I won’t tell you what to do

Floating away in mesmerizing instrumental music (right now it’s Pauline Oliveros), enjoying the sunny, beautiful and snowy landscape outside, I’m beating myself up for not, with adequate clarity, writing what it is that I want to do. It should be simple enough, but it’s not. It never is. I’m hesitant to fix anything in place. I realized long ago that I mostly like doing things that never truly ends. It’s not that I can’t write stuff, but I’m just always aware that it can only ever be temporarily frozen in time. The question is never answered, the answer is never complete, it’s a constant journey with no destination. No, we’re not there yet. That’s not something that frustrates me, on the contrary, it sparks my curiosity, keeps me on my toes…right up to the point where I suddenly have to pretend that there is an answer. Or a plan.

You know, I don’t like that. I don’t like to pretend, I don’t like to plan stuff, I don’t like to say what’s going to happen and I particularly don’t like to tell anyone what to do. It is not just mere reluctance, it is a deeply rooted antipathy. It feels wrong.

What I do like, on the other hand, what I really, really love to do, is to create, together with people, a framework for the unexpected. A place, literal and metaphorical, that is both inviting and open, safe but malleable. Let’s step into that place together and see what happens. That’s where agency, empowerment and emancipation lies. Not in me doing something for you, but in us doing something together.

Anyway, I realise that part of this is me being silly, and I accept that some amount of planning is mandatory. Maybe even helpful. Earlier today, I was writing a few sentences for a good colleague, who wanted to share my project with some people he’s working with, and I wrote this:

“In my PhD project, “Designing for Playful Democratic Participation”, I suggest that citizenship can be made more inclusive, joyful and meaningful by designing for democratic deliberation that moves beyond rational, verbal communication. With inspiration from the Danish tradition of junk-yard playgrounds and in close collaboration with a local community, a public space is shaped, where local citizens get an opportunity to engage with pressing issues through playful, speculative and embodied deliberation.”

To be even more explicit, I wish to co-design an adventure playground as a space for public democratic deliberation, inspired by both classical and contemporary notions of public participation. It is the public square, the agora, reimagined as an adventure playground, I guess, where deliberation transcends the classic ideals of talk, prioritizing the affective, open-ended, playful and speculative over the rational, verbal and solution- or impact-oriented.

Becoming even more concrete, I will be working with a local community, together with whom I will co-design the playground, before it opens up for everyone else. It thus becomes a kind of community event, a play festival, maybe. We identify some of their pressing issues and questions and use those as catalysts for the playful, speculative and embodied deliberation as we explore, experiment, build, talk, sing, dance, make art – or whatever might happen.

That’s the saving grace in all this: I don’t have a clue what will happen.

But there you have it. That’s what I currently tell people I want to do, now it’s frozen for a moment and we can move on.

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