Creative Dundee

Small Society Lab: Dundee x Kobe

Design by Headless Greg

Small Society Lab is an open project exploring urban spaces of our future. Working in partnership with others, the Labs are collaborative, experimental and playful – always focused on connecting people to consider issues relevant to city life. 


In 2019 we built a partnership with fellow UNESCO City of Design, Kobe. Although they may seem unconnected, both Dundee and Kobe have found affinity in each other’s commitment to using design to improve the lives of its residents, particularly through education and playful co-design. Thanks to our own UNESCO City of Design, Dundee team, Creative Dundee was able to develop this partnership with the team in Kobe. 

Originally this SSL was planned for spring 2020, before the Olympic and Paralympic Games – it would have included simultaneous events and an exchange; of course the pandemic changed everything, so instead we reimagined inclusive and intimate ways for international communities to connect and create together.  

We wanted to create space beyond the immediacy of the crisis to deeply consider our biggest societal challenges together, listen and learn from one another and foster a shared sense of what the future holds for our cities and their residents. 

We worked with excellent producer, Janine Matheson, who rethought and redesigned a whole new programme of SSL activities, including two virtual workshops ‘Sensations of Inhabiting’ and ‘Future Generations’ with designer/facilitator, Leah Lockhart, and facilitator, Briana Pegado

We invited a few individuals from both Kobe and Dundee to participate, including: Keita Takemura – graphic designer. Ali Morimoto – musician and artist. Daigo Takagi – editor and copywriter. Hiroki Sunagawa – Code for Japan. Saoirse Amira Anis – artist and curator. Claire Dow – Events, Dundee City Council. Russell Pepper – Open Close Dundee. Gaz Robinson – game development lecturer / director of Biome Collective. 

Although this is very different from how we usually work, we were keen to explore the experimental formats in these small gatherings, to shape our thinking about how we might scale and open this up. 


Sensations of Inhabiting Workshop – April 2021

The first workshop : Sensations of Inhabiting was really exploratory, bringing together the participants to help understand each other, their cultures, society and local challenges in more depth.

After thoughtful introductions, and getting to know each other through 1-2-1s, Briana introduced New Metaphors with this short video. Each group was given a set of cards and asked to reflect on what the cards made them think about in relation to the theme of post-Covid wellbeing, our own and the wellbeing of others.

Our group was given the metaphor, ‘things growing on things’ and fairness. It was surprising and enjoyable how talking about the card and the phrase together as a group, enabled us to connect deeply to one another in a short space of time, allowing for open conversations and future reimaginings. 

We discussed old and new layers – that the established has the potential of crowding out the emerging, and that the new has the potential of breaking down the old, so finding the balance of harmony is important. We talked about mutual aid, support and learning with no hierarchy – being open to receiving back from each other and coexisting.

We considered that the new can protect the older/cultural heritage – but what should actually be preserved? What should be challenged? How do we make sure the new stuff doesn’t repeat the same mistakes as those that have gone before – as inherently it will have aspects of the old in it…

Is COVID like this metaphor, an invasive species that has invaded our world? In some ways, despite the devastation, many systems have rapidly improved for the future. 

It was interesting to reflect on the differences between Japan and the UK, especially in relation to our elders. We felt that in Japan elder people are given more power and respect. However older institutions are viewed in both countries with huge respect – this can make it more challenging for newer/emerging practices and organisations to gain space and credibility. 

Ultimately, our group agreed that if moss continues to rapidly grow on top of a static rock over a long time – we eventually end up with a great forest on top of a pile of sand. We were ok with this… 

Another group considered ‘shadows’ to create a new metaphor – they need a light source, and their form and shape is dependent on your perspective of viewpoint. Shadows can be seen as shielding others. When the object is closer to the light source, the shadow is bigger, more pronounced – COVID has created a long shadow with ongoing challenges, to reflect and remember, ‘we are in the shadow’.

Our friends from Kobe talked of ‘social resistance’, making a big noise at a distance by hosting a music event from a cafe, to an audience across a river. This led to excellent discussions between the group about how we can deploy more social resistance in these times.


Future Generations Workshop – May 2021

Our second session: Future Generations was a time for reflection, inspiration and conversation, the space aimed to open up the current challenges and opportunities of both cities and invited participants to imagine the future in new ways.

