Assoc. Prof. Ingrid Mulder On Participatory City Making & Empowering People To Create Social Change


Ingrid Mulder is an expert in transformative and social design, currently working as an Associate Professor of Design Techniques at TU Delft.

Her background is in Policy and Organisation Sciences (MA, University of Tilburg) and Behavioural Sciences (PhD, University of Twente). Her ongoing research addresses the interplay between top-down policy and bottom-up participatory innovation and has been awarded by prestigious grants.

Open4Citizens (Horizon2020) aims at empowering citizens to make meaningful use of open data. Participatory City Making (STW-RtD) considers the collaborative construction of new visions through small-scale experimenting as a way of triggering a process of broader change and transformation.


Ingrid shares her experience in participatory city making projects and academia, the shift in tertiary education and the importance of empowering citizens to engage in dialogue and impact projects.


Highlights from the podcast (for full details, listen here)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background in design and academia? [2:22]

[Ingrid Mulder] - I'm trained as a Policy and Organisational Scientist (a Behavioural Scientist) working on how you can transfer knowledge from one person to another and making theoretical models. When I was in my final year I worked in the midst of innovation with KPMG. [Ingrid discusses a project she worked on which used design thinking and strategy and how at a young age she was working at the top level of strategic directors.]

After that I worked for an innovation technology institute (almost 20 years ago) that had funding to look at what new technologies could do for society. For the second time I was working in an experimental place where collaboration, innovation and trying to change the world was default. [Ingrid discusses further detail.] 

By working close with industry I could define my own PhD and I ended up working with educational science and technology on a PhD that studied how designers across distance could learn from each other. Usually they just work and aren't so open to having this co-construction of knowledge. I've seen it working. I believe that if you can get society on this same level you can really deal with challenges.

There's been a shift towards collaborative, co-working spaces. Have you seen things change to a society that is more willing to share now? [5:24]

The research we did at that time was really ahead of its time. Now these things are popping up again, with people talking about knowledge sharing and co-working spaces. On the one hand I feel like I've been there, but on the other I feel like we were on the right track.

What is is that drives you to work in academia? [6:29]

I really like working with students who are eager to learn and are willing to cross their own borders, and I also enjoy bringing knowledge to others as well.

As Associate Professor at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, what projects are you currently most excited about? [6:53]

There are two levels; working one on one with students helping them to learn and take things further. This has a direct effect and hopefully impact too. I also like to bring this to society. I have two big projects running. One is called Open4Citizens, collaborating with various stakeholders across Europe [Ingrid explains who she is working with and more about this open-data project and focussing on empowering people to do something meaningful with it.]

Empowerment at the Stadslab

Empowerment at the Stadslab

On LinkedIn, you recently posted an article talking about the increasing complexity cities face calling for a different way of City Making, one that combines top-down management with bottom-up social innovation. Can you please tell us more about the Participatory City Making project? [8:55]

This project is related to one of the other nice grants I got. The grant is from the STW Research Through Design research programme. They have started experimenting by having a goal called 'research through design'. I took up the challenge to have participatory city making in that but it is not a typical design project. We started from two angles; with design techniques to connect top down management, urban planning in a more strategic way and how you can connect it with current initiatives from the grassroots, bottom-up movement. Both angles are talking about the same, but they're actually quite disconnected. [Ingrid explains more about the project and the bridge they try to create between everyone involved and question about how they can then empower other stakeholders as well.]

The central line in my research is about empowering people to take the impact further. It's very easy to do while I'm there facilitating, but what happens when I'm not there? I can only do a limited amount. If you really want to scale up and do things at a society level you need more people that can do it.

I'm not talking about expert design skills, there's still a need for that.

Can you please share more about the specific design techniques you employ to create positive social change? [12:26]

It's a mix of things which are quite hard to explain. But we have a long tradition at the faculty that we know how to empathise with users. How do you understand their needs? We use prototyping to get insights. Usually this means that people give insights to the designer and the designer makes something. What I try to do is that there are multiple stakeholders (not just the user of the foreseen product) who have different values and beliefs who go in dialogue together to co-construct insights. The product is not a product. There might be an artefact that facilitates discussion, but we're also talking about a system. [Ingrid talks further about this and how whole sectors can change as long as theories from future making that she uses. She talks about how originally in her career she started with systems and has worked towards products, whereas the faculty at TU Delft started with the design of chairs and has moved towards bigger system thinking.)

What initiatives and programs does TU Delft run to support a vibrant culture of changemakers? [15:22]

The university has a long tradition of working with and for industry. It's in the genes of the university. But if you're big, it's also hard to change. In our curriculum (in particular in industrial design and engineering) it's really important to think across disciplines, understand other disciplines, be able to communicate your design and there is more of this approach of 'vibrant skills'. 

