Political Imagination: Towards an Experimental Theory of Legible Policy



Culture is “… a radically unfinished social process of self-definition and transformation”


I have always been helplessly fascinated by the place where (so-called) fact and (so-called) fiction collide; the volcanic and viscous borders where symbol, myth and metaphor create tiny fissures in what we call “real life.” I am interested in the way multiple subjectivities are added up to make the world as we know it, in all its forms, truths and disguises.

This might seem a whimsical yet utterly impractical reflection to mention while examining cities and their governments. In terms of public policy around gray cities and green infrastructures—the initial starting point for the work between London and Mexico City—one would think there is little relationship. But I believe we public officials will come to realize with more certainty every passing day that each of our cities and our societies first gets its start and gathers its particular momentum from within the invisible and symbolic landscapes. Culture writ large, in other words. Culture, the great apriori; our first principles, our collective DNA that silently spells out what is possible and what is not, how we tackle our challenges and explore our possibilities: how we think of ourselves individually and collectively.

There are many ways to envision a city’s future aspirations: imagine it becoming first world, becoming alpha or becoming smart. Each has its own subset of organizing principles, policies and ways of instigating a particular social energy and political will while obfuscating others. Each with its own potential and its own blind spots. So, if you ask me, we should bring to the forefront an additional thought-experiment when thinking about policy: serious reflections on urban life, taking for granted that cities should not only be built for the human body but also for the human imagination. The mind is the place where our cities start. We must better understand our political and social imagination and know that public policies must also have agency there, if they are to be at all effective. I believe, with great urgency, that we should bring these reflections to the very heart of government life. We need to know where and how our seemingly neutral regulations are inscribed within a certain vision of the city. This is the basis for starting a long-term deep dive into our definition of legible policy at Laboratorio para la Ciudad, to be conceptualized, prototyped, iterated, possibly transmuted: theory in practice; emergent strategies that adapt to changing scenarios, tools for interpretation and the making of conceptual frameworks relevant to daily urban life.

In my three years in public office, I have come to realize our need to explore new urban languages and political forms—other tools for thinking about social life and systemic change—because, as we sometimes forget, government is a channel towards city life, not a tautological thing unto itself. We need to learn to read and speak again in city and social tongues.

This might be the crux of things. It is clear that in Mexico we are caught in an interesting paradox: There is a growing mistrust of institutions and politics, and at the same time there is growing desire on behalf of citizens to be part of the way a city is and how it evolves. This brings to the forefront new questions (and potentialities, and challenges) that pertain to urban governance, plus the need for new mindframes—and possibly even new types of institutions and civic ecosystems—for rethinking both the possibilities of social capital as well as the creative capacity of a city. Back to that basic building block: the nature of the polis and how we collectively decide what type of life we want to live together.


In an increasingly intricately connected world, there is no doubt that we need tools to make complex systems understandable if we are to explore our agency within them. As Roberto Ascencio points out in his essay (p.173) there are many examples of how lack of proper communication can turn good policy into bad politics—and even citizen outrage.

The word Legible comes to us from the late 14c, from Late Latin: legibilis, “that can be read,” from Latin legere, “to read.” But lest we think that to be “legible” begins and ends at transparency, or the clarity of the “writing” before us, it is interesting to take an extra step back in time, and explore the etymology of “reading”: from the old English rædan (West Saxon), redan (Anglian) “to advise, counsel, persuade; discuss, deliberate; rule, guide; arrange, equip; forebode; explain; learn by reading; put in order” (related to ræd, red “advice”), from Proto-Germanic *redan (cognates: Old Norse raða, Old Frisian reda, Dutch raden, Old High German ratan, German raten “to advise, counsel, guess.”

So even though legible policy can (and must) pass through the realm of a good and honest explanation (the hows and the whys) we must also take into account that legibility—which is also about counsel, discussion, persuasion, arranging and guessing— is in the end a tool for us to collectively make sense of our world. To frame, deliberate and envision. And to ask ourselves difficult questions at times, with no easy answers.

