02/07/2020Eva De Smedt x Maya Van Leemput

Two researchers at the research centre Open Time | Applied Futures Research at Erasmus University College of Applied Science and Arts practice their rigorous imagination. Eva De Smedt’s analysis highlights the social construction of the “not yet”, presenting four different discourses on Brussels gleaned from strategic conversations with a dozen cultural actors, while Maya Van Leemput pays her a visit direct from a future in which the re-claimed and chaotic city perspectives have come into their own.



Eva De Smedt (

Applied Futures Research | Open Time – Erasmushogeschool Brussel

A city doesn’t simply ‘exist’ in itself. Rather, it is a dynamic entity continuously brought into being – i.e. interpreted, endorsed, negotiated, resisted, and reproduced – in and through mutual and complex interactions between the city’s spaces and its public, between institutional structures and daily agency, between context and text, between macro and micro, between the material and the discursive, to name but a few. Finding its roots in sociology and social constructionism, such an approach to the city – and, in fact, to society as a whole – as dialectically constituted yields the possibility of transcending the traditional ambivalence of capturing either the city’s material, fixed dimensions or the city’s discursive, flexible dimensions (e.g. Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Giddens, 1984; Schutz, 1962). This essay takes this symbiotic and dialogic relationship between the local and structural levels of cityscapes as crucial fertile ground for further exploring the potential of discourse and people’s local sense-making activities and imaginaries in eliciting change.

Far from being a surface or container with pre-established materialities, certainties, discourses, and identities, urban spaces inevitably go hand in hand with dynamic performances, relationships, and social practices that have the inherent power to rethink and rearrange structural and spatial aspects of the city (e.g. Castells, 2002; Massey, 2005). For this reason, space can never be ‘completed’ or ‘closed’, but is always involved in complex performative processes: “space is constantly ‘on the move’, every topography is constantly done and undone” (Marchart, 2014: 279). The topic of how local structures of meaning – i.e. ‘discourses’ – have led to the endorsement, preservation, negotiation, or even dismantling of spatial materialities has been the subject matter of quite a few studies. For instance, Butler’s (1990) concept of “materialist performativity”, Laclau and Mouffe’s notions of “dislocation” (Laclau, 1990) and “radical democracy” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1990), and Carpentier’s (2017) understanding of “the discursive-material knot” are useful frameworks to better grasp and understand this inextricable connectedness of and fertilisation between the discursive and material levels of social reality.

Such an acknowledgement of the role of discourse and local practices in the transformation of cityscapes is mostly embedded in a past-oriented analysis, focussing on spaces in the present and how they have come into existence through historical discursive processes (e.g. Palonen, 2019). However, the strength of such a logic might also be used in the opposite direction: to anticipate future alternatives and sharpen our awareness in the present. In such a view forward, the logic above is reversed into a focus on possible spaces in the future and how they could come into existence through discursive processes in the present. As Massey (2005: 11, own emphasis) claims, such imaginations of possibilities for space often remain marginal:

“The imagination of space as a surface on which we are placed, the turning of space into time, the sharp separation of local space from the space out there; these are all ways of taming the challenge that the inherent spatiality of the world presents. Most often, they areunthought.

Imagining desired spaces for tomorrow today then forms a critical discursive vehicle through which future possibilities can be articulated and acted upon in the present. In this respect, the field of inquiry of futures studies allows for putting specific methodologies to work in order to motivate, incite and provoke people to explicitly and implicitly bring into play their ideas about future possible, plausible, probable and/or preferred alternatives (e.g. Voros, 2001, 2017) The shared imaginaries that follow serve as extremely valuable discursive representations of a non-actual world – the “not yet” – and are by definition permeated with “anticipatory assumptions” (Miller, 2018), norms, values, and expectations about the past, present, and future1.

In an ongoing case study in collaboration with CIVA, I explore images of the future of urban culture in Brussels in 2042. In 2019, I sounded out 12 Brussels-based experts in fields as wide-ranging as architecture, planning, education, culture, social work, arts, and museums about their visions of Brussels’ future by means of so-called “strategic conversations” (Ratcliffe, 2002; van der Heijden, 2005)2. What particularly interests me in the analysis of the corpus is how these experts locally – i.e. in the conversations – bring into play their understandings of preferable futures and therefore of desired spaces in Brussels. Overall, the participants show an orientation towards 4 recurring images of the future when it comes to considering desired spaces in Brussels for the year 2042.

