Archives for posts with tag: Filip De Boeck

Journal of resilience

A new publication to announce.  But first, some background…

A while ago, I started noticing that the word ‘design’ and the concept of ‘design thinking’ seemed to be everywhere. I wondered if it was just me – but I was particularly struck that I so often seemed to hear the word ‘design’ used in contexts where I expect to hear about ‘plans’ and ‘planning’. I slowly got the sense that we seem collectively unwilling to assert our ability to shape the future – but, at the same time, I wasn’t sure quite why we are so keen to be ‘designing’ things instead. Why now? I realised in any case that I didn’t really understand what ‘design’ meant.

Problematically, there seemed to be no widely accepted overall theory of design to turn to. Or, rather, there were lots of individual perspectives on the subject, often related to particular areas of design practice. And most of these seemed to claim that theorising design as a whole is not possible.

Following on from that, I and some colleagues organised an exploratory conference on the topic of ‘Design after Planning’ last year  It went rather well overall (and you can watch some of the videos here), but it threw up more questions than it answered.  So, I started slowly reading up on design theory, and have now pulled together some of my thoughts in the introduction of a ‘forum’ on Resilience and Design, published today in the journal Resilience.

The introduction is followed by four short essays, by Clive Barnett, Tania Katzschner, Nate Tkacz, and Filip De Boeck, each touching on design-related issues in different ways. The abstract and table of contents are shown below.

The forum as a whole is rather like a collection of papers in a conference panel: loosely connected rather than prepared in close collaboration.  But we hope this approach will be generative of new thinking and connections, rather than seem incoherent. An experiment, at least.

If you’d like to read the publication, but can’t access it, please get in touch so that I can send you a copy.  50 free eprints (first come, first served) are also available from this link:


Cowley, R., Barnett, C., Katzschner, T., Tkacz, N. & De Boeck, F. (2017). Forum: Resilience & Design.  Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses. Advance online version, DOI: 10.1080/21693293.2017.1348506



This forum aims to encourage theorists of resilience to engage more closely with different aspects of design theory and practice. The introduction outlines a series of largely unacknowledged parallels between resilience and design, relating to the valorisation of processes over states, the loss of faith in ‘planning’, the ambivalent status of boundaries and interfaces, and open-ended political possibilities. Four short reflections then follow on various design-related topics: the significance of the ‘wicked problem’ in contemporary urban planning and design, and the urbanisation of responsibility; design’s potential to repoliticise and engender new forms of responsibility; the significance of the digital interface; and the condition of everyday life in the ‘unplanned’ post-colonial city. Readers are invited to build on or refute the explicit and implicit links made between resilience and design in the various forum contributions.




Resilience and design: an introduction

Robert Cowley (Department of Geography, King’s College London)


Planning as design in the Wicked City

Clive Barnett (Department of Geography, University of Exeter)


Design, responsibility and ‘Staying with the Trouble’: rethinking urban conservation in Cape Town

Tania Katzschner (School of Architecture, Planning & Geomatics, University of Cape Town)


In a world of data signals, resilience is subsumed into a design paradigm

Nathaniel Tkacz (Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick)


‘The Hole of the World’: designing possibility through topography in Congo’s urban settings

Filip de Boeck (Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, KU Leuven)


London, 14 July 2017


Design after planning

Might it be possible to go beyond the limitations of liberal-modernist policy-making and urban planning if we start thinking of governance at different scales as a process of design?

If you find this sort of question interesting, you may want to consider submitting an abstract for a one-day interdisciplinary conference we’re holding at the University of Westminster on Friday 5 February, 2016.

We have three confirmed keynote speakers – Filip De Boeck (KU Leuven), Nathaniel Tkacz (University of Warwick) and Erik Swyngedouw (University of Manchester), and plan to have three panels on:

  • disaster and risk design
  • designing with emergent urban systems
  • resilience versus sustainability

To find out more, or to sign up for updates, please visit the event website.

We have not yet released tickets for the event, but there will be no charge for attending (or registration fee for speakers).

London, 5 November 2015

UPDATE 5 APRIL 2016:  videos from this event are now online:


Kin la poubelle

Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell us stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality.  But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.

