DECODE – Community Design for Conflicting Desires

Stocholm, Sweden

SDG 5: Gender equalitySDG 10: Reduced inequalitiesSDG 11: Sustainable cities and communitiesSDG 16: Peace justice and strong institutionsSDG 17: Partnerships for the goals

Research project for designing participatory processes in urban development. National platform for applied research. Based at KTH, research conducted in all participating municipalities of which 5 are within the Stockholm Region.


Participatory urban planning processes are gaining more and more relevance in municipal decision-making as the Stockholm region grows. With increasing demands for housing projects, the needs of various social groups need to be taken into account so as not to increase segregation. Decode’s mission is to develop mechanisms in participatory processes for balancing power relations and conflicts of interests.

Civil servants and politicians experience ambiguity regarding the ownership of these types of issues. Relations between municipalities are furthermore structured by complex power dimensions, sometimes aggravating attempts at wider collaboration. Meanwhile, most urban development projects are conducted by default standards, without bringing in new perspectives.

Decode was launched in 2012 by Björn Hellström (then at Konstfack College of Arts and Design) together with researchers from various other disciplines, Upplands Väsby municipality, Sweden Green Building Council (SGBC) and Tyréns architect firm. The initial purpose was, based on the above problem formulation, to develop methodologies for facilitating cross-sectorial and cross-disciplinary collaborations in urban development with a particular emphasis on realising social sustainability goals. SGBC became a particularly essential partner during the course of the project due to them already having created Citylab Action, an educational programme for urban development processes. Citylab is a certification tool for sustainable construction, and Decode is the managing part of Citylab’s process management education.

Good practices & solutions

Since its inception, Decode has been driven by two principles: interdisciplinary methodological development and conscious process design. Together, these principles imply a loosening of disciplinary, professional and sectorial affiliation between participants in order to break up “silos”. Emphasis lies less on contributing to particular fields of knowledge and more on designing the process of urban development for increasing social values for the users.

The above founding partners jointly agreed on emphasising qualitative perspectives rather than quantitative in pursuing these principles. There was from an early stage a general agreement among the participating actors on a well-defined fundamental norm from which the project’s work would emanate; this may be difficult to achieve among so many actors, especially concerning a politically incentive issue such as social sustainability, but Decode managed to find the common denominators of the project group. Although working in different fields, the participants share similar outlooks on the issues of urban development. “We have been a few steps ahead”, says Björn Hellström, as a rather large group have had opportunity to work in the same way within the project. Extensive iteration of project work has also been mentioned as an important asset in this process, which, naturally, requires its due time. A well-needed strength of the project was therefore the stable funding received from Vinnova during successive phases.

Five aspects are seen as essential process leading factors in need of a conscious strategy; organising the project, collaborating within the project, participation (i.e. dialogue and consultation with citizens), communication and innovation. Regarding the innovation aspect, the objective is never to create innovation oneself, but to structure environments and conditions enabling innovative solutions to emerge.

Outcome & opportunities

The knowledge produced by researchers within Decode has been directly applied to the certification system of SGBC’s Citylab. This has provided the certification and education processes with fresh insights of which variables and issues to consider in participatory urban planning. As of now, 17 different research initiatives have been launched and are being published as reports, popularised science (e.g. short movies), articles, et cetera. The idea is that current urban development projects should take advantage of the results of Decode.

Moreover, high level decision-making is a prioritised target for Decode’s results. Of the projects within Vinnova’s Challenge-driven Innovation gaining funding for phase 3, all have been working in one way or another with policy development at a high level, and Decode is no exception to this.

Other observable results of Decode include extended and well-needed contact and meetings between different municipalities. A network of inter- and transdisciplinary urban developers has emerged. “We have created a large … spider’s web”, Hellström concludes.

17 different research studies have been initiated. Results of the researchers’ investigations are all incorporated into the CityLab certification system. This means that sustainability research becomes directly applied into city development processes.

Lessons learned & recommendations

“I don’t believe in one method called co-creation … but I think that the methodology could be a form of co-creation, although then it is about using several different methods”

A clear insight is that urban development projects lack general “stop rules”; there is no way to ultimately and definitely solve a social problem, rather, you need to go over them time and time again in order to manage them.

Citylab Action and Sweden Green Building Council in general have been important indicators of the continuous progress; by using the certification system as a way of trying the relevance of Decode’s overall results and its research processes, the project outcomes have likely been rendered more meaningful and societally useful than they otherwise would have. However, the certification system in itself has proven to be a sometimes blunt tool for practical problem-solving in local contexts, being at times far too generalising instead of locally embedded and also insensitive to many of the inherently qualitative issues of social sustainability.

Dependency on individuals has been a clear experience throughout the project. Whenever certain participants have been replaced, it has required a considerable effort bringing the new one in, not only as an employee, but as a committed driving spirit. The driving spirit dependency is particularly obvious within the participating municipalities. If matters turn towards business-as-usual, progress risks faltering.

Various forms of higher education could be positively affected by specialising in the interdisciplinary methods used by Decode, such as design practices and mindsets in urban development processes. It is particularly difficult to manage a coherent design strategy for urban development processes. The complexity of these processes poses severe obstacles for working as a team; Decode has rather preferred to work with a pluralistic perspective and multiple strategies for dealing with the various cases that participants have approached, instead of choosing one single strategic approach.

Engaged partners and stakeholder groups

KTH, Konstfack College of Arts and Design, Stockholm School of Economics, RISE, SWEDESD (Uppsala), Stockholm University, Södertörn University, Gothenburg Research Institute, Stockholm Centre for Public Sector Research.

Tyréns Architect’s Office, Älvstranden Utveckling.

Sweden Green Building Council.

The Public Art Agency Sweden, National Board of Housing, Building and Planning.

8 municipalities: Norrtälje, Järfälla, Täby, Stockholm, Upplands Väsby.

Outside the Stockholm Region: Gothenburg, Sorsele, Uppsala.

Citizens and city districts.

Further reading


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Project: Stockholm Co-creation