Innovation in Action (Creative Innovative Cities: Part Five)

Creativity takes many forms and to solve pressing challenges facing our communities will require the collective creativity of people across many professions. This post is part of an ongoing series investigating creativity and innovation in cities.

Enabling Creativity in an Uncertain World

Large scale human-based systems are inconceivably complex that makes it impossible to accurately predict the future. At any given moment, individuals cause profound effects that are felt around the world. Minor actions of individuals impact the lives of others whether directly or indirectly, with effects cascading across society. Examples of the struggles of predicting human behaviour include among many others, the consequences of global political events, economic uncertainty, and the short and long-term impact of the recent pandemic.

The responsibility of governments and planning systems is to provide guidance, nudging this complex system in a positive direction and creating conditions for success. It is not so much predicting and manufacturing the future, but instead growing and nurturing it. The aim is to create conditions that allow for an optimal scenario at the time of the policy’s implementation. Decisions and policy must also offer flexibility so that society may adjust its trajectory, allowing for superior alternatives that are informed by creativity, innovation, and improvisation.

In this article we explore examples that enable creativity, empower 'collaborators', and envision new possibilities. We engage with the power of asking 'what if' to share inspiring examples of innovative constructions that allow for individual creativity, encourage positive social interaction, and foster a stronger sense of community.

Figure 1: 'What if...' Perth, Scotland - Mill Street (Render by Design Outsider).

Engaging with ‘Collaborators’ and 'Collaborator' Citizens?

Duncan Wardle is the former Head of Innovation and Creativity at The Walt Disney Company. He now runs an innovation and creativity consultancy company that focuses on the importance of integrating imagination into the workplace and society. In his 2018 TED Talk (see below), Wardle addresses several effective techniques that inspire creativity, innovation, and engagement. One of these techniques is ‘re-framing’ that can be used to effectively engage individuals and inspire enthusiasm, pride, and determination. Wardle suggests Disney employees are an effective example of this - instead of referring to them as ‘employees’, they are referred to as ‘cast members’. Employee implies a notion of conformity while cast member suggests artistry, creativity, talent, individualism, pride. Simply re-phrasing a job title can inspire a powerful shift in identity.

Likewise, instead of referring to members of the community as simply ‘citizens’, community members can also be re-framed as ‘collaborators’. The term citizen can breed conflict, dividing community from governance and creating a ‘bottom up’, ‘top down’ scenario. Collaborator, meanwhile, signifies unity and can inspire ownership and responsibility. Collaborator is a term that treats individuals as equals, inspires progress, and teamwork between the community, professionals, and government leaders. A community of collaborators sounds far more effective than a meeting of citizens doesn't it?

Figure 2: Reframing 'citizens' as 'collaborators'

Envisaging New Possibilities

Re-framing can also be used to re-evaluate the possibilities of a particular design challenge, for example, pedestrianizing a collection of streets creating a new condition. Presenting this challenge to the design team and community as a ‘pedestrianized street’, could lead to iterative intervention based on preconceived ideas rather than innovative solutions. 'Pedestrianized street' will almost certainly elude to markets, seating and planting, however re-framed as an ‘Urban Garden / Canvas / Gathering Place’ could inspire ideas of community dining, festivals, play furniture, art work, informal works space, an outdoor classroom, sports events, outdoor movie theatre...the possibilities are far broader, by simply re-framing the condition.

Wardle explains the importance of welcoming ‘naïve experts’ into the process of creativity. This is often in the form of a professional that resides within a different field but could extend to any individual willing to engage in discussion. The job of the naïve expert is to challenge the preconceptions of the design team and think outside the boundaries of the profession without judgement or the constraints of protocol. They do not hold the same preconceptions of what can and cannot be, approaching the scenario as an outsider, bringing the conversation back to the fundamental questions of what is possible, and if it is not possible, asking “why?”. This process is not only useful in engaging the community and understanding their point of view, but also vital in the creative process, cleansing the palette and sparking the imagination.

Wardle also introduces a technique that consists of writing out the rules pertaining to a particular design challenge and then breaking those presumptions under the pretense ‘what if...’ The possibilities are then explored through the scenario ‘imagine if...’. This technique was reportedly developed by Walt Disney, leading to the inception of Disney Land Theme Parks. The technique is a successful exercise in challenging preconceptions and envisioning new possibilities.

Exploring Precedents - 'What if...'

Talking inspiration from Wardle, what if...built environment professionals and designers broke with orthodoxy and embraced innovative solutions. From the macro scale of cities to the micro scale of single apartments, these case studies are game changers that challenge preconceptions and envision new possibilities to solve diverse problems facing communities. The following examples address granular development, modular construction, flexibility, adaptability, and self build principles.

DGJ Architecture Collegium Academicum

The Problem...

housing affordability for students.

