Lab Notes: Online Futures Workshop for Sustainable Urban Development

On November 20, Fremtenkt organised the first "experiment" within the Laboratory for sustainable and democratic futures: an online Futures Workshop dealing with the development of the centre of Åsane, a suburb of Bergen on the West coast of Norway.

By Sveinung Sundfør Sivertsen and Ragnhild Nabben, Fremtenkt

The workshop—inspired by the method originally developed by Robert Jungk and Norbert Müllert—brought together about 20 participants, including engaged inhabitants, representatives from the municipal planning office, and the police.

Over the course of three hours, participants first discussed and voted on their favourite aspects of Åsane as it is today, then the worst aspects of the urban centre of the suburb, and finally set about brainstorming and sketching out their "preferred futures" for Åsane in the form of visions for the urban centre they would like it to be—if they could decide.

From physical to online Futures Workshops

The workshop was originally slated to take place at the brand new Åsane house of culture during the Åsane culture week, on October 30. Due to unforeseen circumstances and a sharp increase in the number COVID-19 cases in Bergen, the workshop was first postponed and then moved entirely online. 

Using Zoom for videoconferencing and Miro for real time online collaboration, Fremtenkt managed to recreate much of the magic of a physical Future Workshop, including the "lift" of positive energy and sense of possibility among participants—including those initially skeptical of the enterprise—that seasoned practitioners like Kirsten Paaby have always highlighted as one of the big strengths of this method, and that we ourselves have experienced in the Future Workshops we have arranged for high school students and teachers.

Highlights from the "ros" or praise phase of the workshop: What is the BEST thing about Åsane today? Notes include: self-contained, large offering of sporting activities, large areas with potential, beautiful topography and nature.

International collaboration

This was a thrilling discovery, as one of Fremtenkt's ambitions is to bring the Future Workshop format online to allow remote collaborations and workshop facilitations with people from different countries and continents. 

We had a taste of the possibilities for online collaboration while participating in the Participatory Futures Practitioner Design Course, as offered by the futurist collective Global Swarm. 

The beauty of a fully online format is the fact that geographical location is no barrier to entry—apart from scheduling across time zones! Scheduling was easy enough when all the participants were in or around Bergen, but we have also already had the chance to test our version of an online Futures Workshop with participants joining from Canada, Israel, the UK and Norway. 

That workshop, held on November 25 in collaboration with Last Chapter, was the first in a series of two, successfully bringing together academics, practitioners and health officials to discuss the futures of ageing-friendly communities.

Online workshops for more creative citizenship

The online Futures Workshop has great potential as a tool to enable more "creative citizenship", in the sense of using our ability to imagine alternative futures as a key step in the process of "reverse participation", or the shaping of policy from the bottom up. 

Because the format allows for participants with widely diverging backgrounds and roles to meet on a level, strictly democratic playing field, university researchers, public officials, citizens and civil society actors can get together without the usual strictures of roles and hierarchy to freely explore and critique the topic that unites them, express their dreams for how things should be, and then collectively commit to actual change by deciding on specific, realistic steps they can take singly and together to bring the present reality closer to the imagined futures.

Examples from the utopian phase: What does Åsane centre look like in the future? Ideas include an airport for electric planes, no cars, open spaces, children playing outside, sharing economy, walking distances.

Praise, critique and utopian sketches

In the present workshop, participants came up with 75 points of praise for the suburb, helping the local planning office get a better picture of what inhabitants themselves see as the main strengths and identity of Åsane. 

Equally important are the over 90 points of criticism of the suburb's urban centre, pointing both to specific and overarching problems that must be addressed in the plan to rejuvenate the suburb centre. 

Most exciting, however, were the over 60 utopian ideas the workshop participants came up with, and the four unique sketches created by the the four groups of participants, sharing their vision for a greener, more inviting, more inclusive and innovative urban centre.

More workshops in 2021

We have already had requests both from participants in these workshops and from people who have heard about them for online workshops adapted to different contexts and themes. 

Given the immense potential of the Future Workshop method and the reduced barrier of entry afforded by a more time-efficient online format, we expect to be arranging many more online Future(s) Workshops in 2021.

Would you like to know more about our work or what we can offer? Get in touch at

Photo from Åsane by Casper Fløysand Andrésen (CC).

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