Front cover and intro page to the Oslo Futures Catalogue v1, 2021

Strategic design for Society: the Oslo Futures Catalogue as a garden of ideas

The opening text from the ‘Oslo Futures Catalogue’, produced on the first ‘Strategic design for society’ course running at Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO), 2021

Download the catalogue here
You can download a copy of the Oslo Futures Catalogue v1 (PDF) here. You can also read an accompanying ‘making of’ article on which goes into the methods taught and practices on the course, with some reflections on the students’ work.
Example spreads from the ‘What is?’ glimpses in the Catalogue
Example spreads from the ‘What is?’ glimpses in the Catalogue
Some examples of ‘What if?’ from the Oslo Futures Catalogue

Exploring Oslo’s innovation strategy through design

The Oslo Futures Catalogue is a collection of observations and propositions describing possible futures for neighbourhood life in a more innovative Oslo, created by design students on the Strategic Design for Society course at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO). The Catalogue comprises a collection of ‘What is?’ observations drawn from explorations of everyday life in some of today’s Oslo neighbourhoods, from which a set of ‘What if?’ propositions have been invented or uncovered. These are imagined as possible urban futures, and articulated as a portfolio of new or alternative social infrastructures at the neighbourhood scale. The Catalogue dwells on ‘the everyday’ in these neighbourhoods, both real and imagined, in order to help ground Oslo’s strategy for innovation in the soft city we all inhabit and co-create. This helps place innovation, whether technical or social, in the context of the lived city, its nature and human nature, its politics and places, its constraints and possibilities, its histories and futures. Although no more than a start, we hope that it complements, enriches, and extends how Oslo can think about innovation in meaningful and actionable ways.— Dan Hill and Einar Sneve Martinussen

In the Autumn of 2021 AHO and D-Box — the National Centre for Transforming Public Services, together with Rambøll and Halogen, ran a project for the Oslo municipality about developing a strategy for research, development and innovation. To complement this project, AHO ran an experimental, practice-based design research process, which produced both insights and propositions exploring the idea of the innovative Oslo neighbourhood. The outcome of this process is the Oslo Futures Catalogue (PDF), which can be understood as a creative, explorative complement to the work being conducted by the city, and its consultants Rambøll, Halogen and D-Box. It looks to offer up different thoughts and perspectives on the same city and the same theme, trying to enrich and support the strategy process.

Challenging urban innovation

‘Innovation’ is an awkward, loose, and problematic word, particularly in the context of cities. It is often worryingly absent of critique, approached as if an unalloyed good. Yet the last years of innovation in urban technology indicate that it can be anything but. Ride-sharing companies, having initially promised a reduction in traffic, produced exactly the opposite, whilst introducing a range of other problems to boot. Services offering easy, temporary leasing of apartments and houses have tended to increase rents in cities with existing housing affordability issues. E-scooter companies bring joy, fun, and easy movement to city streets, yet can end up awkwardly occupying broadly-shared public spaces for a relatively narrow audience. E-commerce offers convenient shopping for many, whilst also decimating physical retail and increasing logistics traffic in cities. Social media drives much community-led action and activism, yet can also sow the seeds of damaging division, entirely outside of meaningful democratic engagement. Surveillance tech, which increasingly moves beyond social media to include face-tracking cameras and robots, might be shredding civil rights beneath its purported ambition to make urban living safer or more convenient.

Approach: Strategic design for society

The Oslo Futures Catalogue comes out of a case study from a new course at AHO, Strategic Design for Society (2021), running through the autumn term in the final year of the Master of Design. It has a focus on strategic design in the broader context of societal development.

Approach: Everyday life

The 2018 Oslo societal plan ‘Our City, Our Future’ — summarised as “a greener, warmer and more creative city with room for everyone” — provided the context for the work, and the innovation strategy development sitting behind it. This strategic societal plan was discussed, and unpacked, with the students:

  • Warmer: convivial, social, friendly, cozy, close, fun, prosocial
  • Creative: creating, diverse, stimulating, open, fluid, reflective, resource-ful, productive
  • Room for everybody: accessible, open, just, shared, diverse, adaptable

Approach: Social infrastructures and neighbourhoods

We asked the students to focus on social infrastructures within neighbourhoods, as key nodes in this idea of “everyday life”. We gave them the brief of suggesting how such infrastructures might be re-imagined in the context of a more innovative, future Oslo, and in doing so, to articulate what they might stand for.

libraries and laundrettes, plazas and playgrounds, pools and pavements, pizzerias and parks, pubs and bars, schools and streets, museums and markets, cafés and churches, barbers and nail salons, hardware stores and street vendors, studios and workshops, coop housing and courtyards, theatres and cinemas, community gardens and skate parks, bike sharing and dog parks, shared scooters and shared logistics, kiosks and kindergartens, docks and riversides, microgrids and community recycling, bike lanes and bus stops, promenades and woods, street furniture and sports grounds, community centres and aged-care centres, e-commerce drop-offs and car parks, bike racks and scooter stands, public transport and public toilets, public charge-points and trains stations, saunas and baths, drinking fountains and flowerbeds, performance stages and bandstands, wayfinding and shared noticeboards, public grills and viewpoints, cemeteries and civic plaques, steps and staircases, maps and municipal digital services, participation toolkits and ping-pong tables, chess boards and urban screens, greenhouses and abandoned buildings, playing fields and public university campuses …

This continually-updated list gives a sense of the diversity of social infrastructures we see in neighbourhoods. (This exercise also draws from the Incomplete City studio format, devised at UCL Bartlett and University of Michigan.)

The Oslo Futures Catalogue: A portfolio of glimpses of possible neighbourhoods in an innovative Oslo

The Catalogue describes how new, or re-framed, social infrastructures might be articulated in everyday life in possible future Oslo neighbourhoods. It has two sections:

  1. What if? (Glimpses of propositions)

What is? Observations of everyday life in Oslo neighbourhoods

The first sets of observations focus on simple, shared infrastructures — such as laundries or tool sheds, playgrounds and riversides, bike parking and footbridges — as well as some of the ‘patina’ of the use, relating insights into how local people engaged with them. They also describe dedicated notice-boards and meeting places, as deliberate touchpoints for community, beyond those utilitarian functions.

What if? Propositions for everyday life in Oslo neighbourhoods

The propositions draw from the seeds of the observations in identifiable ways. We can glimpse those observations of food culture, green infrastructure, mobility, shared space, housing and urban development, and so on, but each is reframed, and conveyed via narrative-led ideas. The sketches are richer, the stories fuller, yet they remain tantalising glimpses. They are deliberately open, incomplete, capable of being recombined, reproduced and re-made. As Saskia Sassen (2012) notes, “Cities are complex systems. But they are incomplete systems. In this incompleteness lies the possibility of making — making the urban, the political, the civic, a history.”

The Oslo Futures Catalogue: A portfolio of glimpses of possible neighbourhoods in an innovative Oslo

Download the catalogue here

You can download a copy of the Oslo Futures Catalogue v1 (PDF) here. You can also read an accompanying ‘making of’ article on which goes into the methods taught and practices on the course, with some reflections on the students’ work.

References

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Digital Urban Living is a research group at AHO that focuses on design for urban- and societal development. We are exploring how strategic design, urbanism and digital tech can enable new ways of designing services and polices for addressing sustainability, equity and innovation.

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Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Melbourne School of Design. Previously, Swedish gov, Arup, UCL IIPP, Fabrica, Helsinki Design Lab, BBC etc