Tools for Legible Policy


Behaviour Design ♦

As Dan Lockton points out, (p. 53) new methodologies are proving more effective at exploring the links between design, understanding and human action, particularly with respect to what’s become known as “behaviour change” for social and environmental benefit, searching for solutions from a myriad of technical as well as and social science disciplines. As the UK Nudge Team has proven, public policy that also designs for sustainable behaviour and cultural shifts needs to explore a myriad of possibilities: from data analysis to storytelling techniques, since good design and potent policy solutions both have the objective to influence individual actions for the benefit of both individual and society.

Civic Tech ♦

Worldwide, there is a growing interest in technology used for social good; a particular vein of this exploration known as civic tech looks to further citizens’ engagement and thus better their quality of life by creating more efficient communication channels with government and/or increasing public value in some way. At Laboratorio para la Ciudad, we believe two hacks (see p. 125) are needed to propel this conversation to the next level. First, the realization that tech is only the beginning of a solution, and that deep work must be done to rearticulate bureaucratic structures and society in new ways, thanks to the existence of said technology. In other words, deep social structuring and institutional design must be part of the equation if civic tech is to have a lasting effect and rearticulate social realities. Second of all, much of civic tech has focused on usability, practicality and efficiency; to engage and interact with new notions of civitas, cities must take into account a whole other set of values such as legibility, fascination, community, metaphoric and symbolic capacities etc. The humanities (its tools and frames) can have an important place in this conversation.

Complex Systems and Interventions ♦

The built environment and the social spheres are in continuous and symbiotic flux. Cities are systems of systems. Important issues, such as health, are multi-factorial and must be analysed and treated as such. Siloed and linear thinking is not enough—the study of complex systems represents a new approach to science that investigates how relationships between parts give rise to the collective behaviors of a system and how the system interacts and forms relationships with its environment. Hence, governments need to incorporate systems thinking as a tool when designing public policy, as well as thinking of of “leverage points”. Donella Meadows (1999) explains that these are places within a complex system—a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem, etc.—where a small shift in one aspect can produce big changes system-wide. Meadows professed the importance of applying the relatively new tools of system dynamics to global problems, and she also analysed the most effective intervention design, which in many ways is also a practice of legibility.

Places to intervene in a system

by Donella Meadows

(in increasing order of effectiveness)

9. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).

8. Regulating negative feedback loops.

7. Driving positive feedback loops.

6. Material flows and nodes of material intersection.

5. Information flows.

4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).

3. The distribution of power over the rules of the system.

2. The goals of the system.

1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system—its goals, power structure, rules, its culture—arises.

Context-Sensitive Sense-making 〈〉

Thoughtfully designed filtering and visualising methods can work effectively alongside traditional sense-making techniques to help policy makers pick weak signals from the noise and work towards a sensitive, ethical strategy for decision making. The experiment here would be to design a series of frameworks and filters that emerge after the futures visioning exercise rather than predetermined, generalised filtering. For instance—a game-changing technological breakthrough in emission efficiency or the failure to reach a major global political agreement for sustainable development —can both be used as context-sensitive filters for discussions in terms of specific policies. This can become a robust tool for addressing the messy ground-level realities of policy making.

Dissemination Tactics 〈〉

Critical to ensure that the insights from the political ethnography work are widely accessible. One possibility to achieve this is to redesign the traditional tools of political campaigning as it is a familiar and accessible format. For instance, a tactical dissemination toolkit could include templates for flyers, posters, stickers and notices which could be filled in with key findings and placed on public noticeboards, cafes, libraries, town halls and pubs. We imagine local councils, citizen-led initiatives, and numerous non-governmental organisations would be keen to try such low-cost tools and become early adopters. Another highly successful and effective way of raising awareness and visibility about opaque political procedures dissemination tactic is performance, either in the street or theatre.

