Laboratories of the unexpected


Can we make more creative, resilient and inclusive cities “just” by planning and designing less?

Can serendipity be designed? Not really, but…

Francesco Cingolani presenting Third Places at Building Green conference in Copenhagen.

We’ve been invited to travel to Copenhagen and report about our international practice of building more creative and resilient cities. It turned out to be a good opportunity to reflect on our work and extract a few inspirations but also practical tips.

Creative cities: easy to say, hard to make.

I love Europe and I love Copenhagen.

So when the amazing people behind the Volcano creative agency invited Volumes to give a lecture at the Build for Creativity conference, I had more than one reason to accept the invitation 😊

The event gathered different stakeholders of the city including urban developers, real estate promoters, construction industries, creative communities and public institutions around the question “how can creativity help to build a greener, more sustainable city”?

Volumes was asked to contribute to the debate with case studies coming from outside Denmark; this allowed us to reflect on our story and experiences and wonder how to make it useful for the audience and hopefully inspire the debate.

When we started Volumes, of course we wanted to create a more creative and better city, but honestly we did not know where to start. We decided then to rent a space, and use it as a laboratory to test things and learn how to actually make happen the creative city in Paris.

Why “laboratories of the unexpected”

What can the story of Volumes tell us about creativity and innovation in our cities?

Volumes started in Paris, one of the densest cities in Europe; a city where the real estate pressure is extremely high. The cost per square meter and the competitiveness for renting and buying facilitates an urban development model in which every square meter is optimized, and very few are left unplanned.

This development model is freezing innovation and making the city eager to replicate what already happened before. This is particularly unadapted when the social, economical, cultural challenges require greater resiliency and innovation.

The first innovation hub we created in 2015, named today Volumes Lab, was born with the mission to address this misconfiguration of the city, opening up 500 sqm for radical creativity and exploration. We wanted to create a space where everything was possible, especially those activities and projects that were not fitting the traditional real estate criteria.

By letting people, organizations and communities enter a space committed to creativity, we’ve been able to address their real needs. This approach allowed us to design together with the persons directly involved, not only the space itself, but also the vision of our initiative.

This is the idea standing behind the title “Laboratories of the unexpected” we chose for the lecture in Copenhagen. In fact, what we do at Volumes is building creative places that make space to allow the happening of unexpected encounters and projects.

Cities need buffer zones

What if the trick to build more sustainable cities is to allow creativity to unfold, by planning less?

Laboratories of the unexpected have a flexible and hybrid structure in respect to their programs, their spatial design and the set of actors involved. These confer to them a potential to act as in-between spaces, functioning as playgrounds for experimentation and prototyping of unusual assemblage of actors and functions.

Acting as buffer zones, especially in large cities where the prices of real estate are the most problematic, such spaces appear to be crucial for innovation and positive change. They also respond to a need of traditional organizations (schools, municipalities and private companies) which need to go out of their spaces to trigger innovation.

To facilitate a “Laboratory for the unexpected” approach, here are 2 tips:

  • Run a community event first
    Whether you are a public or private organization, when planning to create a space dedicated to creative cultures in your city, there are huge benefits in running an event to gather the community you want to engage with, before the actual opening of your space. This would allow your project to perform an agile reality check (”is the vision of the project in line with local expectations?”) and to inform early stage decisions to be more efficient (”does my space need to be 500 or 1000 sqm?”).

  • Adopt an incremental approach: the 80/20 principle for space design
    When it comes to spatial design, you can temporarily leave 20% of your square meters undesigned, only with basic furniture and without a pre-defined specific destination. This will allow the community to come up with real needs for it (a laboratory for professional photography, a special meeting room, a café, etc…). This will avoid overdesign and overbudgeting of your operation while strengthening the bonds between your physical space and the community.

« Where there’s nothing, everything is possible. Where there is architecture, nothing (else) is possible. »

The City of the Captive Globe, Rem Koolhaas (1972).


So what? It is enough to plan less and design less to make better cities? Is it just that architects and urban planners have it wrong?

Of course that’s not something binary, as it is often not when it comes to dealing with the complexity of the city, but our experiences and our research proved that resisting the urge to design everything is a good practice for innovation.

In every situation, this approach needs to deal with specificity of the project, its scale and its ambitions.

Sources and credits

This post builds upon the report Creative and Productive Hubs Journal that Volumes co-produced with ECHN, IAAC and WAAG within the european project Centrinno.

This article has been written by Francesco Cingolani (@immaginoteca), cofounder and director of Volumes.

You want to work with us to create more inclusive and creative cities? Contact us!

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In 2014, when we started, the first thing we did was breaking the walls of our first venue in Paris, to create more fluidity and multiply connections.
We would be glad to help your organization to do the same.