  1. The chaotic city. In this discursively constructed image of the future, participants depart from Brussels’ typical chaos and embrace it as welcome feeding ground for the emergence of a preferable future. Less top-down control and fewer rules create space for bottom-up spontaneity and a good dose of civil disobedience. Within this vision, the city has become denser and more mixed. Citizens freely claim the in-between public spaces to facilitate mutual encounters, sell homemade or short-chain products, deliver services, or just hang out. In daily life, the boundaries between work and leisure time, private and professional life are dissolved. The ‘melting pot’ and maze of culturally diverse practices, norms, and values are surrounded by a discourse of enrichment and general tolerance. The local government is in close interaction with citizens to ensure the reflection of this ‘mixity’ into the city’s urban design, thereby stimulating balanced infrastructure with mixed functions. Cultural venues are no longer attached to their traditional cultural representation functions and are now characterised by continuous and dynamic in and out fluxes of people and activities.
  2. The soothing city. This image of the future is all about a general discourse of rest and tranquillity. The metaphorical ‘cramp’ that characterised the past decennia has finally developed into a more relaxing attitude where people reside in urbanisation, language differences, and diversity. Within this image, people move as “flâneurs” through the cityscape and eagerly absorb the city’s pacifying and even consoling atmosphere. Language differences or roots are no longer an issue and people interact freely and unrestrainedly with one another. Due to the fast, efficient, sustainable, and elongated public transport system and the broad cycle and foot lanes, people can easily move in no time from one place to the other. The canal, with its broadened banks, forms the epicentre of recreation in the city, together with the many green rooftops on private buildings that have now become public space. Culture brings life and colour to the city by facilitating positive collaborations and projects that catalyse an infectious dynamism. The consumerist frenzy that typified the previous decades has slowly made way for gentle immersion and/or creative production. The local government adopts an ever-long-term perspective and is vastly preoccupied with developing a vision on the city of tomorrow, in real consultation with civil society.
  3. The dialogic city. Another recurring image of the future is that of a dialogic city with many figurative crossroads. The general discourse in this shared imaginary is one of desacralisation, facilitating dialogue and exchange at many levels in the city: top-down-bottom-up, quantitative-qualitative, French-speaking-Dutch-speaking, private-public, and city-countryside. The cross-fertilisation between these levels counts as the essential driver of the “bouillonnement” of the city. This city of the future is one in which there is time and space to collaborate spontaneously and informally, across language, scale and sectorial borders. Smaller organisations and initiatives in the city get the chance to experiment and search for exciting partnerships with equally small or bigger players on the basis of shared goals. The local government valorises ‘under-the-radar’ initiatives and the potential sustainability of such projects is high on its agenda. Success indicators are defined on the basis of qualitative parameters, rather than purely economic ones. A lot of private properties and terrains have been opened up for mixed public use: from pedestrian bridges connecting public rooftops, to public passages through private buildings. Cultural venues open their doors and give ‘carte blanche’ to local collectives to experiment, test, create. The city and countryside have accepted and embraced their mutual dependency and explore exciting collaborations between farmers and urban citizens.
  4. The claimed city. The last image of the future puts forward a general discourse of ownership, with a general empowerment of the citizen. The social model in this democratic imaginary is based on openness, tolerance, and conviviality. Citizens have reached a normalised state of cohabitation after they had the courage and insight to acknowledge and make explicit conflict and differences. The public spaces in the city are specifically designed to let people jointly make and appropriate the city. From a general sense of ownership, people easily take the initiative to start up small-scale projects and look for commonalities. At the same time, there is a tendency of big gestures shaping the cityscape: rather than letting buildings and places deteriorate, people jointly engage in the demolition and/or reallocation of these places. The horizontal organisation structures within many organisations and institutions caused a paramount redistribution of power to the advantage of a truly inclusive ethos and more firmly rooted connections with diverse communities. Cultural venues serve as societal ‘future factories’ with an essential laboratory function that facilitates the imagination of and debate about the city of tomorrow.

What, then, to learn from this plurality of preferable images of the future for Brussels? If this essay wants to emphasise one thing, then it is the inherent openness and contingency of cityscapes. Just as time is never complete and open to interpretations – i.e. the baseline of futures studies, so is space far from ‘carved into stone’. Rather, it counts as an open signifier that is very much dependent on the prevailing discourses that confirm, negotiate, redefine, and sometimes resist aspects of that urban space. Change, then, is an ever-present possibility and the expression of preferable paths for the future is a necessary instigator to effectively move towards desired spaces. Imaginaries of future possibilities have in themselves a performative power, namely a power to act upon them: “they give people reason for action, they are reasons for action, premises and practical arguments” (Fairclough & Fairclough, 2012: 242, original emphasis). We can and must grab this opportunity of imagining multiple futures for Brussels’ spaces as a necessary push towards opening up our visions, realising our collective agency in provoking change, and jointly becoming ‘futures literate’.

Want to know more about this project or share your imaginaries for the future of Brussels? Contact

1 Such an acknowledgement of futures thinking as permeated with underlying ideologies, presuppositions, and expectations is a focal topic within Critical Futures Studies (CFS), a particularly valuable research tradition within futures studies. Borrowing from poststructuralist notions such as genealogy and deconstruction, Tutton (2017: 485), for instance, argues that the study of futures necessarily involves an “entanglement of matter and meaning”.

2 A strategic conversation counts as a variation to the classic in-depth interview. It is most commonly used within futures studies to invite participants to creatively construct, step-by-step, narratives about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ alternative futures (Ratcliffe, 2002; van der Heijden, 2005).


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