Experimental Zones (Revisiting minimal states of exception) ♦

States of exception are a polemic tool for states craft. Born as concept in the legal theory of Carl Schmitt, it proclaims that heads of state can and should be able to act beyond the rule of law if it benefits the public good in a state of emergency. This measure has been used on many occasions to questionable means, most recently to suspend civil liberties in the United States as measures that form part of the “War on Terror”. The historic consequences of government acting outside of carefully constructed (and hyper-contained) legal and administrative scaffolding leaves societies understandably wary of states of exceptions in government.

And yet, bureaucratic structures need to be strategically relieved from the weight of their own rules and regulations if they are to question the status quo and envision other (hopefully better) ways forward: to innovate. Minimal and controlled states of exception—zones where the usual rules no longer apply—have to be designed into governments in the shape of Laboratories, innovation offices et al., with agility and experimentation in mind instead of blind adherence to the rules; shaped and protected with the proper mechanisms, finding ways of going back to first principles and proposing new paradigms where, for example, radical transparency can (and should) go hand in hand with fast-acting, experimental and emergent strategies, plus the legal and administrative capacity to continuously rearticulate its borders and add new actors or agendas. Paradoxically, concepts borrowed from self-proclaimed anarchist Hakim Bey can inform the ethos of these government-bound Temporary Autonomous Zone: reminding us of the socio-political value of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control; the importance of non-hierarchical systems of social relationships and the possibility of releasing one’s own mind from the controlling mechanisms that have been imposed on it; new territories recreated on the boundary line of established regions (Bey, 1991). These minimal spaces become a place to question the very nature of the larger structure that contains them, mitigating risk for all. They differ from states of exception as we know the in the following characteristics: Scale: These are micro territories instead of nations. Temporality: They are experimental, prototypes, quick-flowing and have ludic ethos. Legibility: They use new means to make more visible the inner workings and mechanisms of a contained space instead of supplanting legibility with endlessly tautological rules. Plus they offer clarity on how each experiment’s medular question optimizes for public value, notwithstanding its success or its failure.

From Data Viz to Visual Epistemology ♦

Image matters. Graphic design has become a great tool to turn data into information through visualizations and graphics. Yet at Laboratorio para la Ciudad we believe we are just at the beginning stages of understanding how to use images not only to convey the relationship between different data points in clearer ways, but also as a way of communicating subjects in nonlinear fashion and creating tools for thinking, helping make sense of complex systems and model interventions. Visual thinking is widespread in mathematical practice and has diverse cognitive and epistemic purposes, but has not been sufficiently explored in the realm of social sciences and urban practices. Could images be at the center of the legibility discussion—with both pedagogical and innovative tools for discovery and exploration?

New Urban Typologies: Civic Spaces, Open Spaces ♦

Cities now acknowledge the importance of participation and governance. Efforts are underway to rethink the place of the digital sphere in terms of citizen engagement: open data, new apps, new portals. However, especially in cities where there is an important digital gap, physical public space could also serve as a point of encounter between citizens and their government, beyond public buildings created for services and complaints. Although the notion of government solely as a provider of budgets and services is still pervasive, if we accept this new social reality, we must re-envision our role: government as catalyst. We need original civic spaces, new civic skills, projects that articulate social energy and political will. To engage, city-making has to become fascinating—meaning we need political imagination, reframing potential, the prototyping of urban creativity, all approached with deeply collaborative and social mindsets to develop open source places that are programmable by the community and their needs.

Object-driven Design Research 〈〉

A successful experiential method for ethnographic work, in which diegetics and prototypes are used to provoke responses. Alongside observations and interviews, by looking and even touching actual props, participants are encouraged to imagine new possibilities. These often speculative prototypes, help ask ‘what if’ and ‘as if’ questions, giving people the space to develop opinions, get involved, and commit to the conceit.

Participatory Platforms and Programs ♦

New technology and methodologies can allow for governments to evolve from models of representative democracy to participatory and deliberative governance, creating better feedback loops. Mexico City recently approved an “Open City Law” that proclaims the right of citizens to be part of the design of public policy, and not only by voting for their representatives during elections. Hence, understanding that Open Government is an evolving cultural phenomenon, the law also obliges government to continuously experiment with new ways of making this possible.

