FUTURE CAPE TOWN | Designing public space in the information age: Interview with Marco Lampugnani

“take the responsibility to design in and for a world that deals with information in a very open and democratic way”

Imagining and inhabiting

Marco Lampugnani, architect, space-maker and public-realm designer, discusses with us what challenges lie ahead for designing public space in the information age.






Marco Lampugnani, is the former President and founder of Snark (a space-making and interaction design agency) and currently public-realm designer based in Milan. 

Andrea Pollio: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself? How did you become a space-maker?

Marco Lampugnani: I was trained as an architect (with an MA in landscape architecture and final project on critical design applied to architecture); I have always been interested in urban policies, constantly doubting that architecture could offer all the answers to the how-to-make-the-places-we-live-in question.

What follows is my personal experience and has no value as a fully replicable pret-a-porter recipe, but, on the other hand, it is 100% viable for its methodology and values. That is a big challenge for our discipline: can space-making be a tailor-made discipline?

It was quite natural to start a journey (not just metaphorical) searching for answers in concrete projects and experiences. Soon it became clear that among the crucial elements in the equation were people: from colleagues to mentors, including any kind of passionate city-doers or lovers. I’ve been collecting tools for my own toolbox from relational practices to participation, design and entrepreneurship, media design and politics. The results is very a personal recipe.

Last but not least: opportunities and case studies. It is meaningless to build knowledge without applying or testing or evaluating or fine tuning it. In more or less 7 years I worked on something like 100 projects, including many consulting services, 3 startups, few big public processes, strategic consulting  and more.  I founded a company that is now on its own path, a startup, few associations, I’ve been teaching and learning, and two years ago I started a new venture that is still (almost) top-secret.

Being an architect

(AP): African and European cities are two very different areas of work today. Yet in both contexts, there are great opportunities for intervening tactically, with a light touch on the formal and informal material which our cities are already made of. What does it mean to be an architect or an urban designer with a ‘light touch’?

(ML): As you correctly point out, context matters a lot, even if probably in a very different way as commonly taught at school: context is wider, more complex and multilayered. It is also-non scalar or at least fractal: working for the Italian government is as complex as working for the city of Milan, or for a private company, or for a very small neighborhood. Context is everything that can be related to a design issue and, magic!, it is defined by us designers: we look at it and we pick elements that we think are part of the design process we foresee, while the rest stays where it belongs. Thinking of our own experience Italy is – with no doubts – very peculiar and sets specific scenarios, possible ambitions and goals.

There’s an interesting implicit point in your question: the tension between strategies and tactics. You also use an intelligent definition: architect or an urban designer with a ‘light touch’.

Regarding strategies and tactics it is a matter of fact that a lot of practitioners in the past decades joined the “tactical party”: it’s been a counteract to top-down, rigid etc. planning. It’s been also a necessary act of identity building. De Certeau, Lefevbre, Hakim Bey and many others provided all the blablabla to build an alternative discipline. But as often happened a disciplinary approach proved to be useful in ideological terms but less efficient in dealing with reality.

The practitioner with a light touch you depict fits properly in what we try to do in our daily job. Dan Hill wrote a quite interesting essay in the attempt to redefine the vocabulary of strategic design: Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary. What matters is not whether Hill succeeded in his ambition to create a language, but the way in which  he erases any hierarchy between tactic and strategy, substituting it with variabile clusters of specific concepts. This way “Trojan horses” can be directly related to “meta stuff” in a very natural and effective way. A very interesting post-summer reading. 

To put it in a simpler way, what I experienced is that in general by designing small or temporary systems we have the big opportunity to generate big changes in institutions, communities etc.: design processes can often be a gate to enter complex systems and affect them with significative impacts, with a generative and viral dynamic. Yet, obviously, it can’t be the only way to operate: it effectively integrates more traditional approaches.

The context

(AP): You were recently involved in an interesting public space intervention, where a square in Milan became the setting for a participative experiment. What are the main difficulties in democratising public space design, according to your experience?

(ML): Every process should be analyzed per se, I’ll try to point out what we faced during #nevicata14.
Regarding #nevicata14 we faced several criticalities that rendered it a very challenging process.

