Redefining Creative Initiatives through the Formal-Informal Interface

By Omar Nagati, Amin El-Didi, Maria Suescun

Two case studies from Cairo

Facade painting workshop in Ard al-Liwa

CLUSTER: Cairo Lab for Urban Studies Training and Environmental Research


The intersection between creative initiatives and the informal economy is not an abstract hypothesis in cities in the Global South, which are largely dominated by informal practices, and where the organic linkages between the formal and informal processes are manifest in many sectors in the service economy.

This research highlights this formal-informal continuum through two projects in Cairo by CLUSTER between 2018 and 2021, whereby creative initiatives are redefined beyond the narrow boundaries of art and design, extending to crafts and small workshops within informal areas. The research both contests a clear delineation between the formal and informal sectors and areas, proposing an understanding of the organic and dynamic nature of their interface instead. Further, it argues for rethinking this interface as a generative framework to redefine creative initiatives in cities in the Global South.

Part one: Premises and Frameworks

This essay is hinged upon two main premises that frame the case studies presented below. The first is redefining creative initiatives and industries beyond the classical definition (Florida, 2002), and the second contesting the dual understanding of cities in the Global South through a formal-informal divide.

Redefining the creative economy
Creative cities and creative economy are discursive terms that emerged in the 1990s to characterize the transformation of cities in Europe and North America from an industrial to post-industrial economy as part of a global neo-liberal turn. In Cairo, as in many other cities in the Global South, the response to deregulations and the dismantling of welfare programs has been largely manifest in the informal economy. Left on their own, communities developed creative solutions to their daily needs and challenges, developing a parallel sector in absence of state’s provision. From that perspective, it could be argued that informality is creativity, which calls for a revision of the Euro-centric definition of a white-collared, formally-educated and globally-connected “creative class” towards a more inclusive understanding of creative initiatives. Having said that, it has become too fashionable to romanticize urban informality as an alternative to regulated economy, arguably enabling communities to pursue their own interests, while absolving the state of its own responsibility towards its citizens and as the guardian of public good. Informality is about private actors pursuing private interest and should not be advocated as a long-term progressive agenda, but rather as an interim condition until a strong democratic state is redeemed.

This strategic agenda raises important questions concerning the tactical role of creative actors in cities dominated by informal economy and urban practices. The question of how to stay relevant through meaningful engagements with a prevailing condition of informality, embracing neither an outright dismissal nor uncritical romanticization, is a pragmatic position actualized through multiple approaches: a) by carving out an independent position between the state’s and real-estate market forces; b) by developing creative solutions, while maintaining an advocacy position towards inclusion and urban justice; and c) through negotiating a diversified scope of practice including reflective observations, critical mapping and interventions on the ground through pilot projects to validate broader hypotheses.

Formal-informal interface as a spectrum
In Cairo, and cities of the Global South at large, the term ‘informal’ is often used to describe the methods through which people access land, housing and services. This informality, of course, is positioned next to its corollary, formality. Assumed to be a binary, this duality informs how cities are understood and how policies to address informality are constructed and implemented. While understanding informality is vital to understanding Southern — and particularly African cities — understanding the formal/informal as a binary does not do justice to the complexity of dynamics which exist in African cities (McGee 1978; Roy 2005).

The concepts of formal and informal constructs should be seen as analytical categories rather than discrete conditions with clear boundaries. This essay supports a view of formality as a continuum, wherein “formal” and “informal” activities are intertwined across this spectrum. In addition, informality exists within formal structures and vice versa, both geographically and institutionally. This position echoes authors who argue that informality and formality exhibit “strong, complex, and dynamic complementarities and interrelationships” (Arfvidsson et al. 2016:101; see also: Groenewald et al. 2013).

To further demonstrate this organic linkages and integrated ecosystem, the remainder of this essay presents two case studies based on CLUSTER’s projects in both the historic city center and outlying informal areas, critically maintaining a delicate balance within the formal-informal interface at different scales, while creatively engaging communities of practice along this spectrum. Sites and journeys below are illustrative of the intertwined nature of the formal-informal interface as a generative mode of creative initiatives.

