PhD Research - 'Data for Design'

Adopting Data-Driven Approaches for Long-Term Citizen Participation and Social Sustainability in Design for the Public Realm 


Feb 2014 - Jul 2019


Royal College of Art - School of Architecture


EU Marie Curie FP7 Multi-ITN - TRADERS ('Training Art and Design Researchers for Participation in Public Space')



The world is flooded with more information than ever before. Ubiquitous digital technologies have enabled direct access to large amounts of empirical data to inform a wide range of topics and investigations. This thesis set out to explore how these novel data technologies offer new opportunities to designers to greatly increase their knowledge of the built environment and how people inhabit it, to inform design in the public realm. 

The research has been developed under the umbrella of TRADERS (‘Training Art and Design Researchers in Participation for Public Space’), an EU-funded international and interdisciplinary research project. My research on the TRADERS project explored the intersection between digital data analysis (including the topics of Big Data, data mining, smart cities, algorithms, and more) and citizen participation in design for the public realm. Moving beyond temporary effects of many current ‘disruptive’ participatory design projects that have adopted digital technologies, the thesis concentrates on public realm projects that aim to facilitate their active afterlife beyond the designers’ involvement. The research identifies a recurring issue in current participatory design practices: designers tend to create a community around themselves, and therefore place the wrong actor at the centre of a project’s social network. Rather than building social constructs from scratch, the research demonstrates that analysing socio-spatial digital data could help architects identify existing active communities, design the physical conditions to facilitate long-term citizen engagement, thereby helping to shape socially sustained, resilient public space projects that are able to adapt to changing demands and a dynamic demographic.

There is a vast amount of digital data on users available today; however, their potential as empirical input for the social dimension within spatial design has so far remained underexplored by designers. While digital tools are not new to the spatial design professions, technologies they have adopted, such as computer-aided design (CAD) and parametric modelling, all concentrate primarily on the built object. By introducing a human-centred focus, the thesis moves beyond the current object-oriented fixation of digital technologies for architecture and urban design. Through several case studies from practice, the thesis demonstrates how digital data analysis could help design firms conduct more thorough and in-depth explorations of the social layer of a local context. Furthermore, the thesis argues that an extensive and advanced analysis of a local context in an initial phase of the design process can help develop a more relevant initial premise, and therefore help develop a more context-appropriate and socially sustainable design. 

While it can be tempting to use technology for technology’s sake, the thesis argues that data-driven approaches should become another tool in an architect’s kit. New digital tools do not have to be foregrounded within the architectural discipline; instead, they can function as an aid to develop and consolidate more empirically-based human-centred designs. The thesis concludes that digital data technologies are useful instruments that enable alternative approaches and interventions aimed at serving the public. Incorporating these technologies into existing design practices, however, requires training and education.


Flow diagram visualising categories of ‘#genk’ tweets from users with highest number of followers

 Data analysis of meta-data of a civic application - research and visuals by Saba Golchehr ©


Illustration of PhD case study by Ida Liffner ©