Ideas lab: Dreaming, thinking and discussing utopia

Submitted by Samuel Döring, Bauhaus University, Weimar

The Ideas Lab method is based on collaboratively developing and sharing ideas on a specific issue in a short period of time. This method is not about solving problems in a neoliberal sense by developing products and then selling them, but is process-oriented and reflection-oriented. Through the method one tries to free oneself from paralysing logics of thought that ask for “feasibility”, on one hand, as well as from the pure critique of the actual state in eternal loops, and start imagining and exploring utopian ideas. The method is non-hierarchical and each perspective and reflection is equally valuable.

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In which way is this method alternative? 

The ideas lab focuses on a self-taught approach to the thematic issue, the sharing of already existing knowledge and the associated production of “new” knowledge in the process of collaborative work. In this sense, this method is not about the classical (and usually strongly hierarchizing) transfer of knowledge from people “with” knowledge to people “without” knowledge, even though one or more people lead the workshop. However, the focus here should not be on the status of an all-knowing expert, but rather led by intrinsic interest for a topic as the best prerequisite for transferring enthusiasm to the workshop participants.

An explicit framing of one’s own non-knowledge on the part of the facilitator is helpful to establish flat hierarchies right from the beginning. Overall, the focus is on the knowledge and experience of the participants. Therefore, there is no need for knowledge input from “outside”, it is about developing utopias from within oneself and together with others.

Experiences with the method

There are two concrete contexts in which I got to know the method – once from the perspective of a participant and once from the perspective of a facilitator. In both cases the topic was “sustainable urban development”. The choice of the topic remains flexible though.

First experience (participant): Here, during a three-hour event at the European Youth Event (EYE) at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, about 50 teenagers and young adults aged 16-29 from all over Europe came together to develop and discuss ideas for the following question: What is your model for the sustainable city? The final list of ten demands for more sustainable and greener European cities was finally discussed with Members of Parliament.

Second experience (facilitator): Here, workshops were conducted at high schools in Dakar by the Goethe-Institut Senegal with pupils between 13 and 17 years old. The explicit question was: What should your city look like in 2050; how can it become more sustainable? Here, the ideas lab method was just one of several methods and activities during the day-long event. At the end of the workshop, the students planted trees together with the NGO Trees for the Future to make the schoolyards greener in the long term.

Settings and participants the method is best suited for

The method is suitable for very diverse contexts. The examples above both come from one-day-workshops in youth education. However, the method is largely independent of age, location, culture, class, race, gender, topic and so forth. It works within institutions (schools, universities, museums etc.) as well as outside (non-formal education).

Requirements for applying the method

  • Works better indoors than outdoors
  • Ideal number of participants: 15 – 40
  • Required material
    •  Note cards (A5)
    •  Big blank posters (A1) / flipchart
    • Permanent markers
    • Stickers
    • Wifi
  • Crucial points in different contexts
    • sensibility and reflecting on power relations, depending on the relationship between facilitator and participants and participants among each other, but this should actually apply to barely any method