We also have additional projects for the Excellence students. We have more projects which collaborate with business, where students can get selected to work with big companies.

We also have the Honour's Program (Ingrid coordinates the Master's program). Students formulate what they want to use their Honours project for to make a difference.

What advice would you give to students who are passionate about using their studies to then get out there and create positive social change? [18:12]

Get out, do and reflect on it. Don't think too much. Time is up. Try and reflect and do better.

Try to make mistakes while you're in education. You are in a safe haven. By doing that you can learn much more than doing things without crossing the lines.

Co-creation In Smart City Keynote

Co-creation In Smart City Keynote

How have you seen the tertiary education shift and where do you see it going in the future? [19:06]

[Ingrid explains about the typical university structures in detail.]

What is interesting to see is that classical universities are becoming more applied.

Even recently we have hired some professors of practice. We want to have professors of practice who work for one or two days a week (at the university) and have their strategic design agency as well, working to bring their professional skills into the university.

Can you please tell us more about your role as an expert evaluator at the European Commission? [21:59]

It's great to get an overview of Europe. My role is really to ask the hard questions about the true impact of what they're doing. [Ingrid talks about the challenges of doing this in this type of environment.] 

How do you then measure that impact? [23:59]

This is very hard and why I use the social innovation spiral from the Young Foundation. Design is quite in just making proposals, prompts, prototypes and things that might work. But it's super hard to scale them and sustain them. There's various reasons why this happen. Sometimes the projects just stop and there's no one there to take it over. Sometimes there are people there to take it over, but it's very hard to design the designer out. Even if you have tried to do this, the role of the designer remains a crucial one. [Ingrid explains that more needs to be done.]

As the initiator of the first Fab Lab in Rotterdam, what were the challenges in setting that up and how have you seen it evolve over the years? [25:30]

I don't think we had so many challenges. It started as being the 'reader' of changing innovation of education. I was working at an institute that trained students in the broad area of computer science, media studies, media technology, game technology, communication etc and they had to do something with digital challenges. In order to train students with new fabrication techniques it was quite crucial and in doing that it was clear to have a Fab Lab in sight. That was the first motivation to have it. [She explains further and compares the difference to the university workshop.]

The Fab Lab was really meant for scaling and having students as stewards and training others. It really started to work as students as students were interested and could do it as an elective. It was not an obligation for everyone to do. They had the option to join. And that was a different way to change things.

[Ingrid talks about what she calls co-creative partnerships with 'real people' on board so that students collaborate with different stakeholders and the value of this.]

The external stakeholders felt that the Fab Lab was really an innovative, experimental safe haven where they could learn. By working with the students it gave external stakeholders permission to innovate and experiment.

Europe has had a bit of a rough trot over recent years and has faced a number of challenges. Within the Netherlands how have you seen the citizens respond to this and what projects have you seen people using to create positive impact? [30:28]

I would say it might have even had a positive effect of the project I'm involved in in Rotterdam. Due to the crisis but also due to some policies that we now have such as the 'obliged participation society', that our King wants us to be a participation society. Ministers say that citizens have to be more responsive and do something in return. On a local level I see that this is way more for civil servants to be participatory. I would say that it has spurred creativity instead. I really want to see and figure out what causes these great ideas and how can we connect them better. This is also one of the reasons for having participatory city making. [Ingrid talks about how the initial city making projects and Fab Labs spur others on to do the same thing and how it's about getting a mass of people on board.]

Are there any particular universities internationally that you believe are leading the way when it comes to delivering on strong social impact initiatives? [33:05]

In general think that we're definitely not there yet. But there are some who are really trying and I consider peers, such as the DESIS Network. [She explains more about this as well as the Urban Informatics lab at QUT in Brisbane and Nesta in the UK. She explains how there are lots of good practices but they are all scattered. She talks about global challenges and the current social fabric.]

We really don't need just a committee of wise men and women to steer us in the right direction because the issues are too complex. You can't put the responsibilities with one person and deal with it from a power perspective. It should really move to empowerment and as a society we should be in dialogue.

But not everyone is in that line of thinking so that makes it hard. Terrorism is not a theory of dialogue.

Could you please recommend three great design or social impact books for our listeners?

[Ingrid explains more about the list of books below as well how design can and should change.]

My plea for the design field is that we have to cross to the next level and really change society.

Exploring meaningful data use for grassroots’ empowerment.

Exploring meaningful data use for grassroots’ empowerment.


You can contact Ingrid on LinkedIn or Twitter. Feel free to leave your comments below.

Read more articles on design education.