It is often assumed that deploying participatory initiatives is enough to engage citizens, regenerate the city and make a difference in people’s lives. This is not the case. Likewise, citizens’ participation on its own is not enough. It is insufficient to merely open doors of participation and expect great ideas, let alone great results capable of instigating even bolder solutions. We assert that paradigms of creative governance is the way forward. In this new paradigm of governance, new public policy should be created to increase communities’ skills, city knowledge and collaborative and creative capacities.

Plug-ins ♦

Coincidentally, both Unidad de Protocolos and Laboratorio para la Ciudad work with the plug-in theory expounded by Pablo Kobayashi, in which a small group can temporarily adhere itself to a larger system, giving the system augmented or different capacities. Once the objective is reached, it disconnects and keep working autonomously, but it is capable of still propagating the new knowledge and tools acquired with each project or mission, adding to a multidisciplinary repertoire of possibilities. Traces of the collaboration are also usually left within the host system in the form of new optics, tools, capacities, relationships.

In the case of Laboratorio para la Ciudad—a group that always works as as a bridge between government and citizens—the traces that remain are also social structures in the form of new communities articulated around a common vision, ideally blurring the dividing lines between disciplines, citizens and public institutions, all coming together seeking to create public value.

Political Ethnography 〈〉

Unbiased third party actors study the direct inner workings of state actors and political institutions in order to provide a deeper understanding of policy making processes, the evidence and intent behind decision-making, and potential implications of those decisions. Such activity would display a willingness for political actors to become participants in making their own work legible.

Speculative Policymaking 〈〉

The practice of envisioning futures via speculative design can be a powerful tool, particularly worth considering in this context. Presented through visual aids, the proposed policy becomes a drawing board where relevant stakeholders and citizens can annotate their own suggestions through pictures, words, photographs and much more. It becomes a vehicle for creating an open and editable policy for the future, paving the way for an iterative approach to participatory governance, where policies can be publicly versioned through collaborative visioning.

Symbolic Infrastructures ♦

A city is not only composed of its visible and physical aspects. It is also a fluctuating composite of intangibles: a sense of identity, a repertoire of historical or contemporary symbols, living metaphors and collective urban imaginaries, merging and clashing. Creativity and culture must be part of the design of cities’ “public-ness”, and not only in the form of art per se. Culture is the great a priori. We need new political forms and urban languages, and we also need to think about how a city is shaped by its belief systems, how these intangible assets help or hinder the creation of public value and how these abstract infrastructures hold our potential worlds, articulating (whether loudly or silently) both subjective and social meaning. Cities are, in the end, cultural artefacts and storytelling machines.

Transparent Feedback Loops 〈〉

Ensure that new governance models in democracy move past tokenism. When citizens who choose to volunteer their time achieve a sense of agency and ownership toward the activity, it is imperative that they be kept abreast of the translation of that activity into a policy, and know how their involvement aids in the final decision-making processes. Simple tools of design and media can help make the translation, decision making and communication processes more open, and ensure that contributors retain their sense of ownership and agency. Debates can be tweeted, videos streamed, where possible, with the possibility for people to respond in real time. Even if people don’t watch, the fact that it is being streamed can give them the sense that the intention is transparency rather than closed doors.


Bey, H. (1991). T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/stream/al_Hakim_Bey_T.A.Z._ The_Temporary_Autonomous_Zone_Ontological_Anarchy_Poetic_Terror/ Hakim_Bey__T.A.Z.__The_Temporary_Autonomous_Zone__Ontological_Anarchy__ Poetic_Terrorism_a4#page/n0/mode/2up

Meadows, D. (1999). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Hartland, Vt. The Sustainability Institute. Retrieved from: http://donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Leverage_Points.pdf