Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at)

Julian Sykes, co-founder of Ark Lab

Community and conviviality are two pillars of the Rurban Revolution, and social design will point the way forward, as city dwellers recreate the intimate, networked urban villages they increasingly yearn for.

‘We believe that you can use design and design thinking within communities to improve situations and engage people who don’t necessarily talk to each other,’ Julian Sykes, co-founder of Cardiff social design agency Ark Lab, tells LS:N Global. ‘It’s design with a social-good element.’

Last month, Ark Lab created Ark in the Park, a daylong citywide games festival that encouraged Cardiff locals to take a new, playful look at their hometown. Like other initiatives that turn the urban space into a stage for play and participation, Ark in the Park transformed the city’s Bute Park into a playing field, with storytelling games and human bingo bringing friends and strangers together.

‘We wanted people to challenge their perception of what a city is and what it can be,’ Sykes says. ‘It’s not just commuting or shopping or living – it could be about playing, seeing architecture and experiencing people in a totally different way.’

In an earlier project, Ark Lab similarly encouraged people, as Sykes says, ‘to look beyond the traditional vision of what a shop may be’. Ark Lab designers organised the pop-up Arkade Empty Shop Project in Castle Arcade, a Victorian-era arcade that, like many other commercial centres, had suffered during the recession. Faced with a space in which four in 10 storefronts lay empty, Ark Lab embarked on a three-day series of workshops, consultations, performances and film screenings to breathe new life into the area. Three months after the project, thanks to ongoing work by Ark Lab and other community groups, all the shops in the arcade have now been rented out, Sykes says.

With much of Ark Lab’s work based on cultural collaboration – the collective is a mix of people from the arts, design and public policy sectors, and Sykes himself runs branding and strategy consultancy Hoffi – it is perhaps no surprise that the group envisions a future of Rurban cities in which people have ample space to meet, greet and create workable solutions for better living.

‘Urban squares have got to come back to being community spaces,’ Sykes says, ‘where you’re not going to always be pushed to buy.’

Our top five take-outs

1: Don’t just workshop it – playshop it. ‘A lot of workshops within the design industry can be intimidating – people don’t open up as much as they could do,’ Sykes says. Ark Lab’s interactive initiatives bring people together to actively play out future scenarios.

2: Reach across sectors to bring diverse influences to your projects. ‘We pull from lots of different disciplines, whether it’s art, performance or film,’ Sykes says.

3: Make the first move. As Ark Lab progressed on the Arkade project, it discovered and made connections with other activists who, Sykes says, ‘were thinking the same stuff’. Together, they have been able to organise a council to deal with the issues the retail community faces in the arcade.

4: Go beyond the storefront and really engage with the community. Ark Lab’s next projects will focus on linking local groups to share resources and knowledge, for instance.

5: Facilitate conviviality – those ‘physical, get-out-and-experience-something’ events, as Sykes puts it. As Conviviality Culture spreads and people increasingly seek out social spaces and events, how can your brand go beyond retail to be a real force in local communities? Consider denim brand Levi’s series of photography and screenprinting Workshops, for example.

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26 October 2010