Part Two: Sites and Communities

A. ALFABRIKA Creative Lab: Site of formal-informal encounter and knowledge exchange

ALFABRIKA was launched by CLUSTER in 2019 to address the gap between formal training and practical/grounded knowledge. It is located in Ard al-Liwa, which is one of the most vibrant informal neighborhoods to the west of Cairo, an area having an extensive network of small industries and craft workshops, from carpentry and upholstery, to metal and glass work, in addition to hosting the second largest garbage recycling communities in Cairo (fig. 1).

ALFABRIKA is envisioned as a space of encounter, bringing art students and young designers together with craftspeople and owners of small workshops. Through a series of thematic workshops: around upcycling, palm reeds craft and social furniture, the teams engage in intensive knowledge exchange using manual and high-tech tools through a process of research, design, manufacturing and branding. While students, on the one hand, learn how to manufacture products outside their university labs and abstract modes of knowledge, craftspeople, on the other hand, can gain insights into the latest design directions and the use of high-tech machines (laser cutter, 3D printer, CNC, etc.), through a complementary design-make exercise. ALFABRIKA thus not only challenges the boundaries between formal and informal modes of knowledge production, it also contributes to redefining the role of creative actors in a city awash in a sea of informality (fig. 2).

B. Urban backstage: Art houses and artisan workshops
A second site of interface between formal and informal modes of production is manifest in CLUSTER’s interest and previous track record in art and culture as catalysts for urban regeneration, in both the historic city center and outlying informal areas where emerging art spaces interact with a network of local crafts and workshops. Two interrelated projects, developed and implemented in 2020–21, may best illustrate this linkage.

In the neighborhood of Ard al-Liwa, the project focused on enhancing the visual identities of a number of businesses around ALFABRIKA, creating attractive and contemporary landmarks in an otherwise monotone urban fabric. With DUCO public art initiative as implementing partner, the contribution of artists Ibrahim Ahmed and Ibrahim Khattab, and the participation of art and design students from various universities, a workshop was organized aiming at the redesign and implementation of three storefronts: ALFABRIKA’s own shutters, the shutter of al-Ibrahimayn Art Studio, and the exterior walls of the Nour al-Quran nursery. The workshop emphasized enhancing the visibility of these locations, the quality of the streetscape, and training students while engaging with craftspeople who in turn acquire new skills while passing on their expertise.

In the provincial capital al-Mansoura, the site in question offered a different historic and cultural context of a derelict Greek cafe built in the early 1900s. This required a more sensitive approach and allowed for an opportunity to consider traditional signage techniques that are no longer in use. With Cairopolitan art house as implementing partner, the design process involved an array of skill sets and crafts, both traditional and digital, including calligraphy, metal making, laser engraving, silkscreening and more. This part of the project entailed working through a complex web of different contributors with different degrees of formality, with CLUSTER as the main designer and mediator, constantly negotiating the design through dialogues with the respective parties.

C. Urban Journey: Through formal-informal transfer points
The design and implementation process, which is further detailed below, entailed a direct collaboration between designers and craftsmen, whose studios and workshops are located between the city center and informal areas at its periphery. The journeys between these sites traverse the boundaries of official districts and their lines of demarcation. Using multiple modes of transportation, in themselves a combination of formal and informal systems, each journey offers a lense to the intertwined nature of these systems. In 2018, CLUSTER developed a research project interrogating these points of interface and traffic junctions, using a typical transportation journey from an informal area at the city edge to its center as both an analytical framework and experiential narrative.

Transportation is one of the city’s systems that best represents this continuum and the overlaps between formality and informality (fig. 3).

Transportation serves as the mediator and actor as it is the means by which diverse areas of the city are interconnected. Social transformations often occur at a higher pace than infrastructural changes in the city, so transportation is the mechanism by which the city can function “cohesively” even through rapid and abrupt shifts. The formally planned parts of the city are in constant exchange of labor and goods with the informal neighborhoods and vice versa, and it is through transportation that both realities come together. Informal communities’ ability to develop solutions to address the lack of public transportation in their neighborhood is an example of a creative answer to a very tangible problem.

