In our previous blogpost ‘Bridging Dilemmas and Controversies: A Designerly Approach to Navigate Stakeholder Perspectives’, we elaborated on why dilemmas and controversies are promising for multi-stakeholder collaboration. In this blog, we explain the details of our workshop approach and share experiences and insights. This will – hopefully – inspire you about how to use conflicts in your own projects. Feel free to contact us for trouble-shooting!

Our approach helps to systematically unpack the network of conflicts that shape controversies. To make our methods and techniques relevant for a concrete situation, we first formulated a scenario that we called ‘The Scripted City and Social Bubbles’ which describes a short narrative about the fictional city of Nevertire in 2030. This scenario has five actors, for which we built five hypothetical persona narratives. The scenario goes like this:

The municipality plans to collaborate with companies to make urban processes efficient, provide tailored experiences to citizens. Nevertire will work towards becoming an ultra-smart city. On December 4th, 2030, these plans become real and the mayor announces that the smart city policy has been approved. Since technology governs every urban activity, life in Nevertire may increasingly feel like living in a ‘bubbled society’.

The nevertire scenario
Five accompanying personas of Nevertire

Based on this scenario, we developed a two-step approach that we carried out in two half-day workshops at Digicampus.

  1. Forming a network of conflicts
  2. Zooming in and out of the network of conflicts
The step-by-step approach for day 1 of the workshop: forming a network of conflicts.

Part 1: Forming a network of conflicts (or deconstructing a controversy)

In the first part, participants take apart the existing controversies in the scenario to achieve a deeper understanding of the relationships within and among various stakeholders. We do this using a role-playing exercise in which the participants (who were Digicampus employees in our workshop) act out the dilemmas and conflicts that the stakeholders would experience in relation to one another. Since the persona narratives are deliberately ambiguous, the stakeholder roles are open to interpretation, allowing participants to truly embrace these roles (and practice their improvisation skills). At the end of this role-playing exercise, the participants will have formed a network of conflicts that demonstrate nuanced and complex nature of controversies, while making individual goals and values traceable. In an online setting, we form this network on a Mural board. In a physical setting, we would use post-its and colorful threads to literally build the connections in the network.

The network of conflicts that resulted from day 1

Part 2: Zooming in and out of the network of conflicts

In the second part, participants collaboratively reflect on how they can use the identified network of conflicts to come up with creative interventions to address those conflicts, while also critically reflecting on those interventions from an ethical perspective. To this end, participants are first encouraged to zoom in on a specific conflict and to create an intervention (e.g. a technological intervention or a campaign, regulation, policy…etc.) to address this conflict. Next, they zoom out to focus on the wider network again and to evaluate how this intervention may influence other values or perpetuate other conflicts in the larger system. Finally, based on the insights gained from zooming out and reflecting on ‘the big picture’, participants are asked to iterate and redesign their intervention. In this way, our approach allows participants to utilize the creative potential of each conflict while also benefiting from the complexity of the larger network of conflicts in ethical reflection.

A simplified version of the network that allows to zoom in and focus on one specific conflict, after which participants can zoom out and take the impact on the wider network into account.

Insights and Next Steps

The presented conflict-inspired approach is a promising way to achieve social innovation in a responsible manner. By unpacking the network of conflicts that make up controversies, participants gain greater awareness of various values and perspectives in society. More importantly, they learn how to relate these values to each other to reveal and utilize potential conflicts.

We recognize a double-impact of this approach on the quadruple helix stakeholders. First, the roleplay exercise helps build empathy between stakeholders, and gain a deeper understanding of different perspectives. Second, the zooming in and out exercise gears towards formulating a type of action that combines (1) generating new ideas by tapping into diverse perspectives (creative collaboration) and (2) engaging in deeper reflection on the trade-offs and consequences of actions (ethical reflection).

At Digicampus, this approach will help to look at a situation or question from different perspectives and to start the real dialogue concerning this issue at hand. This controversy workshop broadens and deepens the view of the societal issue that is discussed. It does so because you explore the personal, organizational and societal needs at stake, and look at instances where they align or contradict. This extended insight allows for a more holistic perspective of the issue, and ultimately, improved decision making by including multiple perspectives. As this workshop takes place in a stakeholder setting, it supports quadruple helix collaboration.

You may find more about our work on and .

We hope you feel inspired to try this approach and invite you to contact us in case you want to learn more!

Want to read more?

Curious for the academic insights that form the foundation and inspiration for the presented workshop? Please find some suggested readings below.

Geenen, A. J. P., Ozkaramanli, D., Matos-Castaño, J. & van der Voort, M. C. (2020). From Conflicts to Controversies: Navigating stakeholder perspectives in smart city projects. Workshop approach. In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD10) 2021 Symposium. Delft, The Netherlands, November 3-6, 2021.

Geenen, A. J. P., Matos-Castaño, J. & van der Voort, M. C. (forthcoming). The threefold potential of smart city controversies. In Philosophy and engineering, Springer.

Matos-Castaño, J., Ozkaramanli, D., Geenen, A. J. P., & van der Voort, M. C. (2020). Controversies as a vehicle to integrate creative collaboration and ethical reflection. In Design Research Society, DRS 2020: Synergy.

Matos-Castaño, J., van Amstel, F., Hartmann, T., & Dewulf, G. (2017). Making dilemmas explicit through the use of a cognitive mapping collaboration tool. Futures, 87, 37-49.

Ozkaramanli, D. (2021). Dilemmas and Conflicts in Systemic Design: Towards a theoretical framework for individual-system dialectic. In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD10) 2021 Symposium. Delft, The Netherlands, November 3-6, 2021.

Anouk Geenen
Deger Ozkaramanli
Julieta Matos Castano