Albert Einstein is credited for saying that ”we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, but looking at the development of western cities today it seems that this is exactly what we are doing.

Urban development is largely dependent on tried and tested planning practices that are proven to work. The problem however, is that they have also been proven to be the cause of many of the problems with sustainability and liveability that we experience in our cities. In other words we are trying to build future cities with the building blocks of the past – the blocks that has created the reality we live in today.

From a political perspective an experimental approach to urban development offers new ways of doing politics in practice, by testing out possible futures. In a situation, where the complexity of urban development can be overwhelming and many (if not most) decisions are made in municipal administrations, an experimental approach can be a way to (re)discover the potential futures of the city and reopen the political.

The things that seem impossible to do because of scale, opposition, industrial lock-ins and so on can be tested at a smaller scale in the city and allow us to learn more about where we can go from here. At an instrumental level experiments can be used for testing concrete ideas or exploring the unknowns of policies. At a more visionary level, experiments can showcase alternative ways of living, consuming and moving in the city. Furthermore, the emergent nature of experiments mean that we are likely to discover or develop things that are not yet imaginable in the current reality, while we do them.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” (Jane Jacobs, 1961)

A core challenge in urban development is to create diverse cities that provide space for many different expressions and lifestyles. Experiments in urban space enable people to participate actively in the development of their neighborhoods and have the potential to empower and create involvement and ownership of urban spaces. In that way experiments can serve to de-anonymize the city and open space for co-creation.


    If experimental urban development is to happen in municipalities, it is vital that the administrations has the “alibi” to work within a field of uncertainty. In other words, both managers and employees in the administration need to feel safe that they can venture out of the formal planning practices. Even though uncommon these days, a very interesting future could form from politicians starting concrete experimental programmes based on critical “what if…” or “how to…” questions, allowing administrations to work in an exploratory manner. It is however also important that it is stated that the answer is unknown and cannot be answered simply – that it requires testing in and with the city. Another point of such programmes is, that they have the potential to spawn excitement and participation in the city, if they are made public. See Create your city for inspiration on how to work with alibi.
    Whether oriented towards a site (a specific neighborhood) or a service/technology (power grid, public transportation), there is potential in experimenting with possible futures. It is politically possible to open arenas for experimentation as part of policy making. A way of bringing “the experimental” closer to your work as a local politician is to bring the city closer to the decision making.
    Policy makers often struggle when it comes to changing the way we think of urban infrastructure. Ideas such as reduced car transportation and universal basic income are so riddled with controversy that it seems impossible to implement new policies around these issues. The experimental approach can offer opportunities to test and showcase policies (with the right amount of documentation) as a way of developing a better collective knowledge level. Thorough evaluation and public discussion of learnings are important and makes it possible to develop new discourses around controversial subjects, founded in the reality of the city. Resistance is part of experimenting. Changing something will always spawn controversy, but the experiment allows for this controversy to be included in the policy making, rather than being in opposition to it.