UrbanIxD Summer School

Tobias Revell
Re: UrbanIxD


Even in design practice and corporate foresight we rarely look at marketable outputs so much as learning curves or experiences that can trickle down to inform things later.

Tobias Revell is an artist, designer and educator from London. He is also atelier leader at our summer school.

How would you place your work in the context of the contemporary design/art practice?

I work primarily in futures across a variety of disciplines. I work in academia, design, corporate foresight and as a practicing artist with the “public”. These are four very different outlets with a diaspora of output forms, media and audiences but a unified input, often building on the same ideas, theories, design and personalities. I do try and cross over between them all. This means using a wide variety of media and thinking about how techniques that may work really well in one field could be linked across to all.

How do you see the current relation between the design and art?

In the area that I work it’s interchangeable. Even in design practice and corporate foresight we rarely look at marketable outputs so much as learning curves or experiences that can trickle down to inform things later. The delineation I draw between practices comes more in the form of who it’s for and why I’m doing it. Thinking about someone else’s brief or researching for someone else’s benefit falls into design. If it’s exploring my own interests or talking about things I want to talk about it’s art. The form of the end product is largely irrelevant so much as the reason for doing it in the first place.

What is the role of the critical design approach today and how important is it in your work?

The critical design approach is very important to my work. I find that design and market techniques are more and more aimed at obfuscating ideologies and motivations, often even to their creators. In a world that is so complex and so multi-dimensional, a critical approach gives the opportunity to unpick, dissect and try to understand the mechanisms that drive and control the world. Through my various practices, the aim is ultimately to expose, explain and consider what these might mean.

Why do you think it is important to be critical/to question the current scientific and technical development?

I think if we’re not critical then we just accept the major consensus narrative as so many do.

The world is divided and divisive and it’s easy to look for easy answers or a sense of solidarity – to turn to an established narrative that best aligns with how you think you should feel or what you think you should believe. A critical approach gives us the opportunity to read past and into the obfuscating effects of technology. We may not be able to propose alternatives, and we probably shouldn’t when we find something wrong. But being aware of them might allow us to steer better.

All statistic indications put attention to the trends of the constant growth of the urban population. How do you see future cities in 5, 10 and 50 years?

“The City” as a construct is interesting in itself. The world is often referred to in terms of “The City” as a whole. There’s good reason for this. The City is the primary geopolitical unit of “The Cloud”. Geo-politics is no longer horizontal, divided across states and political bodies but is also vertical. The city is a focus point for networks, technologies, interfaces and the cloud – a boring hole in which the stratified layers of geo-political, social and technological progress can be seen. Urbanisation and connectivity are increasing so rapidly and the traditional Westphalian state border feels so fragile that in 50 years we may not be able to define between cities – we will all live in The City. In the shorter term, cities act as flashpoints for individual agency – the revolutions and protests of the last few years – and the ongoing battle between polities – people, markets and governance. Perhaps they will become more entrenched and brutal ideological warzones but perhaps some might emerge as models of genuine and hopeful change.

How do you perceive the influence of the new technologies to life in the future cities – especially if we focus on human activities experiences and behaviour in these cities?

There are two generalised routes that I can see. The first is the dream of technology to liberalise and introduce equality, to enable and pass on agency to people previously denied it. New, cheaper, easier services, security and business. The other is the ostracising sort. The sort of technology that secures an ever tightening elite and locks-out those without the capital or literacy to take part. The city is also sometimes a battleground for these competing ideologies. In the developing world’s rapidly urbanising cityscape this battle is being played out most vividly.

What are the biggest issues and challenges for interaction design in an urban context?

Cynically, I think proving itself as non-frivolous. Some urban interaction interventions either invent a new problem to ‘solve’ or just act as a spectacle to distract from a real problem. The problem is that to sell that design, the spectacle is a requirement. Most sources of funding require the spectacle as a precursor to handing over money for any kind of project. Tied with this, is proving it’s relevance. Europe is dominated by conservative austerity policy. Most initiative is preventative rather than innovative and involves restricting measures on granting power to the individual which is one of the most important things a design needs to function properly and morally.

How can design help society to address these issues?

New funding and production streams like crowd-funding and 3D printing have the potential to offer a way out of this, where support for an idea can be built at a base by the people who genuinely need it most who previously would not have been able to act on it. Critical design also plays a role in awareness and engagement. If we can help people to read the world in a critical way and to move away form the major consensus narrative then the commons can become a mobilised polity that can make things happen.

What skills would a young designer or researcher need to work in this field in the future?

Desperate enthusiasm and a confident critical mind. You need to spread your mind far and wide to understand the connections and implications that go into building the world. Every designed thing is the product of hundreds of years of history and will result in hundreds more. The better this is understood by a young designer the more consciously they will design. Talk to everyone, read everything, see everything, learn all you can about everything you’re not doing. And, cheesy though it is, you have to be determined not to ‘sell out’ – not to turn your idea into another corporate cash cow that reinforces the status quo. This is getting easier and easier to do which is why I think it’s a great time to have great ideas.

New Mumbai (2012)


The project is presented as a documentary film exploring the fallout of the theft of a fungus that can be used to create light and heat form a Dutch laboratory.

New Mumbai is a design fiction project aimed at exploring themes of urban resilience, change and technology. The project is a story designed as a thought experiment to tell something about the ideologies and motivations that govern different people outside of the predominantly western narratives around technology.

The project is presented as a documentary film exploring the fallout of the theft of a fungus that can be used to create light and heat form a Dutch laboratory. The drive and desires of the residents of the slums of Mumbai mean that they make the most effective use of the technology and end up reshaping the politics of the region in their favour. It’s a hopeful story of how technology can enable positive change, but not through the usual prescribed routes.