Governing through Design

The United Nations increasingly rely on design thinking to transform their institutions; infrastructural planning is now figured as urban design; and ecological thinking turns into a problem of adequate programming. Our project seeks to investigate how design methods and practices have contributed to changing politics throughout the 20th century and to analyze contemporary forms of governing through design. It is our goal to establish the interdisciplinary study of design as a new field of research in the humanities and to provide an account of how design has since the mid-20th century become increasingly political.

An interdisciplinary collective of researchers based at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts FHNW (Institute Experimental Design and Media Cultures), the University of Basel (Urban Studies), and Concordia University Montréal (Department of Sociology and Anthropology) approaches these developments through studying the role of design methods and practices in the transformation of international institutions and decision making processes, in the infrastructural transformation of urban centers and rural spaces, and in the computational management of ecological and social processes.

At the heart of the project sits a bottom-up perspective: we do not assume global and homogeneous politics of design, but combine archival research and fieldwork in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to investigate locally specific mergers of design strategies, infrastructural planning, and politics. An important goal of the project is to contribute to current political debates.

Governing through Design links perspectives and methods of design studies, urban studies, media studies, anthropology, sociology, political science, and science & technology studies to develop a comprehensive understanding of how politics and design are interrelated today. The project therefore intervenes in contemporary debates about opportunities to act on the effects of the ‘anthropocene’ and seeks to confront global solutions with in-depth studies of local projects and processes.

Ground Tests

Ground Tests studies and elaborates the means and methods of art, design and media research. We do extra-disciplinary investigations that connect contexts, communities, and concerns through non-traditional, undisciplined knowledge practices. How should these be composed, and how should they work? Our ‘tests’ activate concepts and styles with their origins in cultures of art, design and media creativity, while diverting these modes toward socially and ecologically responsible issues and ends.

Ground Tests investigates current artistic perspectives, design practices, media systems and digital methods as cross-cutting activators of change, allowing human and nonhuman collectives to represent and express their circumstances and interests, needs and desires. Informed by these explorations, this project tests and grounds the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of artistic and designerly investigations, through empirical experiments that are responsive, respectful and impactful.

Ground Tests undertakes case studies and actions at the critical, permeable and shifting boundaries of ecology and culture, nature and science. The project draws on the work of institutions and people that inspire and enlarge our modes of creating site- and subject-specific inquiries with collective social, political, ecological impacts. We intend an elaboration of the scope of research itself, what it is and what it does, as active and responsible engagements with the contexts in which this work is undertaken. How do we reflexively regard the repercussions and beneficiaries of experimental knowledge practices? What accesses are created to the means and outcomes of creative research, in practice?

Architectonic Studies of Radio

This is an experimental design research into the ways of organising archives on radio signals, using machine learning algorithms as operators of difference. Starting from radio signals as a natural and cultural phenomenon, the project challenges the persistent and foundational dualism in modern thinking (e.g. nature-culture) and proposes ‘digital observatories’: a method for working with abundant information and digital corporeality.

Within the project, we will develop ‘digital observatories’ for organizing and navigating abundant information in ways that are meaningful to the observer. The ‘digital observatories’ organize information based on similarities identified through machine learning processes. A digital archive on radio signals will be reorganized in two case studies. The first study focuses on images of signal spectrograms (visual representation of a signal’s frequency composition), aiming to facilitate speculation on the connection between signal representation and technical communication protocols. The second study establishes similarities between otherwise unrelated signals, all organized in a continuous exploration space – a sphere. Beyond simple ontological distinctions onto matter or information, subjects or objects, experiencing information in this way should enable thinking about phenomena, such as radio signals, in their own terms.

Technology – Human – Design: Paradigms of Ubiquitous Computing

Ubiquitous computing technologies and the Internet of Things are currently being discussed everywhere, as they have an imperceptible but lasting impact on our everyday lives through strategies of intelligent, networked omnipresence, invisibility and seamless immediacy. Increasingly, we no longer interact consciously with individual media, but become part of a “General Ecosystem” consisting of organic and technological actors that influence our perception and behavior. We speak of “natural-technical continuum”, “environmental sensibility”, “sub-perceptual dimensions of human experience”, “hetero-genesis” or “non-sensuous relatedness between organic and inorganic matter”.

