Designing for the Event, or what can Urban STS learn from Urban Games?

by Carsten Horn

As Science and Technology Studies (STS) have become an established field of research and discipline they have also become a household name in large-scale technoscientific innovation projects. This has led to a multitude of calls for an “engaged STS,” which not only partakes in such innovation action but takes a normative stance in it. One area in which STS expertise has grown in influence is the intersection with the field of Urban Studies and processes of urban planning – for example in the manifold smart city projects currently carried out in many metropolises. Departing from the concept of “technical democracy” (Farías & Blok, 2016), the challenge STS is faced with here is the re-configuration of urban planning in ways that allow for “collaboration among laypeople and experts” (Farías & Blok, 2016, p. 539). In this brief essay, I want to argue that in order to re-think this challenge, STS may find a rather unlikely ally and learning partner in the design of urban games — games specially designed for and played in urban space (e.g. Big Urban Game played in Minnesota in 2003 or Cruel 2 B Kind). To make this point, I draw on an interview I conducted with a German urban games designer in the course of the seminar “Creating Urban Space – Invited and Uninvited Participation” headed by Andrea Schikowitz and Ignacio Farías at our Department.


Design and the Event

Drawing on Participatory Design (PD), a pragmatist notion of publics and STS engagement with participation, one of the major contributions of STS to Urban Studies has been a reconceptualization of what urban design and urban planning do: They no longer primarily aim at producing socio-technical artifacts but make a point of providing platforms for symmetrical encounters of experts and laypeople – the focus, in other words, shifts to infrastructuring participation, the design of platforms for participation (Corsín Jiménez, 2014). Situating themselves within this shift, Erling Bjögvinsson et al. (2012) understand their task as designers in the tradition of PD as the construction of a Thing (“Thinging”): the (re-)assembling of collectives of human and non-humans which serves as an infrastructure for novel encounters between these entities. The resulting associations and the human and non-human entities they consist of are not predetermined but emerge out of these encounters. Bjögvinsson et al. (2012, p. 108) describe this in terms of the “event”: Infrastructuring, they argue, “must deliberately design indeterminacy and incompleteness into the infrastructure, leaving unoccupied slots and space free for unanticipated events and performances yet to be”. The challenge for infrastructuring is, thus, to design for the event.

With the concept of the event and the subsequent challenge to design for events, we delve deeply into philosophical territory which warrants a brief discussion of one of the philosophical traditions the concept originates from. In the line of thought stretching from Whitehead to Deleuze to Stengers, “event” describes the “becoming together” of the entities that form an assemblage (Fraser, 2009): “the event is characterised by the fact that the interactions of its constitutive elements change those elements” (Horst & Michael, 2011, p. 286). Neither the identities of the elements nor the relationships between them are pre-determined. The event, moreover, is self-sufficient in that no external explanations can be invoked to explain the emergent assemblage. While it is out of the scope of a blog post to go into details of this conceptualization of the event or to discuss its relationship with other understandings of the event (e.g. on the line of Heidegger and Badiou), it becomes evident that “event” signifies the (temporary) suspension of one state of being, i.e. a specific arrangement of heterogeneous entities, for a new state to emerge. For Bjögvinsson et al. (2012), we can therefore define the event as the emergence of novel entities and the relations between them.

If “events are different from the states of affairs in which they are actualized” (Goodchild, 1996, p. 54, as cited in Fraser, 2009, p. 78) and, further, do not have an external reason, Bjögvinsson et al.’s (2012) notion of deliberately designing infrastructures for the event is at risk of a contradiction or, at least, a conceptual tension. As STS research has shown, infrastructuring is not a neutral act (Star & Ruhleder, 1996). Infrastructures afford some (participation) practices rather than others based on the choices made during the construction of the infrastructures by their creators – in this case, urban designers and planners – who are always situated in the current state of affairs (Bjögvinsson et al., 2012). This implies that what can emerge out of the infrastructures of urban planning, and thus the event-ness aimed at by Bjögvinsson and colleagues, is potentially limited by such choices. It is here that I want to propose that experiences and practices from urban gaming can contribute to our theoretical and practical engagements.