The Collegium Academicum was developed by DGJ Architecture as a answer to affordable student housing. The project client is a collective of students who are financing the project through events and fund-raisers. The cost margins on the project are thin so an innovative solution was implemented in order to meet the minimum floor space requirements.

What if...

the required floor space is offered at the start of the tenancy but the students can reduce the size of their own accord. This solution was integrated into the design creating a flexible layout which would allow students to sacrifice bedroom space to the communal area creating a larger social realm if relationships are formed between students. This innovative solution gives the students freedom and collective control over their environment whilst reducing construction cost and inspiring social cohesion within the apartments.

Figure 3: The Collegium Academicum
Figure 4: The Collegium Academicum

The Art Stable, Seattle by Tom Kundia

The Problem...

inflexible mono-use buildings.

What if...

the Seattle Art Stable is inherently designed for flexibility and adaptation. It does not predict the future but instead anticipates it, accommodating multiple outcomes. The building acts as a shell which allows for systematic conversion from office, commercial and gallery space into residential. It turns a fixed mixed use model into an adjustable spectrum which can respond to the property market and the needs of the community.

Figure 5: The Seattle Art Stable
Figure 6: The Seattle Art Stable

Constitución, Chile by Alejandro Aravena | Elemental

The problem...

high quality relief housing developed on a strained budget.

The challenge for Elemental was to design affordable housing and disaster relief units following the devastation of a major tsunami. The initial proposal was underfunded and over stretched.

What if...

instead of building one poor quality home for each family, they could build half a good home and allow residents to expand the unit of their own accord, following a loose framework which dealt with the most challenging concerns of structural integrity and infrastructure. Within that framework residents were given the freedom to personalize their property to their needs. This proposal has given birth to a vibrant and diverse community which has taken ownership of their habitat. Elemental managed to turn a constraint into an opportunity, establishing a creative condition.

Figure 7: Elemental design
Figure 8: Elemental design

Favela Construction - Progress Over Time

The problem...

absence of government, funding and aid.

Elemental took much of its inspiration from favelas and other informal construction in developing countries. As a result of the political, social and economical conditions in many developing countries, residents, often the poorest, have to learn the skills of constructing on their own without planning or infrastructure. They cannot rely on governmental aid and so out of necessity create informal vernacular communities.

What if...

these communities develop gradually over time with many small additions contributing to a larger change. These informal settlements are a testament to human ingenuity, imagination, and persistence as well as a glimpse in to the DNA of many major cities which developed in a similar manner. Even though many of these communities suffer from great hardships such as crime, discrimination and poverty they also inspire innovation, diversity and creativity. Even in the harshest conditions communities can develop with little funding, instead relying entirely on ingenuity and persistence.

Figure 9: Favelas, Rio de Janiero
Figure 10: Informal settlements


The problem...

Housing affordability.

What if...

people are offered construction templates and schematics which can be downloaded from an open source platform. WikiHouse is an open source community which follows a practice of self build. These drawings can then be altered or adjusted before being sent to a manufacturer which will often CNC or Laser cut the components. Each element is ergonomically designed for small teams to assemble essentially acting as a flat pack kit. The aim of the project is to serve the social economy as opposed to the monetary economy, designing for the 99% rather than the 1%.

“As a bottom-of-the-rung architecture graduate, I might expect to earn £24,000. I in terms of the whole world’s population, that already puts me in the top 1.95 richest people, which raises the question of, who is it I'm working for? The uncomfortable fact is that almost everything that we call architecture today is actually the business of designing for the richest one percent of the world’s population, and it always has been.” - (Alastair Parvin, 2013)

Figure 11: WikiHouse

Naked House by OMMX

The problem...

changing needs and growth.

What if...

the home starts life as a single volume with the ability of incorporating a second floor. The naked house re-envisions the adaptive / self build model developing on the ideas set out by Elements Chile Projects. However adjusting to the constraints of a developed country which follows stricter regulations and polices. In comparison to the other projects, the skill level needed in adapting the structure is reduced as the shell is already constructed. The project is well considered in relation to its context and securely grounded in reality.

Figure 12: The naked house
Figure 13: The naked house

Beyond the Shell by Lianjie Wu - Bartlett Graduate

The problem...

monotony of standardized housing, and high initial investment and risk.

What if...

they integrate app technology which would allow residents to shop on line for expansions to their home through an interactive catalogue. Lianjie Wu is a recent Bartlett graduate who has researched and adapted the naked house model, taking the concept to its most extreme. The project introduces modular construction allowing for mass production yet still retaining diversity and freedom. It is also built on a granular process similar to favelas creating an impression of informality, yet still following an underlying framework. This process of granular construction over time reduces the initial investment and risk associated.