In order to illustrate the nuances of transportation in such a unique context, CLUSTER’s research team adopted a methodological approach which includes a flow, or a pathway (from a source, through a transition, and to a destination). These stages are then analyzed through specific variables (quantifiable, mutually exclusive, spatially manifest) to weigh the interface between absolute values of formality and informality. Using definitive values of ‘actors’, ‘economy’, and ‘organization’, it becomes possible to move from abstract concepts to substantive and measurable units with which to weigh the interface. The following diagram illustrates such exchange between formal and informal areas of Cairo, and makes visible the nature of transportation as a spectrum by assigning red and blue to informal and formal respectively, and assessing degree of formality of the respective modes of transportation (fig. 4).

While the spectra can be delineated through categorical variables as previously shown, a typical commute from Cairo’s informal periphery to the formal city center can be more accurately described through the following animation, which attempts to capture the different manifestations of both formal and informal presences at each step of the way

Part three: Process and Engagement

Within the above three sites of encounter, the following sections outline the main stages of the design, production and installation processes, each engaging the creative interface between actors, tools and economies for both the formal and informal sectors (fig. 5).

The rather detailed narrative below highlights the blurred boundaries between the various modes of creative production with varying degrees of formal education, training and regulations.

Design phase
The design process of ALFABRIKA’s shutters began with the CLUSTER team holding internal competitions and reviews to determine a design direction. The agreed-on final iterations drew inspiration from ALFABRIKA’s design-craft workshops, creating a unified color palette, and aiming to reflect both the fabrication lab and the urban lab’s purview through a transition of scales from the dense to the scattered periphery. Such a process was largely limited to the design team inside CLUSTER’s studio.

Conversely, the proposals for Nour al-Quran nursery and al-Ibrahimayn Art Studio went through different iterations where the input by each space owner in the informal area of Ard al-Liwa entailed rethinking the design strategy. For example, initially the team debated whether the nursery could have ancient Egyptian motifs on its wall, but it became clear that those illustrations might not be comprehensible to the local context or, worse, viewed as of pagan connotation in such conservative milieu of a rather orthodox religious interpretation. A more neutral design was thus suggested treating the wall as a child’s art sketchbook, incorporating scanned illustrations by children, and adding a colour scheme that was colorful and bright in the otherwise heavily shaded area. Similarly, for al-Ibrahimayn Art Studio, having an unclear legal status within an informal area, the artists preferred a rather minimalistic and subdued approach, opting to not stand out within their urban block. In short, both the design philosophy and community engagement had to be delicately positioned at the borderline between an artistic vision and abstract ideals, on the one hand, and priorities and concerns of neighbors on the other, in such a legally precarious business environment (fig. 6).

As for Mansoura’s Andrea Cafe, the process began with determining how best to intervene with the facade in order to achieve a contemporary yet historically representative signage system. This was done by researching precedents and the equivalent local artisans available for the tasks ahead. As the storefront provided three bays with their respective signage spaces in each language (Arabic, Greek and English), this presented an opportunity to experiment with traditional displays made with contemporary methods.

Gold leaf is produced by hammering gold into extremely thin sheets, the application of those sheets to wood, metal, glass, or ceramic is gilding. In Egypt, the technique was commonly used until the middle of the 20th century. People started to lose interest when new printing technologies started to appear until it almost became a dying craft. With the historical integrity of Andrea Cafe and the possibility of reviving the perishing technique on the glass bays, the team started by looking for artisans practicing this method, and soon realized that none of the master craftsmen were still alive. Luckily, the team was guided to Ahmed Hefnawy, an artist and co-founder of Cairopolitan who is knowledgeable of the technique and has been part of the process of Cairopolitan’s own gilded sign’s production. The design process was then reconfigured, engaging master calligraphers in Cairo, Alexandria and Mansoura, while consulting Ahmed Hefnawy as an interlocutor to bridge the gap between design and production processes.