Leah asked us to use prompts to think about what humans and non-humans might say about our future cities, on questions including: ‘How might a future non-human describe the accessibility of your city?’ 

Our group considered being human and non-human 1,000 years in the future! We explored what it might be like to look back and think how much our cities were designed around cars. We expected the future to include hyper localised neighbourhoods, where you don’t have to travel to get to work and the use of holograms for teaching/presenting – socialising in one dimension. 

As both Dundee and Kobe are surrounded by water and hills, the climate threats are very real. Due to location and history, Kobe and its residents are of course very prepared for tsunamis and earthquakes – is Dundee? Who would get to go up the Law if Dundee went underwater – this led to a great discussion about who has the privilege and who gets access?

We talked about how we have seen hints of the invasion of nature within our cities and how we could embrace this further… walking through forests in the middle of our built environments, or ways we can better connect with species that inhabit the same spaces we do. We thought about how in future children might feel loved in our cities, creating more playful places that we can experience curiosity and wonder. The two workshops introduced new ways of thinking creatively about bigger issues within our cities; accessibility, social inequity, climate justice and how we might rethink and equip residents to create a better future. 

“It’s been a pleasure being part of SSL Kobe x Dundee and to collaborate with Creative Dundee and Leah to create this intimate virtual programme. Especially after the past year it was a special experience to bring this group of individuals together and learn about each other, to be vulnerable alongside sharing laughter and our hopes of the future together. I left the last workshop feeling overwhelmingly hopeful, that although the pandemic is devastating and will have long lasting impacts for us all in different ways, it has also uncovered a lot of what is loveable about our cities, what we can nurture and grow.” Janine Matheson, SSL Producer.

“This discussion helped me realise how important it is to freely share ideas and mutual experiences. I look forward to future discussions with the City of Design, Dundee.” Kenji Kondo, KIITO, Kobe.

What we took away

Despite the challenges of not having enough time to chat, and some language barriers, participants from both Kobe and Dundee told us they enjoyed the experience and will use some of the tools in their own practice:

“I loved the metaphors, and have been thinking about them loads since, and applying them to other thoughts in my life.”

“I think we experienced both differences and similarities. For example, our pandemic situations are totally different, but we have similar feelings of distrust… It was fascinating to me. Also, that discussion was like layering thoughts and building blocks. Great.”

“I thought it was a good workshop. We are not used to express ourselves, especially a kind of light (not deep) thoughts or reflection. And this was a good initiation for us.”

“Ongoing discussions like this that include aspects such as equality and fairness do make me think differently about the way I run projects/commission artists…”

“I think the act of being a representative of your city – even in a small way – makes you really think about all the nice things your city has and does. So the act of dedicating time to thinking about Dundee itself has just given me time to consolidate what it is I love about the place!”

“People living in Kobe are moving to the city central, on the other hand, people in Dundee seem to be leaving from the center. This is quite insightful phenomena.”

“It was kind of a miracle to meet, chat, and think about the future together beyond distance and languages. I am sure that we, the participants, would not have met one another without this special occasion.”

“The workshop made me realized that I need to learn about Kobe city… then Dundee!”

“I learned about lots of projects that have been ongoing for the last few years that I wasn’t previously aware of. It made me really proud of people and efforts put into these initiatives and the city as a whole.”

“I think being part of the workshops and having these discussions with people from Dundee who want to see change, is a very good way to connect with the city.”

“SSL was a totally different experience than my day-to-day work; the format of it was very relaxed and conversational but still managed to run to time. So I’d really like it if more of my meetings worked like that!”

“I would like to know more about Dundee. I must visit after this mess. I re-discovered Kobe’s good features like the balance of a small urban area and rich nature.”

“It was ace to be part of, particularly at this time when we are so insular. To talk with people about their country’s experience of Covid, and their societal responses to it and how their lifes have changed, was bonding.”

Find out more about Dundee’s past Small Society Labs


Thanks to:

Everyone who helped us make SSL happen, including Headless Greg, designer and recent DJCAD graduate. Read Greg’s blog on Approaching a Brief.

Our participants and partners – especially Kenji Kondo of KIITO, Annie Marrs of UNESCO City of Design Dundee

The funders for enabling this collaboration between Scotland and Japan – British Council Scotland and Creative Scotland.

We look forward to exploring where this method of collaboration between seemingly disparate yet connected places can go next.

If you can help enable future international SSL collaborations with Dundee, please do get in touch!

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