Bright Cityscapes: Designing Possibilities
Digital technology and global supply chains continue to drive relentless evolution in manufacturing. The loading of advanced automation, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and the internet of things (IoT) onto the conveyor belt has wrought a metamorphosis in the very core of production processes. New levels of efficiency, personalisation, and interconnectedness have become possible.
Supply chains continue to evolve into intricate, sprawling networks that transcend geographical boundaries. This evolution represents a symbiotic relationship between manufacturing and digitisation, and it’s reshaping everything, not just geopolitical alliances, economic interdependencies, and power structures, but also skills, resources, and assembly lines at a multitude of scales.
Industry has been an important part of life in Eastern Europe since the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Since then, there has been consistent investment in industry, transforming this entire area into an industrial and agricultural hub. For this reason, foreign direct investment (FDI) had a powerful start in Romania both before and after 2007, when the country joined the European Union (EU). Since then, Romania’s manufacturing sector has increased to become a third of its GDP. Nowhere is this transformation more visible than in Timișoara, where burgeoning industry spills over to inform every part of daily life, not least its culture and its education system.
In Timișoara, expertise is everywhere, inside large companies, within academic laboratories, on production lines, and in street markets. Here, design can be found hiding within mathematical formulas, computations, sophisticated technological objects, mechanical parts, material studies, chemical processes, and, perhaps most of all, in so-called intermediate products.
It’s a challenge, making sense of all the unpredictable fluctuations in this age of company sovereignty, borderless consumerism, climate anxiety and profit-driven technological acceleration, where our relationships are mediated by objects, information and infrastructure.
Design, architecture and digital culture, ladened with blind spots and steeped in Eurocentric perspectives as they are, have become practices with the potential to both reveal and react to this uncertain present. Practices that, to me, have the ability to open conversations.
Conversations through a city
At the heart of the Bright Cityscapes programme lies a fundamental element: conversation. The programme’s development has thrived through a continuous dialogue, not only between the organisers, researchers, and city, but also among the designers, collaborators, and contexts. I have been continuously inspired by how this ongoing exchange has been pivotal in determining the programme’s design questions, driving its evolution and shaping its projects, and ultimately culminating in the Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard exhibition. The publication that you hold in your hands is not only an archive of this conversation, but an invitation to extend it.
The transformative role of exhibitions, not merely as showcases of end results, but rather as initiators and revealers of knowledge, collaboration, and conversation, has been central to my approach to Bright Cityscapes. Underpinned by principles of transparency and accessibility, the project has situated itself firmly in Timișoara. There, it looked inside proprietary factory walls and disciplinary knowledge silos, commissioned and shared original economic research, instigated design research and collaboration projects through novel partnerships, and prototyped alternative educational strategies and mediums. This publication serves as a window into the various processes that underpin the programme, offering insights into how design can intersect with different aspects of a city’s life.
Timișoara as nexus
As a flagship initiative of the Timișoara—European Capital of Culture 2023 programme, Bright Cityscapes evolved through a partnership between the Politehnica University of Timișoara (UPT)—the city’s pivotal hub of engineering knowledge production and exchange—and FABER—an emerging independent cultural centre that hosts a wide array of the city’s multidisciplinary practices and activities. As a product of this creative ecosystem unique to Timișoara, the programme has consistently adhered to its commitment to grow from the city’s intrinsic questions.
How does one get to know a city? Some would say by walking through its streets, markets, and squares, and engaging with its inhabitants. Others would argue that the discovery starts through remote research about its history, tourist attractions, cultural programmes, and schools. Others would look at its infrastructures, landmarks, fauna or flora. Others would watch a movie, connect to its radio station, navigate it through google maps. Someone would look at its productions and what is made locally; many would ask their friends, colleagues and family if they have ever been there.
In between the possible methods of discovering a city and through different strategies of engaging with another reality, the Bright Cityscapes programme placed Timișoara firmly at the heart of the project. Not as a beginning or end, but as a nexus that links to various other places and systems. It embodies the idea of observing what flows through, what starts, and what ends, providing a distinctive perspective from which to explore design’s interconnectedness.
Behind the factory walls
For myself and the Bright Cityscape team, the first step was about trying to understand how we see the city through our own lenses—our own eyes, our own knowledge, our own experiences—not in order to give answers, but to understand the methodologies and positions from which the project begins. To gain first-hand insights into Timișoara’s industrial ecosystem, we embarked on an adventure of visiting local factories.
Factories are complex places. They produce so many different elements of what is consumed by everyone every day, but they are not typically open. These often inaccessible spaces proved to be treasure troves of knowledge, serving as a bridge between becoming aware of our lenses, and the data-oriented research, expanded on a little later in this piece of writing, that frames Timișoara as a city of manufacturing and engineering.
This resulted in a preliminary exhibition titled Mirroring the Ecosystem, that presented selected artefacts, products, and components from the visited factories. This was made possible through collaboration with companies that temporarily contributed elements from their production lines for the exhibition, evidence of the network of conversations that Bright Cityscapes instigated.