In addition to the frontal glass signage, the team experimented with the design of a metal cantilever sign perpendicular to the facade, that would allow for more visibility for passersby along the street (fig. 7).

This provided an opportunity to add to the cafe’s visual identity in the way of a branding logo that could also be used with the cafe’s associated paraphernalia, from menus to cups and coasters. The process of developing an abstract visual language as holistic branding had to be repeatedly negotiated with the owner who insisted on drawing inspiration from Greek mythology, utilizing reference material from vintage design heirlooms found in the cafe. Further, the team supplemented the facade’s metal sign with custom-made ambient wall lights and their wrought iron supports, following the established design language. This could have only been done through an informal assemblage process whereby many artisans were consulted, given that formal markets only held limited catalogs of prefabricated typical light fixtures, and thus being less imaginative.

While the design process involved a number of iterations and revisions through a fluid exchange of design concepts, sample materials and prototypes, it was only after the project was completed that a reflective moment was possible. In retrospect, one could revisit these milestones and critically examine the formal-informal boundaries through actors, materials, capital, and most importantly modes of creativity and knowledge production. The following section continues this investigation of abstract versus grounded knowledge through the manufacturing and installing processes.

Production phase
During the production phase, the role of the manufacturer in the design process was prominent and visible. In a more European setting, the demand for the type of signage designed (the cantilevered sign) is higher and the industry for it already exists. In Cairo, the informal sector offers an ecosystem providing alternative solutions to what is not otherwise available in the market. Given these gaps in the established industry, design houses seek the craftspeople that are up to the job, even if sometimes it is the first time they engage in such a venture. Compared to formal contracts, the design and production process are less clearly delineated as design decisions are hinged on available sections and details are negotiated back and forth with local craftsmen to attain a design that is constructible and within availability of resources.

During the production phase of Andrea Cafe signage in Mansoura, both formal and informal production processes were intricately intertwined. The more formal production process took place at Cairopolitan art house, where they led the reproduction of gold leaf glass signs through a mix of traditional calligraphy and contemporary techniques, including digital design, silkscreening and cutter plotter. Accordingly, the team produced a plan for the production of gold sticker signage, outlining the steps with each to achieve three glass signs using a mixture of contemporary and traditional methods (fig. 8).

From a heritage point of view, to revive a dying craft is very significant, as one of the biggest challenges within emerging economies is to preserve their undocumented traditions. This became evident when talking to the calligrapher as he explained that the artistic decisions he was making regarding the positioning of the “kashida” (a type of justification in Arabic cursive scripts, elongating letters at certain points) were decisions a computer algorithm cannot make, only an expert.

On the other hand, the less formal production process took place for the metal signage and the lighting components (fig. 9).

Based on its existing network , CLUSTER contacted the metalworkers in one of Cairo’s informal neighborhoods, al-Marg, to fabricate the metal signage. During this process, the design/production boundary also became blurred as there was a constant exchange between the art house and the craftspeople. Many of the decisions took place at the craftsman’s workshop, with a designer’s presence and/or communicating through digital application for review and approval. The availability of certain materials and specifications informed the viability of the design, limiting choices while offering opportunities to rethink on-paper schemes.

Implementation and Installation Phase
While the design and production phases involved a mix of formal and informal processes of knowledge exchange and manufacturing techniques, the implementation phase was entirely embedded in informal settings in Ard al-Liwa and thus subject to local forces: strong community engagement and low presence of authorities. In contrast, the site of Cafe Andrea was at the city center, half a block away from the central police directorate, which resulted in an overwhelming presence from their part during the installation phase. The contrast between both sites and contexts could not be more indicative of the formal-informal interface thesis.