The associated processes are to be investigated through the following perspectives and research questions:

  • Technology: How does perception emerge in a technologically based sensor-actuator system in contrast to and in resonance with human actors?
  • Human: What strategies do humans develop to cognitively and emotionally open up a technologically expanded, responsive environment?
  • Design: Which design principles can be derived for an environmentally driven human-machine interaction and how does environmental (ubiquitous) interfacing between the human and the machine work?

Relevant paradigms shall be derived from the theoretical groundwork, which will then be artistically staged and tested in an interactive research facility. The essences of Ubicomp can thus be experienced and evaluated, whereby the focus is not solution- and application-oriented, but a rather critical one. Using sensor data and qualitative ethnographic survey methods, the experiences of the test subjects are recorded, triangulated and evaluated. In this way, the project should contribute to a better understanding and critical assessment of current technological developments and their influence on our living environment, agency and privacy.

The Commons in Design

Due to the interlinking of technologies and the resulting complexity of design considerations, it has become increasingly difficult to understand, monitor, and execute the entire design and production process. Although specific knowledge exists of technological aspects–for example, the handling and variety of applications of 3D printing from rapid prototyping to product-ready prostheses–there is no holistic understanding, in our opinion, of how future technologies and the resulting conditions will be manifested in design.

Based on the socioeconomic transformations described above, the research project will consider the fundamentals of commons-based design. The commoning principle can be used in design to enable new methods and fields of activity (such as open innovation, open learning, and open design). There is a great potential for sharing designs, jobs, spaces, techniques, and the like in commons-based design, which promises more flexible conditions for design professionals and increased agility in the process of development and production. The main question that the research project addresses is how the concept of design can be extended and reconsidered within the context of digitization and the changing self-image of designers. The project will generate essential insights to first understand ‹knowledge practices in the open-design process› and then to consider ‹collaborative spaces and media›. Finally, specific design models and methodologies will emerge in the context of design research.

The research project makes an important contribution to design research and provides a perspective on how the principles of open source and open design can be embedded in an open-design framework and made productive. The aspects to be addressed in the project are primarily those networked, participatory, and open procedures based on the commons and commoning.

Automated Innovations

Creativity is regarded nowadays to occur in an interplay of humans, objects and activities. It happens especially in combination with machines like the computer and techniques like AI. Such situations of shared agencies involved in creating the new are raising a number of questions: Which roles do media, machines and automation play? Who is the inventor or the author? And: Can creativity be automated? These questions pertain to art, design and architecture and their cultural innovations alike.

The direct investigation of creativity or creative processes is fraught with problems. Thus, the reconstruction and analysis of creative processes of the past is of great importance. This is the point where the art historical research project starts: With the analysis of Machine Art projects of the 20th and 21st century – like drawing machines – creativity becomes accessible via arts in an indirect way; artists are regarded as creative persons par excellence. The case studies of the project will be understood – in the sense of actor-network-theory (ANT) – as human-machine-media-networks, to take also the obstinacies and relations of all inolved actors as well as subject-theoretical implications into consideration.

The project aims at investigating Machine Arts in a historical-systematic manner and to join these insights with discourses of creativity. It shall be worked out, how three aspects of artistic production, which are seen as decisive parameters in the discourse of creativity, are reflected critically: the subject, the involved media and the processes.

Methods of art history, image and media studies will be used, especially these of notational iconicity and diagrammatics. Furthermore, a praxeological perspective is pursued by the development of drawing bots that will be built in order to foster a practice-based understanding.

The gained insights are relevant for theories of artistic production as well as studies of drawing and media, not least for the current debate on human-machine relations.

Thinking Toys (or Games) for Commoning

The sustainable use and the organisation of common resources is highly complex. With the focus on alternative, utopia-inspired urban neighbourhood initiatives in Switzerland this research project proposes experimental design and inquiry into media-based thinking tools which will help to better illustrate, demonstrate and negotiate the complexity of these sharing processes.

Commons are sustainably and collectively managed resources, such as food, or communication infrastructures, such as Wi-Fi. Commoning, then, is the activity of sharing these resources. The aspiration formulated throughout numerous alternative, utopia-inspired projects that seeks to design infrastructural aspects of urban everyday life in an alternative and autonomous way, through commoning, raises several questions. Since, based on the high level of complexity that (occasionally) comes with the shared use of resources, for the individual community member it is often difficult to estimate his or her own action and consequences to the very last detail. Especially when it comes to unpredictable, complex adaptive processes, he or she can no longer completely grasp them intuitively nor follow them without the help of media-based thinking tools — such as computer-based models or scenarios — which make those processes not only visible but also comprehensible.