(Opening words from Adam Curtis’ (2015) film, Bitter Lake)

Over the last decade, attempts have been made to counter urban theory’s traditional focus on large cities of the global north. Understanding ‘cityness’, it is argued, should entail a broadening of the frame of reference far beyond such untypical ‘global cities’ as London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, and so on. The city of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a focus for some of this ‘decentring’ activity; it is “often invoked, used, and abused, as a trope to represent the quintessential postcolonial city” (De Boeck, 2012). And earlier this week I heard Filip De Boeck give a superb talk at UCL about life in Kinshasa, as part of the Power and Space in the City series of workshops.

He began by commenting that Kinshasa contains almost no buildings of architectural interest, and effectively no infrastructure. Or, at least, for most people, no functioning infrastructure. Those services which are provided are unreliable; in fact, it is not meaningful to talk about ‘disruptions’ to services, both in the sense that disruption is the norm, and because for many people it is precisely in disruptions that opportunities arise. Institutional attempts to ‘plan’ the city only play a minor shaping role in the urban space which results. Far more significant is an ongoing “random” occupation of space, characterised by uncertainty, improvisation and constant renegotiation; De Boeck (2011:271) suggests that it is precisely the

organic approach to the production of the city and its spaces that enables Kinois to survive at all…And many activities in the city become possible not because there is a well-developed infrastructure available to sustain them but, rather, because that infrastructure is not there, or only exists through its paucity.

Potholes in the road, for example, are welcomed since they can be filled in on behalf of motorists, in return for a tip.  (The potholes are then deliberately recreated every evening.)  In another example we were shown, there was no particular incentive for a group of stall-holders to fix a leak in an adjacent sewage pipe; this creates a permanent muddy patch forcing pedestrians to divert from the road and walk past their stalls, and thus become potential customers.

In Kinshasa, it is impossible to plan ahead. Residents often comment that “nothing has any meaning”; they can only make it up as they go along. They can only proceed by being open to possibilities, by being skilful “at being flexible, at opening up to this ‘unexpected’, that often reveals itself outside the known pathways that constitute urban life as most in the Global North know it” (ibid:272). There is no reward for imagining this way of life as linear: it constantly reveals itself as iterative, emergent, unpredictable. Causality only becomes clear retrospectively. Everything is pragmatic.

Now, any story of a city can only ever be a partial one. But I was wondering whether (my reconstructed version of) this particular story allows us to conceive of the people of Kinshasa as oppressed. In a different story, we might paint the Kinois as victims of global structural forces, or we might see the neglect of the state, or the arbitrariness of its workings, as itself oppressive. But that’s not what I’m getting at. Rather, that if Kinshasa in this reading constitutes a parable for the way we increasingly seem to interpret the world more generally – as something which can no longer be rationally understood or intentionally planned, and probably never could be – then the question of oppression becomes meaningless. In this way of thinking, everything just is (or, rather, becomes). There is no structure which can be complied with or transgressed; no basis on which justice, normativity, or ethics can be grounded. It is tempting therefore to ask if we even should be telling stories of this type. Rather problematically, however, this question itself is rendered senseless by the story.

And yet I seem to have set up a rather unfair binary choice here: between an illusion of modernity on the one hand, and a truth of ungovernable flux on the other; between the oppression of the concentration camp and the freedom of the slum. I’d like to think these are not the only choices we can make.

20 February 2015, London


Curtis, A. (Director) (2015).  Bitter Lake.  BBC Productions.

De Boeck, F. (2012). Infrastructure: Commentary from Filip De Boeck. Cultural Anthropology. Online Curated Collections. Available from: (accessed 20 February 2015).

De Boeck, F. (2011). Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa’s Future in the Light of Congo’s Spectral Urban Politics. Cultural Anthropology, 26(2):263.


Photograph by Joseph Winter, and stolen from the BBC website: “The city council has just three dustbin lorries for a population of 8m – but lots of wheelbarrows. Council official Basil Lungwana says they are trying hard. He says the biggest challenge is to change people’s habits.”

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