Image of Nathan Phillips Square Remembering Jack Layton. Photography by Jackman Chiu

Why Participate? — Notes from talk

I was recently invited to give a talk at The Conference, a two-day gathering in Malmö, Sweden which “delves into the promises and pitfalls of human-machine-nature-and-more relationships”. I’m sharing some notes from my talk surrounding the challenge of getting people to participate in changing their environment, and bringing about collective actions here using some of my recent projects.

Ling Tan
11 min readSep 5, 2023


Structuring Participation

Originally trained as an architect, my work spans across many fields — design, art, science and technology. In my own practice, I worked with communities around the world from Asia, Europe to Africa and collaborate with organisations and institutions to engage people of all ages and backgrounds, to co-create participatory projects using technologies to help them make sense and express their relationship with their environments, and in some cases, act on complex urban issues such as air pollution, climate change and public safety. The outcomes range from from tech toolkits, interactive installations, performances to even pop-up architecture.

Projects clockwise from top left: Cinder, Growing Riversiders, Pollution Explorers, Playing Democracy

In my work as part of a collective in Umbrellium, I work with cities, local authorities and communities to design and build urban technology for cities (what we would have called “smart cities” many years ago), ranging from large scale interactive installation that activates thousands of people to join in, reinventing school infrastructure to encourage children to take better care of their environment, to rethinking road system that puts people’s safety first before vehicles.

Image of SUPERGESTURES — A project I did in 2018 exploring the relationship between a smart city agenda and the impact it has on people’s everyday lives using wearable technology.

I also work as an Co-Artistic Director and curator in an arts organisation called Kakilang, where I worked with East and Southeast communities and help produce works by East and Southeast artists in the UK.

A common thread runs across all the work I do, it’s about structuring participation to help groups of people to work together towards a common goal that they think would benefit them in the long run, towards collective action.

Collective Action

Collective action is very important especially in the context of the climate emergency where we are already experiencing drastic change in our weather system that alters the way we interact with our environment, and with each other. This changes our relationship to the future and the majority of us know something has to change.

More people heading to the beaches in Brighton during heatwave in 2022, and the impact of heatwave on water consumption and houses

What we’ve experienced during COVID where the notion of cooperation is tested on so many levels politically, racially and even neighbourly, challenges our assumption that humans can be an altruistic species. The challenge with collective actions is that everyone knows that if everyone collectively acts together, things will change, but the fact is not everyone will be acting towards the same goal at the same time for many reasons (politically, personally or even emotionally).

So how do we create a wise city that might work for everyone? I think we first need to understand why people want to participate, who gets to make decisions for them about the way they should live, and who gets to be included in a collective action, and I’m going to expand on this a little bit with some of my work.

Why Do People Want To Participate?

In my own practice, I always try to return to first principles when it comes to designing involvement of people in projects, i.e. why do people want to participate in my work? As a participant, what is the incentive to give up a portion of my time in my life to participate in your project? What do I (as a participant) get out of it?

A workshop I hosted in 2018 with groups of young people living in Manchester exploring their concerns and hopes with their city and their vision for the future

It’s a very important question for us as designers, especially when the practice of placemaking has become a common tool now used by architects and developers. How do we create a sense of home and ownership for people living in a city?

In 2021, during the height of COVID, I was commissioned by a housing developer (Barking Riverside) to develop a participatory project during the lockdown that would get residents living in this new urban development in East London to get to know each other. The project Growing Riversiders took place over half a year and took more than a year to come into fruition, where it involves getting 100 families to grow 400 large pots of plants in their own homes, using plants as colour pixels to construct a large-scale image installation of an image that is designed and chosen by themselves.

An image diagram showing how the final image in Growing Riversiders was produced — through collaboration with residents from designing, growing to assembling the image

The project is part digital, part physical where participants design the image and coordinate the growing of their plants via an interactive website that connects all of them together. They share growing tips, get help from plant experts and monitor the growth of their image through photo taking. At the end of the project, they then came together to assemble the image by themselves, placing their plants in the image pixel locations they had chosen prior, to construct this collective image that marks the opening of an ecological centre in their neighbourhood.

A top down view of the final image assembled by 100 residents using 400 plants they grew at home during the COVID lockdown

The project was an experiment for the developer where they have no idea as to whether people are going to show up to assemble the final image installation after half a year of working remotely. What was interesting is that in the end, all the participants showed up for the assembly, and most of their feedback was that they were able to see their effort clearly in the image and that became a huge motivation to participate.

The project taps into human desire to care for things, bonding them to the project and to each other through nurturing plants (something that is popular during lockdown). To me, this project works because it’s at a specific time in place because of people’s desire for interaction during the lockdown. This project also shows the need to design participation contextually and time is as important as the place itself, if your goal is for people to participate.

Who Gets To Make Decisions For Us?

In my work in Umbrellium working with cities and local authorities — I’ve learnt that when urban technology is implemented unilaterally without involving the people most impacted by it, you will most likely not get any substantial uptake in the long run.

New articles in the UK relating to air pollution issues in the country

This is pretty evident in the fight against air pollution in cities, for example in the UK, for many years since the early 2010’s, the government has funded technological companies to install air quality sensors in cities. While it’s effective in telling us the air is bad, it does not give back the sense of agency to people that they need to act now. Air is invisible, it affects us all, but tackling it holistically is going to take all of us making tough decisions about the way we live and interact with each other.

I have been working on a series of air quality projects in Umbrellium for the past few years where we explore ways to harness collective action to tackle air quality issues hyper locally at neighbourhood level. Here, we work with a data scientist and local authorities in East London and other parts of UK and Europe to use machine learning algorithms and a set of low tech IoT wearables to get more than 200 residents to go out into their own neighbourhoods to record data on their own perception of air quality in different locations.