For this reason, a mobile software application will be developed and tested in close collaboration with the members of three Swiss urban neighborhood projects: NeNa1 in Zurich, LeNa in Basel and Warmbächli in Bern. We will create playful simulations and design new thought-spaces for commoning. Our aim is to enable alternative and engaging ways for future social participation and transformation processes.

The four-year project, which combines methods from humanities, social science and design inquires the following central question: How could an experimental and community-based approach to design and development of a digital game system stimulate reflection on the intuitively incomprehensible complexity of commoning, make it more understandable and negotiable through playing and gaming?

Institutions as a Way of Life

This is an artistic research project description that describes an ongoing research project. It was collaboratively in a text editing application. It is intended to explain that there is an ongoing project about institutions of culture, art and learning, and how these relate to individual creative practices and collective political engagements. It is a project description of a project that is how to disentangle the representationalism of own roles and various understandings of institutions.

Institutions as a Way of Life explores and projects the legacy of Institutional Critique and develops models of instituent practices in terms of micropolitical actions, radical pedagogies and artistic processes. It will reveal how technology, media and art can reflex and open up new infrastructures for thinking and doing. It aims at generating a critical understanding of the relation between institutions and individuals as a condition to and as a shaper of our relations to the world.

The research collects multiple, non-canonical meanings and divergent responses of ideas and realities of institutions. It enacts ethnographically inspired artistic research and cross-readings of recent art history and discourses of politics, economy and philosophy.

The research addresses three example environments in institutions of art and culture: museums, archives and art schools. IWL understands institutionality as a site of emancipation and negotiation between individual actors and structures of power and regulation. IWL explores how histories of art, political economies and pedagogical initiatives have changed the relationships people have with institutions, which traces a particular history of ideas. Insights and actions informed by this history help us to modulate institutionality, and create conditions and infrastructures we would like to live in and amongst. Research questions include:

  • What are important and inspiring institutional experiments, boundary objects and fringe cases in art history, technology and political-economics?
  • How do we interface and experience institutions and institutionality in language, media, and communications?
  • How can artists consider and study institutionalisation as a creative process?
  • What such tactics and strategies can we transfer to micro- and macro political communities?

The project will contribute to experimental instituent processes, it will unbuild models and develop reflections and teaching activities in the hope of allowing more equitable, heterogeneous, accessible relations with and within creative institutions.

Shift Register

Shift Register is an investigation into how human technological and infrastructural activities have marked the earth. It is a project by artist-researchers Jamie Allen, Martin Howse and Jonathan Kemp.

The earth has been transformed into a ‘planetary laboratory’ subject to further study, control and comprehension. Knowledge of these interactions render to experience global scale phenomena like climate change, dissolving modernist illusions such as the separation of ‘nature’ and ‘society’. As such, it is critical that we engage in new means of composing more public understandings of this global experience. This project attempts to register the shifts between industrialised capitalism and the knowledge afforded by techno-science, between the global scale effects of such activities and the experience of individuals and communities, and between earth as an natural object and as an agent of culture. The project addresses the interdisciplinary problem of how to identify, catalogue and make publically legible these shifts through methods related to natural science fieldwork, artistic research, and critically oriented translational practices of media and technology.

Shift Register investigates and renders legible the material evidence of human activities on earth, registering these not as indicators of human achievement, but as ambiguous negotiations and signposts of planetary exhaustion. The project undertakes fieldwork and research re-routed from the natural and physical sciences as the means to bear witness to these sites of human impact. Project outputs (writings, media and works for exhibition) seek to complicate environmental science with other cultural, affective, inter- and sub-cultural perspectives in order to take into account the complexity and always contradictory nature of the energetic and communications infrastructuring of the earth.

The project investigates a single impact site, and translates earth media and findings to a specifically developed Earth Lab, a research, workshop and exhibition location. The Earth Lab is both a conceptual and local outdoor working environment, a structure that serves as longitudinal, comparative site through the two years of the project. At the Earth Lab, material samples are mediated, presented and documented, media documentation and dispatches are prepared, and public project discussions take place.