This framework of deliberative and participative governance has been at the heart of our work with our Open City agenda at the Lab. This is also our inflection point towards an experimental theory of legible policy in the ongoing projects of Laboratorio Para la Ciudad: a way of bringing not only data but also narrative deeply into the equation; so instead of being simply surface it becomes the way we inform and communicate but also engage and evoke and ponder together.

During our research and workshops between London and Mexico City, we have come to a better understanding of new inputs available for thinking about cities when using tools borrowed from behavioral design, futures thinking, creative and experimental practices, ludification, computational science, data visualization, systems design, patterns modelling, social and urban innovation, visual ethnography, evolutionary psychology, artistic fields—and even fiction.

These are spaces that could compliment policy as we now think of it, with better understanding of different nodes and connections in a system of human relationships that permit (or block) different social configurations.


The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.

Antanas Mockus, former Mayor of Bogotá

The power of open knowledge is unquestionable. The more information that is available and flows freely, the better people learn from each other. It is the way towards exponential and agile evolution of a system. But information and data are not enough. A creative ethos is also necessary for information to travel, for ideas to take hold and evolve.

I believe we have spent too much time thinking that policy begins and ends with laws or interventions upon the physical infrastructure. New optics can discover and switch paradigms in relationship to individual human behaviour and communal life that happens within these shape-shifting cultural and organic artifacts that is a city.

Politicians like Antanas Mokus, once-upon-a-time Mayor of Bogotá, have proven that unusual ideas and powerful metaphors can be so much more effective in making important changes within society—that one can become creative and even playful while tackling all-too serious problems. Mockus found a different way of making policy legible.

He is well-known for complementing new policy and norms with citizen engagement through creative methods, as highlighted by the Harvard Gazette:

The fact that he was seen as an unusual leader gave the mayor the opportunity to try extraordinary things, such as hiring 420 mimes to control traffic in Bogotá’s chaotic and dangerous streets. He launched a “Night for Women” and asked the city’s men to stay home in the evening and care for the children; 700,000 women went out on the first of three nights that Mockus dedicated to them… Mockus sees the reduction of homicides from 80 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003 as a major achievement, noting also that traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600. Contributing to this success was the mayor’s inspired decision to paint stars on the spots where pedestrians (1,500 of them) had been killed in traffic accidents.

He also managed to reduce water waste by 14% in two months, and later on by 40%.

Mockus’ seemingly wacky notions have a respectable intellectual pedigree. His measures were informed by, among others, Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North, who has investigated the tension between formal and informal rules, and Jürgen Habermas’ work on how dialogue creates social capital.

This, I confess, is one of the topics that intrigues me the most: how to create city through culture and all of imagination’s instruments, and how, in turn, a social invention can be incubated by its surroundings.

There are questions we have forgotten to ask within the walls of government. What have been our sense-making tools throughout history? What lies at the edge of the legible and other ways to read and write the city? Are there more to urbanscapes than their physical and visible spaces? What transformations are possible within the intangible realms? How do we analyse and understand both quantitative and qualitative data? What happens in the hybrid world between aesthetics and politics? Are our fictions capable of creating social realities? What does it take for public policy to truly have a positive effect on shaping realities and community life?

With each passing day we should become more interested in exploring (and creating) meeting points between a specific and objective geography and the way it is collectively constructed through the social imaginaries of the people that inhabit it—the symbolic infrastructure of a city, that forgotten “real” estate.


One of the most powerful forces that shapes a city is government, by ordering and laying out both the physical infrastructure as well as many of the rules of engagement. Which why it is an interesting (even necessary) experiment to explore what would happen if we design hybrid strategies that also stimulate and facilitate public and private imagination from within the political realm. But instead of using “spin” these strategies need to be embedded within the ethos of open knowledge and legible policies. The more deeply and creatively we understand what is at stake, the better decisions we can make as a society.

Which is why we need to make ideas, infrastructures and decisions visible. But, I insist, legibility should be not only about objectivity and clarity, but also about subjective relevance. Legibility can be our capacity to create “suture” within our systems and how we write and read them: openings where an individual can inscribe herself or himself into public life. And what could be better than to have increasingly more imaginative social tools to envision our possible worlds and our place in them?

So perhaps true legibility begins when one is enticed into actively becoming part of the unfolding story. This is how agency is born—and where grey first turns into green.