They then compare their collective data with open air quality data and mobile air quality sensors — and in most instances, a people’s perception of air is as accurate (up to 75%) compared to a digital sensor. Part of the experiment involves participants committing to long term change in their everyday life (from simple act such as walking to work to cutting down red meat consumption). As observed by most participants themselves, small incremental steps lead to more persistent change, and knowing they are able to tell when air is bad help them develop an acute sensitivity to the air in their environment and they are more motivated and committed to changing their everyday life to improve air quality for a long period.

Image of participants recording data surrounding their own perception of air quality in their own neighbourhood in Pollution Explorers

These are important learnings for local authorities where winning the hearts and minds of citizens are important, and it’s important especially when implementing any legislation (which is the most impactful) most often takes a very long time. This also shows that when people are able to take accountability of their own actions, they are more able to act without passively waiting for a solution.

Who Gets To Be Included In An Action?

Image of performers engaging audience in a SUPERMOMENTS performance in Coventry

In recent years, the word ‘community’ is very widely used, especially in the arts and design industry to imply just about any groups of people that can be grouped together because of their backgrounds or where they live. It is also sometimes used quite commonly in activism and movements, where the word community gives the sense of solidarity, but who gets to be included in it?

News articles about diversity issue with the climate movement in the West

In my work in Kakilang working with East and Southeast Asians and cultural institutions in the art sector, I’ve learnt that the vast difference in each and everyone of us because of our political, religious, cultural belief to even the way we cook and eat our food means that it is extremely hard and takes effort to get people to work collectively. For instance, in the climate movement in the UK and Europe, the perspective and approach can be seen to be predominantly White and quite often not include everyone, especially us East and Southeast Asians.

Image of members of the public enjoying a meal of low carbon dishes in the Low Carbon Chinatown Pop-Up installed in London Chinatown as part of London Design Festival 2022

I have recently been working on an environmental project Low Carbon Chinatown that tries to dispel this stereotype, by getting large groups of east and southeast asians in the UK from young people to elderly, to experiment with cooking low carbon (footprint) asian food through collaboration with acclimated asian food writers and a data scientist. Participants explore the data science of food, looking at the carbon footprint of farming, industrial processes, sourcing ingredients to even cooking techniques to derive a set of low carbon recipes based on some of the most popular Chinese dishes in the UK.

The low carbon recipes were then shared online and prepared for 200 members of the public in a series of sit down meals hosted publicly in a flat packed pop up structure made of low carbon materials designed through collaboration with structural engineers and architects. The pop up was installed in the heart of London’s Chinatown (as part of London Design Festival 2022), and it acts as a public statement on our East and Southeast Asian commitment to tackling the climate crisis with everyone.

Image of Low Carbon Chinatown Pop-up structure used to host a series of sit-down meals for members of the public

As a Southeast Asian living in the UK myself, it often feels like we are not associated with the climate movement (we are often associated with China the nation state, seen as a big pollution source by many western countries). It’s rare that people would think that our Asian food culture (one of the most popular in UK and Europe) can play a part in tackling the climate crisis because they generally associate our food with imported products. This project tries to prove otherwise, that our food can be inherently low carbon footprint.

Screenshot capture of the making of one of the low carbon dishes in Low Carbon Chinatown

At first glance it might seem like an easy project to carry out with people who appear to share similar identities, but there are challenges with this project on many levels, and one of the key challenges I found is this very assumption that because we are seen as ONE community, we are expected to act the same way.

To get permission to install a structure in Chinatown, I found that there wasn’t a single community organisation or business association in Chinatown that was able to fully represent the interest of all the people working or residing in Chinatown. Chinatown (as a place) is complex in itself historically and presently — both as an area of commerce and a place where stereotypically the “Chinese” communities are supposed to gather. But the fact is, there is huge diversity in the area, e.g Ku Bar which is operated by “a group of independent LGBTQ+ (and hetero-friendly) bars based in Central London”, and community institutions like China Exchange, where majority of their volunteers are White British).

If you read the political news in the UK, it’s not a stretch to imagine how complex the conversation would be if you put groups of people from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the same room, hoping to come to a common consensus on a project, belying the idea that there is any singular “Chinese” identity. If you were to add people from the Chinese diaspora including Malaysia, Singapore, perhaps even in Japan and Korea, the conversation would be even more complex.

Image of the low carbon dishes developed by participants, food writers and a data scientist in Low Carbon Chinatown

The project manages to get beyond politics, and instead focus on our love for food, the joy of eating together both as a communal activity and a cultural infrastructure, also a tool for activism in the tackling of the climate crisis, but never underestimate the effort it takes to get a group of people together to work towards a common goal, even if its about changing their own future.

Wise City That Might Work For Everyone? — Get Yourself Messy In It.

So how do we create a wise city that might work for everyone? My frequent collaborator, Usman Haque, has written and spoken at large about embracing the messiness in order to make cities work for everyone. I think we first need to understand the messiness of our cities, by getting ourselves messy in it too through prototyping and experimenting with getting people involved in your project or doing something together. Not just your families or friends, but people you have never met, people who fall out of your usual comfort zone, and learn why they are different from you.

Once you understand that everyone is unique from each other, and know that the one thing we should be able to agree on here is that it’s ok to disagree and we can still work together, I think that is where participation and collective action can begin.

My talk was part of a panel surrounding “Wise Cities”, which explore ways to architect vibrant cities beyond Smart City. You can find the video recording of my talk here.



Ling Tan

Designer, Artist, Creative Technologist working within the field of social engagement, technology, citizen participation & politics