During the Ard al-Liwa implementation phase, the team ran into a series of challenges, creating a certain degree of uncertainty during the process, especially with the production and the implementation of the round cantilevered sign at the Nour al Quran nursery: available materials and accessories, competence of some of the craftsmen and committing to concrete deadlines during the Covid19 precarious business environment. Secondly, given that the project was being implemented in an informal neighborhood, what mattered most was the community’s concession rather than formal approval by the local authorities. In Ard al-Liwa, communities have a high capacity to self-organize and therefore any spatial decisions or transformations must be approved by them as their opinion will ultimately determine the fate of the project and end result (fig. 10).

This was also evident in the possibility to extend the implementation workshop time frame due to external contingencies without needing formal approvals or permits, which was diametrically opposite to the situation in Cafe Andrea in Mansoura (fig. 11–13).

For the signage at Andrea Cafe, the installation phase involved a certain degree of coordination between different actors at different locations. On one hand, the glass had to be transported from Cairo in a special truck fitted with shock absorbers. The metal signage and the light fixtures were also transported from Cairo. On the other hand, coordination with the local stakeholders had to be preplanned through a local design associate on the ground. It involved synchronizing installation with the Cafe owner and recruiting a local installation crew, namely for the glass, as well as wood workers and electricians (fig. 14).

During the three-day workshop, a number of unexpected issues were raised that needed immediate on-the-ground resolution. A case in point was an error in the dimension of one of the glass signs produced in Cairo that could not be returned nor replaced. The glass workers demonstrated their resourcefulness and immediately proposed a practical solution; to carve out part of the woodframe’s interior in order for the glass to fit comfortably and still maintain the facade intact on the outside — an inventive solution outside the bounds of the design team who would generally have opted for a reproduction with the correct dimensions — not a viable option in this case. Numerous other examples demonstrated the capacity of craftsmen to find quick fixes within their available tools and resources.

Conversely, there was another undeniable presence of the police during the workshop Andrea Café is located right next to the police headquarters in Mansoura, which has very high security measures, and this proved to be a major constraint rather than an asset. The police were concerned about the implementation’s documentation because they did not want any photographs of the headquarters to be taken. Consequently, the team was constantly interrupted and many times questioned on the intentions of the project. Instead of facilitating the implementation process, they were a distractor and an obstacle. The police had also parked their cars in front of the café which made it difficult to upload materials, and impossible to get a complete picture of what the facade looked like, only allowing side pictures of the final result from the narrowing sidewalk (fig. 15).

Once again, the dialogue between formal forces and informal ones became apparent with the police, being the ultimate representation of the formal authorities, requesting permits and enforcing restriction while the team was able to dissuade their questioning by engaging in an informal manner: through colloquial talk and cultural courtesy. In summary, it was during the implementation phase that the interplay between formal and informal systems were most apparent, having sites and communities in different parts of the city offering for a comparative outlook on the nuances of the different processes necessary to create an architectural intervention in public space, from the formal city core to the informal periphery.

Part four. Conclusion and Lessons Learned

This essay, which is based on an empirical experience and practical knowledge, may nevertheless offer a number of reflections on the intersection of creative initiatives and the formal-informal interface. The presented research and design projects criss-cross the city’s formal and informal boundaries, both geographically and institutionally, while their actors, economies and modes of knowledge are organically linked via a complex web of networks and flows. A number of themes could be discerned that are relevant to other cities and regions in the Global South.

1. Informality as creativity
Informal responses to the absence of state’s provision of urban services are based on grounded creative solutions. Rather than being chaotic and unstructured, these initiatives offer a pool of creative solutions to academics and practitioners alike. The projects above highlight the need to rethink urban informality as a generative process, and develop creative modes of engagement towards more comprehensive and integrated solutions for our cities.

2. Modes of knowledge and communication
The projects illustrate an interplay and exchange between two modes of knowledge and creative production. The first is based on formal training and hinged upon abstract mode of representation, by artists and designers, while the second is embedded in grounded experience and practical tools of production, by artisans and craftspeople. The exchange between both requires creative modes of communication using unconventional techniques, such as volumetric representations, mockups and prototypes through multiple iterations.