The production, presentation and representation of the impacts that human activities produce outside of their ‘naturalised’ domains include markers that register in the ring patterns of growing trees, on the surface structures of rock minerals, as radioactive isotope signatures and as changes in soil, atmosphere and microbial compositions. Such markers allow us to reconstitute “earth” as a non-linear structure, an archive of human and nonhuman endeavour. Through workshop formats, publications and an experimental public exhibition derived from fieldwork at a primary impact site, these interdisciplinary complexities and resonances are registered. These serve to better understand, critique and re-route the developing public discourse around how to recognize or memorialise the planetary effects of industrial, communicational, and technological activity. The context of the scientific and social, artistic and critical media work of Shift Register involves ongoing work in ecological and environmental humanities, as well as contemporary geo-scientific debates. We trouble the appealing simplicity and growing popular debates around a singular ‘anthropocenic marker’ and its supposed import, seeking instead multiple, gnostic ways of knowing our earthly traces.

The Sensorium of Animals

This research project explores the possibilities of technology mediated systems to alter the human sensory apparatus from artistic-experimental and media historical angles. One part of this research focuses on possibilities of expanding the human sensory system beyond its biological limits, taking inspiration from sensorial abilities found in certain animals. Artistic-experimental systems, for instance in the field of wearable technology, will be tried out, researched and made available. The other part of this research is concerned with the historically informed study of cybernetic man-machine-structures in media history, along a history of knowledge of sensory physiology of non-human organisms that have continuously provided repercussion into the cultural history of media. This project is situated at the intersection of biology, media technology, experimental media practice and media aesthetics, design research and media history.

Times of Waste

1979 the report “Beyond the Age of Waste” warned of global consequences facing the continuing and increasing waste of resources. Although it has not yet resulted in a more thrifty management of resources, “waste” may be thought of nowadays as a reverse figure: extensive cleaning and recycling processes as well as recent developments like “urban mining” regain reusable raw materials out of waste. Waste is hence considered as a “new resource”, dynamic and transformable.

In Times of Waste this transformation processes and its stages are of interest. The research project looks at the purification, treatment and reuse respectively disposal of objects and materials as well as at involved actors and fields of activity. On the transport and recycling routes extending from Basel’s local context into global connections, objects are not only undergoing material transformation, but also economic, social, aesthetic or rhetorical reassessments. It is a matter of perspective what is considered when or at which stage of materiality as waste respectively as a “new” resource.

On the basis of current network-, subject- and materiality-theories (e.g. Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, Gay Hawkins/Emily Potter) the research team is following up on questions like:

  • What are the transformation processes and value changes of (waste) objects or materials?
  • What materiality changes do they pass from creation to reprocessing respectively disposal or removal?
  • How are specific actors involved into these processes?
  • How can such a topic be presented for public reception using transmedial techniques?

An interdisciplinary team realises different tracing projects of three exemplarily selected objects/materials and their routes from a (cultural)scientific-aesthetic perspective: e-waste (biography of a smartphone), urban mining (recycled material from buildings, streets etc.) and water ecology (pesticides, nano-silver). To develop the biographies the researchers work with different media like video, sound, photography and text. The gathered and edited material will be collected in a “digital archive” developed during the research project.

In order to realize the tracing projects methods like “participant observation” will be synthesized and combined with transnational or global research and transmediality. The qualitative methods and procedures are observing or performative. The used media is auditive, visual or textual and the presentation formats will be interactive, installative and essayistic. The team will work with partners from environmental fields of activity (offices, universities, NGOs) and exhibiting institutions (Museum der Kulturen, House of Electronic Arts, both in Basel) in order to realise joint input events which will involve also the public. Thereby different perspectives will be directed to the transformation processes and related discussions and reflections will be incorporated into the project. Questions of knowledge design and collaboration will be fundamental. We aim at displaying how, where and with whom knowledge is created and how the form of representation affects the reception.

An application as a “digital media archive” will be developed and unite all resultant (intermediate) products in space and time. Simultaneously it will contain their evaluation and serves as a repository. In addition to breaking-up cultural connotations of waste the aim of the project is to influence the discussion on sustainability in the region of Basel and beyond by applying an artistic-scientific process-oriented approach and its aesthetic implications. A discourse that should be seen within the context of globalised developments.


Times of Waste Research Team. Metals never die. In: Johannes Bruder et al. (Ed.), Lost & Found, continent, issue 5.1 2016: 11-13. (available online).

Times of Waste Research Team. Times of Waste. In: Linda Kronman, Andreas Zingerle (Ed.), Behind the Smart World – saving, deleting and resurfacing data, Linz: (available online), 2016.

Yvonne Volkart. Müll zu Gold? In: springerin 1/16. (available online)

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