The modular exhibition structures, akin to those employed by Flex in their assembly lines, were made in collaboration with Flex and Azur. These paid homage to the context, and alongside the photographic documentation of the factory visits, provided exhibition visitors an immersive experience of the factory floors.
After its debut at FABER, the exhibition travelled to UPT, finding a home in a genuinely beautiful space on the campus. Here, it became even more accessible to students and the academic network, fostering conversations among the everyday scholars, PhD candidates, and professors who reside on the campus. This underscores the ability of exhibitions to journey beyond their original location, and instigate meaningful interactions in different contexts.
The layers of the economy
The result of visiting manufacturing environments physically with our bodies, and speaking to engineers, operators and workers, the Mirroring the Ecosystem exhibition served to activate the process from which a large part of the programme emerged. My intention behind the exhibition was to mirror Timișoara to its citizens, drawing to attention the lenses with which its agents understand the city.
In order to corroborate and challenge these lenses of the city itself, Bright Cityscapes simultaneously initiated an interdisciplinary collaboration with data analyst and sociologist Norbert Petrovici. Through the collaboration, original research was done into how the city’s economy was formed, uncovering the major forces that have shaped its current state. By researching the economy of the city, so many different layers of the city are considered—the landscape, the climate, the everyday life of people, the jobs, and of course, the industries and the university. A research team of data scientists, anthropologists and a historian, under the leadership of Petrovici, developed a report, titled ‘Economy in Timișoara: Territorial Distribution of the Economy in the Timișoara Metropolitan Area’, which became a cornerstone for Bright Cityscapes.
The initial visits to factories that formed part of the curatorial process, provided the opportunity for Petrovici and his team to extend their data analysis into anthropological research of the experience of workers. Interacting almost weekly with the team that was developing the report, allowed me to participate with the formulation of new questions and thematics along the process. This experience of seeing how design curating can also collaborate and share processes with other disciplines laid the groundwork for the collaborations that would form the core of the design projects.
Fostering collaborations, continuations and constellations
The bridging of disciplines that went into the research report resonated with one of the core aspects of the programme: generating opportunities for research exploration and fostering exchanges. While the term ‘exchange’ encompasses various interpretations, our primary objective was to establish channels through which diverse disciplines could come together to collaborate. We left the definition of collaboration open-ended. This focus essentially steered us in designing a programme that, at different junctures, would engage various disciplines and practices.
In particular, an open call was launched to UPT researchers who might have research within their labs that they wanted to share with a designer. From those that applied, four applicants were selected by an internal jury of representatives from FABER and UPT, and subsequently matched with international designers. To me, what is beautiful about the engineers that applied was the specificity and realness of their research; it’s a practice of details that have been tested, retested and applied across laboratories in the university and companies. When the designers get involved, they look at the same research through completely new lenses, forging new understandings and new forms of working.
When selecting designers to participate in Bright Cityscapes, it was important to invite practitioners who have cultivated idiosyncratic design practices and positions in order to challenge the programme, and expected notions of Timișoara and design. For many of these designers, their projects represent a continuation of their work. Their projects also demonstrate how designers build on and constantly reinvent their research in new contexts like Timișoara in order to establish practices. Through the broadly different design discourses, media, skills, ways of thinking, and realities from which all the designers come, the programme thus also sets up a conversation around the nature, meanings, and application of design itself.
All of the designers worked with Timișoara as nexus, whether through a direct collaboration with a local researcher, whether through the research report as a guide, or whether by constellating particular assemblages of knowledge and partners. Some of the participants moved to Timișoara for a creative research residency, allowing them to engage with the specific context and knowledge of the city. Others looked at how global phenomena manifest in Timișoara, Romania, or Eastern Europe. Others sought to establish a local connection or develop a local case study that furthers their existing research into particular concerns.
Between their diverse practices and divergent approaches, the designers engage with Timișoara in many different ways. The results portray the design discipline as a discourse that is constantly negotiating the relation between digital and physical practices, suggesting and emphasising a constant inquiry into technologies, materialities, archives, landscapes, and infrastructures, and their related narratives, applications, imaginaries, technicalities and unsolved questions.
Motivated by the ethos of openness and sharing, curiosity and research, and collaboration and exchange, the Bright Cityscapes programme considered what design is in Timișoara, and what it might be. Through its series of design projects and conversations, it was striking to me that a lot of design was hidden behind factory walls, obscured by knowledge silos and lost through missed connections.
The programme’s culmination, the exhibition Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard, sought to present a world of alternative interpretations and imaginings of the potential of design in Timișoara. The exhibition also featured visual infographics and a technical lexicon developed from the economic report. This served to situate the projects within the journey of the Bright Cityscapes programme, and the economic data and manufacturing systems from which their knowledge and collaborations emerge. The mediation programme was another important element of the exhibition that sought to find additional translations to different publics, thereby expanding the openness and accessibility of the exhibition and programme.
