is far from complete. As a result one of the things we are trying to do is quantitatively measure and map affect using mobile Electroencephalography (EEG) and GIS. This offers up the possibility of bodies ‘speaking for themselves’ and offering less rationalised accounts of emotional and affective experience. However there are also considerable limitations in doing so, not least because the technology we have to measure such experiences whilst mobile is inferior to that available in laboratory settings.

Do you see limitations in the application of ethnography in design research?

I am a big fan of ethnography in design research; I believe if done well it can facilitate a much more grounded understanding of use than (for example) the focus group. In order to do this however requires a great understanding of people’s everyday lives – we cannot look at how people use a particular object in its context of use, rather we need to see how it relates (or doesn’t) to other aspects of life. There are of course limitations. It is time consuming and requires ‘attunement’ of the researcher to the context. It also requires great collaboration between researcher and participant in order to ensure correctness of interpretations.

You use the term ‘destabilisation’…what does it mean and how can this operate in design for collective societal ends?

This relates to my previous point regarding the ways in which norms regarding mobility become sedimented. For example why are ‘cars’ so narrowly conceived as metal boxes with four wheels and a motor? Why are bicycles so narrowly conceived as having two wheels, no motor, no protection from the elements? I believe we need to de-stabilise, upset and over-turn these myopic classifications and find many more hybrids that can break us out of current mobility patterns.

Interview by Leah Armstrong and Guy Julier for