Urban Games as Improvisation Technologies

Urban games, to give a very brief definition, transcend the “magic circle” – the idea of a distinct time and space – that has traditionally been defined as characteristic of games and played in a threefold way: it goes beyond it spatially because the city as a whole is turned into a playground; it expands the temporal aspect because the boundary between play and non-play becomes fluid; it transcends the magic circle socially as the distinction between player and non-player is blurred as bypassers may (inadvertently) become part of the game (Montola, 2009). Moreover, urban game designers face many of the same challenges as STS-inspired urban planners and researchers, namely the need to accommodate (and intentionally trigger off) unforeseen events. As Mela Kocher (2018, p. 269) argues, urban game designers attempt to anticipate the actions of future players but there remain “blank spaces” that are only filled by the play during the game. Interested in this challenge, I asked my research participant what the role such events play in his design practice:

I often use the concept […] by Christopher Dell who is a music theoretician, improvisation of the second order which means planned improvisation. So I design into my games the need for improvising and intentionally leave free space for that.
Street Art Scavenger Hunt in which players collect points by gathering images of graffiti and other forms of street art ( © Daniel Parlow)


Thus, the urban game is designed as an “improvisation technology” [Improvisationstechnologie] (Dell, 2014) and game participants are made to improvise and to bring into being what the designer has not foreseen. The event is not a byproduct of the design but an intentional component. Such events enact novel associations that would be otherwise unthinkable:

There’s a square over here where oftentimes alcoholics hang out and enjoy themselves. And there is a relatively large object that needs to be circled. I observed how a group that played there, a mix of students and punks, that was so much in the game that they just asked this group of old Polish and German alcoholics with whom they would never have interacted otherwise. And they were like, yeah, sure, and hey Herbert, come over, they need help. And then they were all holding hands and so the 21-year-old female students and the 50-year-old pissheads over there, stand together, hold their hands in order to circle that thing, and then, bye, we have to continue.
Players “conquer” a tree in the city by forming a human chain around it (© Daniel Parlow)

In the game described here, players have to “conquer” landmarks in urban space by forming a human circle around them. Due to the differing size of landmarks, groups of players may have to involve bypassers, making possible such unlikely alliances. In the event, the established identities of the constituents of such alliances are suspended; the boundaries that would have usually tended to foreclose interactions between students, punks, and alcoholics are dissolved for the moment to make way for collaborative engagements entailed by the need to improvise. However, this example also illustrates one of the challenges of event designing: How can the opening be sustained and the emerging association be stabilized? How can the temporary emergence of new associations be perpetuated? How can the return to the previous state of affairs be prevented?

This difficulty notwithstanding, it is the re-definition of the game as an improvisation technology that can help Urban STS to embrace and design (for) the event in participation processes. This way, or so I have argued, can the latent tension that is inherent to any attempt to deliberately design for the event be resolved: How can participants – laypeople and experts alike – be “encouraged” to improvise which, in turn, facilitates the formation of new relations and identities, the becoming of new urban assemblages (Farías & Bender, 2011)? Moreover, concealed beneath this argument, as a second audio track, as it were, runs the call for (Urban) STS to more thoroughly engage with urban gaming (a gaping lacuna as of now). In a symmetrical way, to conclude, both fields may learn a lot from each other.


Dell, C. (2014). Die improvisierende Organisation. In Die improvisierende Organisation. transcript.

Farías, I., & Bender, T. (Eds.). (2011). Urban Assemblages. How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies . Routledge.

Fraser, M. (2009). Facts, Ethics and Event. In C. B. Jensen & K. Rödje (Eds.), Deleuzian Intersections. Science, Technology, Anthropology (pp. 57–82). Berghahn Books.

Montola, M. (2009). Games and Pervasive Games. In M. Montola, J. Stenros, & A. Wærn (Eds.), Pervasive games: Theory and design (pp. 7–23). Morgan Kaufmann.

Carsten Horn is a second-year master’s student at the Department for Science and Technology Studies. He works as a researcher in the research project ICU4Covid. His research interests are situated at the intersection of STS, sociology, and philosophy.