The exhibition’s title provokes us to view design beyond mere process optimisation and mass-produced industrial solutions. Instead, it delves into design as a discipline for uncovering and manifesting hidden signals and opportunities for change, countering the dominating technocratic discourse. It highlights the potential found in the gaps and blind spots created by optimisation and standardisation.
The projects address a myriad of thematics, such as the impact of global phenomena like outsourcing on local experiences and domestic scenarios, the import and export of knowledge as capital, the web of dependencies within global supply chains, academia’s role in knowledge production versus perpetuating standards, the effects of digitalisation and automation on daily life, working conditions, and the global economy, and more.
What if, when discussing digital infrastructure, we consider independent solutions outside of national frameworks? What if, when exploring automation, we also recognise the value of errors? What if, when examining imports and exports, we focus on waste rather than just freshly made products? What if we incorporate the perspectives of geologists when discussing hardware? What if subverting the linearity of supply chains can occur gradually through small inquiries?
Perhaps it’s time to direct our efforts towards understanding the inaccessible. Maybe it’s time for industries and institutions to recognise and support the explorations of independent design practitioners as essential to challenging perspectives and observations otherwise gridlocked by market demands.
Part of understanding the significance of design as more than a discipline simply oriented towards optimising industrial products is also understanding design education not as an endeavour to only produce product makers. This is why in my own practice, design and education are so deeply intertwined.
Bright Cityscapes initiated numerous educational elements, including the ‘Atlas of Distances’ workshop that emerged from a pedagogical collaboration and exchange between the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism from the Politehnica University of Timișoara (Romania), Studio Technogeographies from Design Academy Eindhoven (Netherlands), and Borders & Territories Studio from TU Delft (Netherlands). A selection of students’ projects were subsequently developed for the Atlas of Distances exhibition.
These initiatives directly address educational institutions, deepening the appreciation of the design and design education’s multidisciplinary, collaborative, and experiential capacities that bring together embodied and material knowledge with intellectual and academic knowledge. However, this pedagogical impulse, to inspire re-analysis and reimagination of contemporary systems, extends to the entire Bright Cityscapes programme.
Design for possibilities
The Bright Cityscapes programme encompasses what is to me three key aspects of design. The first is the often-overlooked design of the framework that facilitates exchange and collaboration. This backstage preparation, referred to as ‘writing the programme,’ involves asking questions like: What’s feasible? How does it function? Where are the locations? Who are the key players? Which factories and laboratories need to be involved? What information do we possess, and what remains unknown? Do we issue an open call or make selections? These questions are all integral to the design process, as the answers shape the creation of resonant outcomes.
The second aspect of design is the multidisciplinary practice that defies easy definition. It originates from diverse positions and cultures, with each practitioner bringing their unique understanding, media, and application. This type of design fosters engagement in various contexts and opens up new possibilities. These possibilities are reflected in the title of the final exhibition, Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard.
The third dimension of design involves aggregating individual practices into collective thinking with the potential to influence institutions or future policies. This concept underpinned Bright Cityscapes’ exploration of the connections between design and the city as a nexus. It recognises that design thrives when individualities exist in close proximity and become visible. When the implicit and invisible design of a large-scale system interacts with designers and when designers collaborate with each other on a common subject.
In Bright Cityscapes, this synergy occurs when Mirroring the Ecosystem is juxtaposed with Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard, when ‘A Lexicon of Orientation’ is presented alongside collaborative projects, or when individual participants come together in the exhibition space, joined by companies, workers, engineers, the public, and the municipality. This collaborative ethos extends to the online platform and the accompanying publication, which use various media to enable the download of content and information for use in proximity to other practices, both in Timișoara and beyond.
In my opinion, if we truly want to facilitate designers in addressing the complex questions of today, it is imperative to transcend the boundaries of curatorial, organisational, and design approaches. An environment that enables individuals to work next to each other within specific contexts while embracing diverse perspectives must be cultivated.
This is what Bright Cityscapes has sought to establish, evident in its numerous layers and outcomes. It is also reflected in this publication, which is intentionally presented as a work in progress, rather than a final product. This approach allows us to retrace the journey we embarked on as a team, recognising this project as a constellation of collaborations intertwined across different moments and contributing agents. It invites us to recognise Bright Cityscapes as an opening.
By understanding the entire Bright Cityscapes programme as design, each conversation, each opening, each research, each piece of work, become a signal for a turn in direction. A turn in how Timișoara is understood and designed, in how productive and open exhibitions can be created, in how we work together and collaborate on new knowledge, and in how we understand design’s role in our everyday life. It is for these reflections that I am grateful to commentators from within Timișoara and Romania, and from beyond.
In conclusion, I would like to recognise the remarkable generosity that permeated the programme, and which everyone deeply valued. This culture of generosity across collaborations, institutions, and disciplines was instrumental in making the programme a reality, and is not to be taken for granted. It is a testament to how Bright Cityscapes was conceived and executed for the city of Timișoara, through the collaboration between UPT, FABER, the factories, and, of course, the participating designers. My hope is that this spirit of generosity endures, an open invitation to contribute to this vibrant context.
Curator Bright Cityscapes