Design driven participatory action research 

The ISTT research unit applies design driven participatory action research (DD-PAR) as its main method. Doing so we want to find culturally and ecologically resilient solutions to challenges and concrete needs in rapidly transforming settlements in post-colonial non-Western contexts and superdiverse neighbourhoods in Flanders. Not infrequently, the residents of these neighbourhoods are marginalised and suffer from spatial injustice. Hence another objective of the research is to empower these communities to speak up in the public debate on urban transformation. In addition - as the state is often not interested in intervening in these vulnerable neighbourhoods or lacks organisational and servicing capacity - this methodology also aims at shifting spatial renewal agency from the government to collaborations among citizens, experts, companies and government.

DD-PAR round table meeting in Clevia, Paramaribo, Suriname

ALDO: Awareness, Legislation, Design, Organisation 

The ISTT research is inspired by the ALDO Design attitude. It is an attitude that on the one hand cherishes design (D) as a future-oriented practice that is able to conceive solutions – alternatives for cases in which the available approaches do not satisfy – and on the other hand the conviction that these designs doesn’t make sense if they are not emerging from actually available potentials, situated in a particular value system, of which both the designer and the involved actors should be aware (A). On the other hand, future scenarios either are submitted to an existing legal system, or give way to amend existing legislation (L). Likewise, future scenarios, if they are to be implemented, need management and organisational structure – either existing organisational structure or newly conceived organisational structures (O). ALDO claims that these four aspects should simultaneously be explored and evaluated when conceiving (urban) projects.

A starting point is a cultural mapping, deploying ethnographic research in cooperation with residents, to uncover and understand how the morphology of places and spatial practices are linked to cultural traditions of diverse groups of residents. This is often accompanied by a historical heritage analysis of the site and its buildings. During interviews the identity of the region and needs and ambitions of residents are discussed and potential owners of problems and solutions are identified. Subsequently concepts for spatial, organisational, legal and financial solutions, that combine physical, socio-cultural, and economic strategies, are generated. Maintaining and strengthening the traditions of cultural groups is an important element in this. Issues, such as poverty alleviation and water management, are addressed by developing series of micro-interventions.

Building actor networks

Transforming fragile actor networks, containing a broad set of actors (e.g. residents, neighborhood champions, local entrepreneurs but also local government), into more accountable and action-oriented networks is an important element in DD-PAR. These stronger networks can support the improvement of living environments on neighbourhood scale. While discussing the designerly depictions of spatial chances and the financial, legal and organisational solutions with actors, student-researchers activate and mobilise social groups. Through an iterative process of discussing and adjusting the solutions, students and stakeholders evolve to operable civic projects. Diverse participation techniques such as informal talks, round tables, actor workshops are experimented with. Urban tactics are deployed to involve residents who usually don’t engage.

For this method to be successful, each research project must go on for a long enough period. Intended here is four to five years, in which each year new student teams capitalize on the results of the previous team.

Curious for more? In this article, the ISTT approach is explained more profoundly and applied to the rapidly transforming settlement of Mariënburg in Suriname.
Student fieldwork in Moengo, Suriname