Public Practice

Emergent in design thinking and practice is the idea of small-scale interventions into spaces, artifacts, technologies and systems having the faculty to deconstruct and reconstruct new meaning into our everyday lives and urban experiences. Practices that call into question the structures and associated behaviours of the digital and built environment, such as tactical urbanism, placemaking projects, speculative and critical design, as well as the integration of systems and strategic design thinkers into policymaking, all exhibit a move towards conscientious compositions of artifacts and systems that evidence designs ability to penetrate the normalized conditions of the built environment and stitch up an alternative.

By merely offering an alternative, what may be a small-scale intervention in the application can amount to a significant change in perception, and an understanding that the built environment and its interactions are material with which to work [1]. In this way, experience replaces our notion of ‘product’, and makes the person and the system through which they are interpreting, responding, or informing, participants in the performance of the interactions aroused by these relationships. Inherently then, our ‘product’ is ever-evolving, ephemeral, and non-prescriptive. Interventions that act on our perceptions of the built environment focus our minds on the peripheral. What matters is not so much the object or space itself, but the cultivation of spontaneous and active conversation between people and artifacts, shifting the public from ‘audience’ to ‘makers’, equal in their part for giving meaning as the system or artifact itself.

Problem Space

Also emergent, is the recognition that our urban societies are becoming ever more isolating, individualized and civically disengaged [2]. Many factors contribute to this condition, including the proliferation of screen technologies and their associated functions, the shape of the built environment, and the prioritization of the car over walkability, not to mention the stress that accumulates in high-density urban environments [3]. All of these factors coalesce to create distrust and contribute to a disconnect between citizens, community members, and neighbours. In fact, early this year England appointed a minister of Loneliness to combat the physical and mental harm that can arise from feelings of isolation [4]. Residents of apartment buildings suffer most highly from this urban affliction. Compartmentalized and distanced from the action of the streets below, apartment dwellers manifest the irony of having neighbours in such proximity, all the while showing low levels of communication and neighbourliness. What gives? Which opportunities associated with condensed living have not been addressed? How can we find prosperity in what is typically considered to be the compromise of apartment living? How can we inspire civic engagement through phatic conversation? These are the questions that we address by our introduction of a series of micro-interventions into the apartment building.


Addressing wicked problems that, as described by Kees Dorst in his book Frame Innovation, are open, networked, complex, and dynamic, is tricky [5]. Social innovation is one such problem. Our project, Micro-Communities, aims to re-frame the apartment building as a space of opportunity for conversation and connection, where we call into question the individuated nature of apartment living.

To begin, we introduced a series of micro-interventions into apartment building communal spaces as a direct form of design research. These included a radio and tenant curated playlist for the building, a communication system using the mailroom and the faces of the unit mailboxes, and various placemaking tactics, such as “ask me” stickers placed on unit doors which expanded and decentralized communication between tenants and served as a signal for neighbours to reach out and connect.


Figure 1: Ask Me Door Stickers – “Ask me” stickers for residents doors, acting as a signal to invite communication.
Figure 2: Intervention Playlist – The playlist hung in the elevator that residents contributed to.

Further, a co-creation session that we hosted highlighted the functional and thriving opportunity for a ‘currency’ of skills-sharing within the building. All of these interventions serve their purposes but work collectively as a prompt for residents to ultimately recognize that communication, trust, generosity, and acts of reciprocity between neighbours is beneficial. We took care to ensure that all of the interventions had a low barrier to involvement, in regards to people’s ability to replicate them, as well as resident’s ability to engage; how can we prompt the smallest act of participation? The playlist developed from a piece of paper taped in the elevator, and the mailroom communication system consists of individual stickers for mailboxes that give writing space for residents to include their name, an offering of skills or goods to share with the building, as well as any questions or messages they might have for their neighbours. Placemaking tactics for this project included such things as hanging a coat on the outside of a unit door, with pairs of shoes and a welcome mat resting below.


Figure 3: Radio and Raspberry Pi – The radio that played the songs from the building playlist in communal spaces.

Currently, through a process known as “Frame Innovation,” we are examining relevant qualities and emotional dispositions associated with other contexts, such as social clubs, museums, universities, charitable organizations and the like, and adapting their attributes to the circumstances of the apartment building. For instance, we are investigating the qualities of museum archives, and the possibility of their use within apartment buildings as a way to re-discover the history of the place, its endurance and evolution. Welcome-wagons, in which community newcomers get greeted with small gifts and notes of welcome, is a warm and neighbourly tradition that isn’t prevalent in our urban societies; what facets of this practice could be woven into the experience of moving into a new building and local urban community?

The project research, interventions and frame innovations will land in a web platform called “iota design lab”, offered as open source call to actions for individuals to introduce into their apartment building contexts. By re-interpreting the spaces we occupy and our interactions within them, we can question the prevalence of contemporary urban afflictions. We can provide prompts and tools to inspire apartment dwellers, managers, and strata council holders to innovate through these interventions and the fundamental neighbourly conversations they remind us to have. We believe that active trust between our neighbours, and our capacity to experience and rely on neighbourly communication is the sustenance for healthy, safe, and happy micro-communities.


  • [1] Kloeckl, Kristian. The Urban Improvise. Design Issues, 33(4). 2017. 44-58
  • [2] Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster Inc, 2000.
  • [3] Greenfield, Adam. Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. London, United
  • Kingdom: Verso Books, 2017.
  • [4] Mead, Rebecca. What Britain’s “Minister of Loneliness” Says About Brexit and the Legacy of Jo Cox. The New Yorker, 2018.
  • [5] Dorst, Kees. Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design. MIT Press, 2015.