»Model project: Citizens Connect Neighborhoods. Neighbourhood Development with Digital Transformation«, a cooperation between the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Berlin University of the Arts, Design Research Lab (2016-2018). Partners:





Digital transformation offers profound opportunities for social cohesion, the strengthening of civil society and of inclusive participation in an increasingly networked society. This is a socio-political necessity that must be fulfilled within the next few years to strengthen the positive aspects of digitization. Because if digitization is not driven by the citizenry but remains subject only to technological developments, we run the risk of widening the digital divide and further excluding a majority of people from the digital transformation – due to their lack of technical skills, a lack of education to boost those skills and lacking connectivity or simple age differences. Connectivity must therefore be forged in terms of both the digital and the social. We aim to zero in on problems of a societal scope and explore solutions in collaboration with the various stakeholders: practitioners of all sorts, social/technical researchers and politicians and civil society. The goal is to foster both digital and real-life participation.

What is the model project?

Initiatives situated in North Rhine-Westphalia were called upon to apply to participate in the project – 14 were selected in the end and since October 2016, they have participated in the ongoing model project to support the neighborhood development teams with digitization. The aim of the project was to evaluate and implement the respective goals of the individual neighborhood initiatives involved and do so with tailored tools, communication instruments, platforms and participatory methods – to develop these (further) in an iterative process and to accompany the initiatives with scientific study. In the process of participatory work relied on the concept of what are called »citizen workshops«.

The concept of the »citizen workshop«

The concept of the citizen workshop was established in accordance with the methodology of living labs. The European Commission describes living labs as »public-private-people partnerships (PPPP) for open innovation initiated by end users«. According to the European network of living labs (ENoLL), a living lab primarily promotes activities such as co-design, collaboration, exploration, implementation and evaluation of concepts, products and services. While immersed in day-to-day life and work environments – the living lab – users, together with developers and researchers, hammer out new solutions that are convincing in practice. However, the focus of living labs to date has been largely centered on the technology. The challenge for citizen workshops, in contrast, is to create a productive environment around a common understanding of the problems’ contexts. This environment should then provide the space for collaborative knowledge generation as well as enabling integration. In the end, the product and process development is therefore a stable one. Sustainability is what counts. Such a contribution would necessarily address corresponding social issues and be conducive to social and ecological transformation – and primarily for us to transmute digitization into something that primarily serves society. The intersect between research/science, politics and civil society for social as well as digital networking was what our planned citizen workshops would be dealing with, especially in regards to the inclusive and participative aspects of sustainable development.

Aims and objectives

Based on these approaches, the project served to strengthen existing or newly created civic initiatives and to work out – always in collaboration with the actors involved – how the digital world can react to social issues in the future and how it can be used to empower citizens’ participation in relevant developments. In addition, the accompanying study evaluates this new collaboration and co-design format, the aim of which is to generate and disseminate the new knowledge gained for transdisciplinary and collaborative urban development projects. The product is an academic contribution to design research and adjacent disciplines, but it is also be accessible to hands-on practitioners, the movers and shakers of civil society. Our intention here is to focus on developing participatory methods further in order to close the gaps that frequently open up between the aims and objectives of process and technology development on the one hand and the users’ expectations on the other. In our theoretical discussion, how peoples’ needs are to be understood is connected to how future collaboration, mediation and communication formats can and should be designed – also we looked at what action spaces open up with early involvement of both experts and non-experts in the process. The focus here, again, lied in improving integration in the development process through participative methods and consideration of social, ecological and economic sustainability in the design process. The project examined the appropriate conditions and analyzes the possibilities, actor constellations and analog/digital tools that lead to a self-determined solution to problems in the complex socio-physical urban space. New subject-relevant knowledge was generated here through the iterative interplay between theory and practice. This is due to the project-led research approach applied here. The epistemic form is one that is both research as well as practice-relevant, and its purpose is to overcome the disparity between theory and practice – within our own discipline and beyond. Our task was to perform on an inter- as well as transdisciplinary level.

Process results were therefore documented regularly for the accompanying study and evaluated. The findings were prepared and packaged specifically for the various stakeholders, in order for the project’s results to find resonance in both local as well as national discourse, like in our guide for giving advice for engaged citizens.

The role of the DRL in the model project

The Design Research Lab had two tightly connected roles and positions among the objectives of the model project of supporting civil society’s growing action potential for self-organization and co-creation of the immediate living environment, experimentation with new neighborhood structures in view of the digitization of socio-political processes, and the development of action fields for the Ministry.

  • One role therein was to support with accompanying research, which means to continuously evaluate the project and help the project leaders and participants with action recommendations, as per the research questions set out in the tender.
  • The second connected role was to offer conceptual, organizational and conciliatory advice and editorial input on the basis of our scientific expertise in the fields of digitization, civic participation and participatory design.

For further questions please contact us: mail@modellprojekt-nrw.de.


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