Darren Sierhuis works as a researcher and lecturer at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, ATELIER’s partner responsible for cooperation activities. He is also linked to the University of Amsterdam’s Urban Planning department as a PhD candidate, using ATELIER as an in-depth case study to further explore the role of urban experimentation for fostering decarbonised cities. In this article, he shares some of his research ideas and his experience on studying ATELIER for his PhD project during the current pandemic.
“For my research project, I aim to understand how different phases of urban experiments like ATELIER work and how they contribute to a project’s ability to make more widespread transformative impact. I focus primarily on the governance aspects of projects like ATELIER and start from the assumption that collaboration between different actors and institutions that might normally not work together is key for experimental urban development projects to make an impact. However, despite the fact that such importance is often underlined in both practice and academia, the collaboration process in itself is not often critically analysed. Instead, more focus is put on the “harder” technological side of innovation, which notwithstanding its importance, seems to me to be one side of the same coin.
With my research, I aim to study what might be called the “softer side” of innovation, namely that of how we (might) work together in new ways to make an impact. Such research is valuable, because the experimental context is marked by diversity in methods, experiences and knowledges between partners, and by great uncertainty over how to make the project a success. Collaborating in such a context is by no means an easy feat, and assuming that it is a matter of getting on the same page and finding consensus risks that we underestimate its complexities. Understanding up-close how these processes work and how they relate to generating urban innovations will hopefully provide academic and practical insights that further explain how experimenting as a method could contribute to more widespread urban change.
So, where do I currently stand with the research? I started writing a proposal for this research idea about 1,5 years ago, just before the pandemic struck, and finished the proposal in October 2020. Currently, I am working on two publications. First, a theoretical paper that links collaboration in the experimental context as mentioned above to generating capacity for transformative change. Second, a paper that focusses mainly on historical research explaining the dynamics of how a project like PED was elaborated on the EU level. Here I aim to better understand where experimental innovation comes from in the first place and how it relates to local implementation.
Another important part of the research is of course understanding the implementation phase of our project. Being involved in ATELIER means that I have the opportunity to be close to the action. Yet, it has so far not always been easy to keep up, for the most part because it is not so easy to stay in touch with everyone because of COVID-19 restrictions. Of course, the pandemic does not only have impact on my research; by now we all know, at least in some capacity, the struggles of working in this extraordinary situation. In this respect, the pandemic will probably also impact my research outcomes, as I expect that current restrictions on meeting in real life greatly affect how we collaborate; both between involved partners and with local stakeholders. I think we can all see how online space simply does not provide the same experience as traveling to other places and being in the same room together. Hopefully, now that the pandemic is somewhat declining in Europe, we will be able to meet again in the near future and share our ideas, inspiration and frustrations with each other!”