3. Dual agency of creative actors: practical and reflective
The role CLUSTER assumes in these projects as mediator and negotiator between the modes described above is representative of emerging creative practices over the past decade or two. Their practical position engages projects in which the boundaries between formal and informal economies and initiatives are blurred and are only recognized in financial and contractual documents. As thoroughly discussed, each project involves an array of actors, markets and techniques that are intermingled with each at every stage in both the design and production processes. Their distinction may be discerned at a later (post-production) stage, when a more reflective position could be afforded, and where analytical categories and constructs could be projected back on the formal-informal continuum.

4. Inhabiting the interface as a modus operandi, that is interstitially generative and often subversively creative.
Viewing the formal-informal interface as a complex web and a continuum, including loopholes within, implies a tactical approach to inhabit as sites of creative interventions. Unlike political and spatial strategies of wholesale changes, operating on a small scale within the interstices, which is genetically informal, offers an opportunity for incremental, yet more sustainable approach to cities in the Global South.

List of figures

Fig 1. Ard al-Liwa as situated within Greater Cairo
Fig 2. Design-craft workshops by ALFABRIKA
Fig 3. Routes traversing the formal-informal divide
Fig 4. Formal-informal spectra along a typical transportation journey
Fig 5. Network of project stakeholders and their different levels of formality
Fig 6. Designs of the sites in Ard al-Liwa, reflecting their disciplines while prioritizing context sensitivity
Fig 7. Andrea Cafe’s cantilever sign design, experimenting with contemporary graphics alongside traditional metalworking
Fig 8. Gilded signage process incorporating Arabic calligraphy
Fig 9. Metal-forging process is predominantly carried out by informal workshops
Fig 10. ALFABRIKA’s shutters after the community workshop’s completion
Fig 11. Shutter painting workshop in Ard al-Liwa
Fig 12. Local community participation during the implementation project in Ard al-Liwa
Fig 13. Facade painting workshop in Ard al-Liwa
Fig 14. Craftsmen involved in the installation of Andrea Cafe’s signage
Fig 15. Combination of gilded glass signage and branded cantilever sign

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CLUSTER, 2018, Formal-informal interface: comparative analysis between three Egyptian Cities, unpublished report submitted to AURI (African Urban Research Initiative).

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Objects in Mirror are Closer than they Appear as part of the study “Formal-informal interface: comparative analysis between three Egyptian Cities”

Enhancing Visual Identity — Ard al-Liwa as part of the Ard al-Liwa part of the project “Creativity in Action”

Restoring Signage Traditions as part of the Mansoura part of the project “Creativity in Action”

List of initiatives and partners
Andrea Cafe
is one of the oldest cafes in the city of Mansoura, and was once a gathering place for intellectuals which has now become a favorite place for the young generation. It was established by the Greek Khawaja, Costasius Andrea in 1907, to be the first café and meeting place for Greeks in Mansoura.

AURI (African Urban Research Initiative) was initiated in 2013 to support existing and future Africa-based research centres to inform and enhance the policy actors and networks responsible for sustainable urban policy and management in different African contexts.

Cairpolitan is a design concept store and art gallery based in Garden City, Cairo, driven by the practical details of contemporary life in modern day Cairo, designing product lines that document everyday life with an aim of branding the city.

DICE (Developing Inclusive and Creative Economies) is a programme developed by the British Council that seeks to support the development of creative and social enterprises in the UK and five key emerging economies: Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, and South Africa.

DUCO is a creative agency, production house and future platform dedicated to urban art and outdoor luminous hand-painted wallscapes powered by a commercial approach while contributing towards an urban cosmetic development by operating at the intersection of lifestyle, construction and media industries.

Ibrahimayn Studio was founded by artists Ibrahim Khattab and Ibrahim Ahmed, who are both mid-career artists with extensive local and international experience, who have decided to locate their studio in Ard al-Liwa to engage in current themes and develop grounded practice outside mainstream galleries.

Nur al-Quran Nursery is a local nursery in a small dead-end street in Ard al-Liwa. The nursery serves the local community’s children, catering to different age groups and offering a range of art, reading and basic math classes in addition to regular Quran reading sessions.



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