Figure 14: Beyond the Shell

Sigurd Larsen - Modular Village

The problem...

social isolation and density

What if...

the pre existing residential tower utilize their roof space to create a new typology of homes and encouraging the integration of existing communities and newcomers. The new community corridor also offers amenities for existing residents, creating an urban park. The Modular Village by Sigurd Larsen builds on pre-existing conditions and suggest a solution for densifying Berlin. It follows a similar expansion model as the previous precedents, combining old and new similar to the favelas. The proposal addresses utilization and adaptation over demolition and new construction.

Figure 15: The Modular Village
Figure 16: The Modular Village

White Arkitekter - The Hedge

The problem...

undefined street edges and lack of affordable housing. White Arkitekter’s ‘The Hedge’ deals with a similar condition, interacting with pre existing residential infrastructure.

What if...

the building’s mass creates a perimeter ‘hedge’ around the existing community and is constructed through an affordable modular framework. The proposal aims to repair the urban fabric around many of London’s residential estates, redefining the street edge and increasing the affordable housing stock.

Figure 17:

Portsmouth Hot Walls / The Arches, Edinburgh

The problem...

disused or intrusive infrastructure.

What if...

infrastructure could inhabit a secondary role. Instead of dividing, and possibly isolating, neighbourhoods and communities it could act as a focal point and gathering space. Both Portsmouth Hot Walls and The Edinburgh Arches are effective examples of redeveloping underappreciated infrastructure opportunities.

Figure 18: Portsmouth Hot Walls, Portsmouth
Figure 19: The Arches, Edinburgh

Establishing a Framework

In order to enable creativity there needs to be a balance between freedom and guidance. This helps deliver opportunities to community members and inspire innovation as well as providing a tried and tested formula that instils confidence. This is vital when tackling complex processes surrounding implementation, especially for those first time 'community collaborators'. It accommodates both diversity and cohesion creating environments that function as well as inspire. The key is trust felt from both ends. Citizens have to demonstrate a level of confidence in their local government and government must have faith in their citizens allowing them the freedom to experiment and offering them a right to build.

“Too often, people’s energy is obstructed by our ‘top-down’ systems. Most people can be trusted to do the right thing, but they are too rarely given a chance. The system works against them, stifling their initiative and knocking them back.” (Kevin Campbell, 2018)
Figure 20: Degree of Constraint in the System (Making Massive Small Change, p.104)

The framework must be informed by traditional aspects of architectural design such as context, materiality, sustainability, utilities, social space, culture, transport, cost and regulation. In addition there are some considerations specific to a self build model such as the construction skills of the community, level of complexity, collaboration and engagement, business strategy, growth, guidance from professionals, and policy.

Examples could be, a standardization of certain components, utility zones rather than fixed cores which allow for flexibility, a pre-constructed plinth to offer initial stability and deal with complex substructure, a limit of four stories so that it relates to its context, the implementation of BIDs in order to fund social development and maintenance of the district. These are among many elements that could be incorporated into a cohesive framework to promote innovative solutions. The use of these elements within a framework allows for flexibility whilst working towards a joint vision.

Into the Future

It is essential that urban planning remains focused on the study of human beings, both the physical aspects as well as the spiritual sense of being. Urban planning should above all else ensure health and well-being, caring for the physical and the spiritual. It is important to encourage creativity and freedom, but still offer a supporting framework. It must also balance those aspects of individualism with the intrinsic needs of a healthy society. The case studies presented offer innovative solutions to challenging problems, made possible through efficient leadership that inspires new possibilities while establishing reasonable constraints. While there is a need for standardization in order to achieve social cohesion it must support creativity and individualism, not hinder it.

References & Figures

  1. [1] Design Outsider (2021).
  2. [2] Design Outsider (2021).
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  5. [5] Olson Kundig, 2010. The Art Stable, Seattle. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 May 2020].Olson Kundig, 2010. The Art Stable, Seattle. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 May 2020].Olson Kundig, 2010.
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  7. [7] 99 Percent Invisible, 2016. Quinta Monroy Project in Lquique, Chile By Elemental.. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
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  9. [9] Unknown, n.d. Favela. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
  10. [10] Veysseyre, S., 2014. Photomontage Of Marcio’S House. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
  11. [11] WikiHouse, 2018. Affordable homes for small sites – pilot Sheffield, UK 2018. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
  12. [12] OMMX, 2017. Naked House. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
  13. [13] OMMX, 2017. Naked House. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
  14. [14] Wu, L., 2019. Beyond The Shell. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
  15. [15] Siguard Larsen, (2019), Modular Village [ONLINE]. Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2020].
  16. [16] Siguard Larsen, (2019), Modular Village [ONLINE]. Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2020].
  17. [17] White Arkitekter, 2019. The Hedge. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
  18. [18] PORTSMOUTH CITY COUNCIL, 2016. Portsmouth Hot Walls. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
  19. [19] Photographer: Kirsty Watt (2020)
  20. [20] Campbell, K. (2018). Making Massive Small Change: Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want. Chelsea Green Publishing Vermont.

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