The square before the interventionsFIRST: Consciousness
Piazza Castello wasn’t a real square: it was a street (actually, a quite busy one).
The first big challenge was working on generating in citizens the consciousness of the square as a public, open, available place. It was a quantum leap that we strongly pursued with all our efforts, strategies and tools.

Quantuum leapSECOND: stakeholders
As it wasn’t perceived as a square, it’s been quite hard to make piazza Castello’s stakeholders aware of their role. Which is the audience of the square? Which interests, goals and drivers for action do they have? How to help them negotiate mutual rights and duties? How to help them become pro-active?

Changing squareTHIRD: media
No consciousness + multiple stakeholders required a transmedia integrated strategy to get in contact with them and to enable co-working and designing and deciding actions.

ChangingFOURTH: consensus VS inclusion
A complex public process calls for multiple actions.

At least four levels of relation building happened in #nevicata14: information (to get to know correctly what happened and what will happen), consensus management (it’s not about to convince everybody: it’s more about including as many as possible in a balanced and fair way both pro and con subjects), co-creation and, finally, appropriation (that is: here’s your public space as an infrastructure, now use it responsibly and sustainably).

ConsensusFIFTH: promises
#nevicata14 has been a public process of high political relevance.
Being so, it is subject to fluctuation of processes, decisions, priorities (I’m not mentioning this in a negative way: it is a feature of public processes, that’s it). It is very complex and crucial to maintain promises made to citizens in order not to waste all the results achieved.

Changing space

(AP): Cities in Africa and in the Global South in general, as Ananya Roy argues, have been too often represented as’slumdog cities’, hubs of problems and never as they really are: places where innovations, opportunities, poverty, good and bad government are there at the same time. Now it seems that it is also the time of Southern Europe: we only read about Athens, Rome, Madrid as cities in crisis. What is your perspective on this simplistic way of representing contemporary urbanism?

(ML): If we look at this issue from a communication or information point of I can easily see why is preferable to look and create buzz about the dark side of crisis… I’m pretty cynical about this point: as we live in an informational/networked reality, we have to accept the implications of democratising opinions about every kind of topic. This happens also to urbanism and architecture: disciplines with a powerful symbolic value offer the perfect scenario to ground conflicts.
It is funny that once this ability was subverted: built environment was meant to convey values and lead public imaginarium.

The problem is that urbanism feels the urgency to detach

The problem is that urbanism feels the urgency to detach from this simplistic approach and point out its virtues. But this is self-belief: the attitude should be to take the responsibility to design in and for a world that deals with information in a very open and democratic way.

Looking at contemporary South European cities’ crisis is once again an evidence of this misunderstanding of the information loop: we look at evidence as fact and do not adopt a design attitude.

As a designer I tend to see the opportunity in the crisis (here I refer to Southern European cities): all negative elements represented in the dichotomy you refer are signals of a big paradigm shift that is affecting the way we live: we should think and build our own urban environments. Putting it in another way, all of these problems are basically design briefs to be addressed as soon as possible.

(AP):  If we read Le Corbusier’s  writings, we learn of a deep commitment to social justice and equality that yet was never fully realised. What can we learn, then, from past mistakes?

(ML): The lessons we can learn are very basic but crucial: to fully strengthen the link between the material and non-material dimensions of urban space envisioning, design and management. To equally value product and process. To imagine comprehensive systems (we call them stories) that can include all these elements in a sustainable and interconnected way.

I’m talking about going far beyond in the way we look at urban environments: our societies are changing faster than ever so how can we relate to that change?

In the past the relational (that is how do we relate or engage with all the subjects touched, at different levels, by a project?) and the service (that is how do we enable, catalyse practices, actions, etc) dimensions of design were considered subsidiary issues to architectural and urban ones. I’d like to clear up one point: I’m not only talking about tools to support design processes (what we call participation, inclusion, user experience etc). I’m talking about going far beyond in the way we look at urban environments: our societies are changing faster than ever so how can we relate to that change? how can we design for the new rituals that are emerging daily? Novelty comes from our ability to lead the world as we know it into the one we can contribute to create.

This is the most exciting challenge I think a designer with a light touch can face nowadays. And I like this challenge also because it renovates itself as time passes by. Tomorrow will already be slightly changed.


Marco Lampugnani


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  1. Marco Lampugnani for the interview.
  2. Yulya Besplemennova (Interstellar Racoons) for the illustrations – https://medium.com/@coonsfromspace.