Overview March – December 2011

I summarised my research process from March till now in a poster. The starting point is; How to design for sustainability? and ends with my new research question: How to create a collective scenario of a sustainable future? Based on the poster I also created a new abstract.

Systematic issues such as climate change or resource depletion form massive challenges for our and future generations. Centralised design practises based on linear material flows are part of these problems. A transition towards a design model where resources and knowledge are shared between designers, users and producers, shows a lot more sustainable potential. The role of the (meta)designer in this model lies in engaging and enabling people to be part of this participatory design practise. Therefore I will investigate how designing collective scenarios, executed as a series of (critical)artefacts, of such a networked model could make this possible future more tangible and create a platform for interaction between the different participants. The central question of this research is: How to create a collective scenario of a sustainable future?


Hybrid Thinking

A couple of weeks ago I organised a brainstorm session with the students of a local elementary school in Alken Limburg. To start the session I showed them some of the vegetable characters that I designed as part of the Cultivating Communities project. I used the characters to explain some problems that are associated with food production. For example showing that food has to travel from the other part of the world, if we want to eat the whole year long, isn’t that good for our global climate.

I was surprised to hear that the students already new a lot about this topic and are starting a project of their own. Apparently one of students parents is setting up a permaculture garden in front of the school. Still, I asked the students if they wanted come up with ideas, besides the garden in front of their school, in dealing with these food problems. All of the proposals were really imaginative. For instance one student wanted everyone to peal union’s that so it would cause everyone to cry. In this way we don’t have to use precious water from the tap. Some students wanted to grow vegetables and trees inside their classroom and on the roof of the school. Others wanted to produce their own energy by making windmills or a bio-gas installation. One students thought his school already did enough to take care of nature. Which is actuality quite true, besides the garden in front of the school, there is also a chicken garden and a compost pile.  And a couple of students wanted to learn how to create and discover new kinds of vegetables and fruits in their biology lessons.

The last proposal really got me thinking about how we could try to do this. I’ve started reading in biology books on the topic of cross breading vegetables and plants and soon stumbled on Gregor Mendel. A Monk born in 1822 in Austria with a love for biology. Mendel experimented with cross breading pea plants in the central courtyard of his monastery, by pollinating the flowers from different kinds of plants. By doing this he discovered the principals of how the different characteristics or gene’s of plants are mixed into new hybrids. His genetic principals, together with the evolution theory of Charles Darwin form the basis of modern biological knowledge. Darwin formed the basis for his theory by setting out on a five year long expedition to discover new kinds of animals, plants and rock formations. It are these kinds of aesthetic experiences of discovering new species and creating new hybrids that really sparkle my imagination. And I’m wondering how this aesthetic process could somehow sparkle the imagination of the students to make their own discovery’s. For now I have tried to capture the biologic adventurous atmosphere into a collage. I added two chickens to the collage that refer to conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen. In his cosmopolitan chicken project he tries to create the ultimate hybrid or bastard chicken by cross breading different chicken species from all over the world. The chickens tell a story about biological diversity and identity of our human society. By creating a story trough a somewhat provoking art project, thinking about these human problems become a lot more tangible. This something that I also like to pursue with my project.

The collage symbolises fragments of my own ideas and ideas from the students I’m working with. Visualising them into a hybrid image helps me to capture my state of mind. I feel this is an interesting way to organise my thoughts, so I will try explore this documentation method in my future research.

Cultural Probes

I have created a cultural probe research kit for the Cultivating Communities project. The kit is build around an assignment booklet.  The assignments challenge the students of ‘Juf Miranda’ to create their own sustainable scenario. The students will conduct interviews, gather inspirational materials, create persona’s and make their own storyline. They have about 3 weeks to finish the assignments, afterwards I will try to make a collective scenario out of their story’s. The idea is to gain extra insights into the students living world through this research kit.


Collective drawing

After the first observation session in “het schommelbootje” I’ve tried to summarize my thoughts of that day in a drawing.

When I returned to the school I used this drawing to start a conversation with the students of ‘Juf Miranda’, the group I will be working with this year. I invited them to draw their own thoughts on the drawing I made. This turned out to be a very fun and creative exercise. Some students just used the template and added colour. Others made up their own ideas. Check out the results here

Taking care of nature (Observation of a local school in Alken)

For the cultivating communities project I will develop a sustainable scenario together with local schools in Limburg. The first school I will work with is ‘het schommelbootje ‘in Alken (Belgium). From September 2011 tot July 2012 we will try to co-create an inspiring context and educational toolkit focused on sustainable development. We start out we a research phase and move on to a design phase. In the research phase we will explore the daily environment of the students through several creative observation methods. In the design phase we will develop and test prototypes for the educational toolkit.

The research started with an observation of the school environment. It is located in the village of Alken not far from the city of Hasselt (Belgium). The school building itself is a beautiful renovated farmhouse, which provides an inspiring environment for the project. The observation day started out with a workshop organised by the school. Taking care of nature was the central theme of the workshop. When I arrived at the school the teachers explained the importance of the theme to the students in a playful way. Afterwards they divided the students into smaller groups.

Each group had a different mission, ranging from planting a garden in front of the school to making a small play around the central theme. Each group occupied one of the several interesting spaces of the school. One that struck me the most was the wishing tree in the central playground. Apparently it has a very important emotional function; students can gather around the tree and talk about their wishes and dreams to each other.

At the end of the day each group presented their results. I was very impressed by their creative ability’s. They presented real practical solutions for talking care nature like using less water or putting the lights down to consume less energy. The students and teachers at ‘het schommelbootje’ are true experts of their own experience and I look forward to working with them over the next year.




My name is Ben Hagenaars, I’m a designer and researcher currently engaged in a four yearlong PhD research called Cultivating Communities. My PhD is linked to social spaces a research group at the MAD-faculty in Genk, Belgium.Through this blog I would like to share my research & design process.