Activist design in Helsinki – a long post – updated or rather removed (!) 09/09

OK, so there was a long academic paper here. For reasons to do with copyright and somewhat beyond my comprehension, I have deleted the text itself, but the abstract remains. I continue to develop these ideas, and I have had many, many great opportunities to do so this past summer, so chances are that I will post something fresh here soon. Meanwhile, here the abstract of the paper I wrote and will rewrite and hopefully publish elsewhere. 

Activist design in Helsinki: creating sustainable futures at the centre, the margins and everywhere in between

Abstract: Initiatives and projects to create an alternative ‘normal’ are flourishing. Seeking socially just, culturally meaningful and materially sustainable futures, practical world-improving efforts of ‘activist design’ proliferate. This arena is an increasingly important route for contesting the status quo. However, design projects to create better tomorrows do not just seek to disrupt and oppose corporate-friendly policy initiatives. They are also part of policy, integral to normal neoliberal governance. Today’s expanded conception of design is increasingly explicitly used to address shared problems, typically via collaboration and experimentation. Activist design has affinities with older urban movement demands, particularly in how it critiques top-down expertise and reconsiders relationships between politics on the one hand and material objects, technological change and environmental threats on the other. Using illustrations from Helsinki, the paper takes an ethnographic approach and shows that although design is easy to identify as activism – design activism – this fuses with government-driven design activity (and rhetoric), with the two often employing similar language and claiming identical goals. The paper calls this expanded space where design is promoted for social good, activist design. As has been noted, social movement scholars could be more actively researching this growing phenomenon, and exploring its implications for political change. Context-specific analyses of activist design could add to our understanding of contemporary politics, without taking design’s emancipatory, radical and even world-saving pretensions at face value. Seeking to avoid both naïve celebration of activist design and a perspective that reduces it to co-optation by the neoliberal city in particular, the paper takes an initial step by considering design interventions as ranging from the technocratic or politically limiting to the politically emancipatory.

KEYWORDS: design; design activism; social movements; environmentalism; urban sustainability; material politics

AND SOME REFERENCES of interest to those seeking information on activist design or on design anthropology

Awan, N.; T. Schneider; J. Till (2011) Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, Routledge. Parts accessible at

Berglund, E. (2013) ‘Design Activism in Helsinki: notes from the World Design Capital 2012’, Design and Culture 2013/2: 195-214.

Binder, T.; P. Ehn; G. De Michelis; G. Jacucci, & G. Linde (2011) Design Things. MIT Press.

Botero, A.; A.G.Paterson; J. Saad-Sulonen (eds) (2012) Towards Peer Production in Public Services: Cases from Finland, Helsinki: Aalto University.

Botero, A. (2013) Expanding Design Space(s): Design in communal endeavours, Doctoral Dissertation 85/2013, Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Department of Media.

Boyer, B.; J. W. Cook & M. Steinberg (2011) In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change. Helsinki: Sitra.

Cataldi, M, D. Kelley, H. Kuzmich, J. Maier-Rothe & J. Tang (2011) ‘Residues of a Dream World: The High Line’, Theory Culture Society 2011 28: 358-389.

Clarke, A. J. (2013) ‘‘Actions Speak Louder’: Victor Papanek and the Legacy of Design Activism’, Design and Culture 2013/2.

Compendium for the Civic Economy, 2012, 00:/ (London) and trancityxvaliz (Amersfoort), also online at

Di Salvo, C. (2012) Adversarial design. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Evans, J. P. (2011) ‘Resilience, ecology and adaptation in the experimental city’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS, Vol.36: 223-237.

Evans, J. and A. Karvonen (2014) ‘Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Lower Your Carbon Footprint!’ — Urban Laboratories and the Governance of Low-Carbon Futures, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research , 38(2): 413–30

Fry, T. (2011) Design as politics. New York: Berg.

Fuad-Luke, A. (2009) Design activism: beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. London, UK: Earthscan.

Gunn, W.; T. Otto & R. C. Smith (eds) (2013) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hernberg, H. (2012) Helsinki Beyond Dreams: actions towards a creative and sustainable hometown

Haenfler R., B. Johnson, E. Jones (2012) ‘Lifestyle Movements: Exploring the Intersection of Lifestyle and Social Movements’, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 11:1, 1-20.

Julier, G. (2013) ‘From design culture to design activism’, Design and Culture, 5 3.: 215-236.

Kimbell, L. (2011) ‘Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I’, Design and Culture, Vol.3(3): 283-306.

Latour, B. (2011) ‘Un Prométhée circonscpect? A Cautious Prometheus?’, Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. No. 381. 2011: 109-119

Manzini, E. (2008) ‘New Design Knowledge: Introduction to the conference Changing the Change 12.7.08. pdf retrieved from

Markussen, T. (2012) ‘The disruptive aesthetics of hijacking urban space’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol.4, retrieved from

Mayer, M. (2013) ‘First world urban activism’. City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, Vol.17(1): 5-19.

McKay, G. (2011) Radical Gardening: Politics, idealism & rebellion in the garden. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.

Novy, J. & Colomb, C. (2013) ‘Struggling for the Right to the Creative. City in Berlin and Hamburg: new urban social movements, new “spaces of hope”’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol.37 5.: 1816-38.

Osterweil, M. (2014) ‘Another view from Europe’: Forum comment, Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society.

Papanek, V. (1971) Design for the real world: Human ecology and social change. New York: Pantheon Books.

Sadler, S. (2012) ‘The Dome and the Shack: The Dialectics of Hippie Enlightenment’, in I. Boal, J. Stone, M. Watts & C. Winslow (eds) West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California. Oakland: Retort/PM Press.

Scott, F. (2007) Architecture or techno-utopia: politics after modernism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Susser, I. & S. Tonnelat (2013) ‘Transformative cities: the urban commons’, Focaal-Journal of global and historical anthropology, 66: 105-132.

Thorpe, A. (2014) ‘Applying Protest Event Analysis to Architecture and Design, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 13:2, 275-295.

Unsworth, R.; S. Ball, I. Bauman, P. Chatterton, A. Goldring, K. Hill, G. Julier, (2011) ‘Building resilience and well-being in the Margins within the City: Changing perceptions, making connections, realising potential, plugging resource leaks’, City, Vol. 15 2.: 182-203.


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