response by Michael Ziehl


Fostering Cooperation in Urban Development with Real-World Experimention

Research format Intervention into the Real, response by Michael Ziehl

My research project focused on the conflictual cooperation between the City of Hamburg and the Gängeviertel activists to redevelop a listed ensemble of historical buildings in the inner city. The Gängeviertel was peacefully squatted in August 2009 by approximately 200 artists and activists. Widespread public support encouraged the Hamburg Senate to develop the Gängeviertel in cooperation with the squatters. The resulting development concept ensures that it will be renovated and transformed into a lively, vibrant quarter. The plan calls for publicly subsidised apartments, studios, workshops and a sociocultural centre.

Within the framework of my research, I used the Gängeviertel as a real-world laboratory and organised two real-world experiments (Ziehl 2018). The latter can be understood as forms of Interventions into the Real as framed by PABR. In these experiments, I used means such as arranging situations, staging spatial settings and performing multiple roles such as activist, researcher and moderator to create aesthetic experiences for the participants. My aim was to address participants on a subjective level – on the one hand in order to gain deeper insights into their ideals and motivations and thus produce transformation knowledge (Schneidewind/Singer-Brodowski 2015: 15), on the other hand to help them understand motives and actions of their cooperation partners and to thus restore an ability to act together. During the process, this requirement to cooperate was not continuously met by both sides due to unsolved problems and escalating conflicts about questions of ownership, the self-management of the activists, the need of control by the public administration and the implementation of redevelopment measures.

Concerning knowledge production, the interventions disclosed obstacles in the cooperation process, which were amongst other things rooted in divergent ideals and motives of the cooperation partners concerning the redevelopment of the Gängeviertel. With regard to an impact on the cooperation process itself, the participants appreciated a ‘therapeutic effect’ and afterwards agreed on a more balanced way to negotiate conflicts by choosing a neutral venue for meetings and engaging a professional moderator. Although I partly initiated this development within the framework of my research, I was not able to investigate the precise interdependences between my real-world experiments and their impact. This would have required further research, such as interviewing participants, for which resources were insufficient. Thus, to evaluate and refine Interventions into the Real as a research format, I recommend combining them with a methodological investigation about their impacts on transformation processes. This could help untangle and analyse the effectiveness of this kind of art-based research.

Intervening into the real can be very challenging for researchers, as it requires a high expenditure of time, as well as dealing with a transdisciplinary mix of research methods and being personally entangled with transformation processes and its actors. Furthermore, researchers often occupy multiple roles such as moderator, consultant, activist, organizer, etc. As my experience shows, this can easily lead to scepticism about the research design and its results as well as mistrust in the researcher herself. In the case of my real-world experiments, representatives of the City of Hamburg hesitated and some even declined to participate. They did not only question their benefit but were also afraid that I would release delicate information about ongoing negotiations and start making public accusations because of my double role as researcher and Gängeviertel activist. However, this allowed me to surprisingly gain knowledge about the relation between local administration and public events (Ziehl 2019). Nevertheless, surprising reactions and incidents do not always produce such a productive outcome. Therefore, researchers should design interventions in a way that knowledge production and impacts on transformation processes do not depend on each other too closely. In doing so, researchers can avoid that failure concerning knowledge production leads to failure in the context of transformation and vice versa. Furthermore, they should act very carefully and sincerely if they intervene into the real, by being absolutely transparent about their roles, motives and the interventions planned.

To foster trust in research results and processes that are based on Interventions into the Real and to motivate relevant actors to take part, researchers could involve them in the design process early on. Relevant actors could be asked to develop research questions, choose investigation methods and help organise interventions. But from my point of view such a co-design process bears crucial risks: If participants intend to maintain a status quo, they could try to use their involvement to hinder transformation processes researchers would like to encourage. Furthermore, participants could try to influence knowledge production and research outcomes according to their interests. Thus, it is highly important that results can be processed scientifically and independently, so that co-produced knowledge can be secured epistemologically and made accessible to the public.

In my case, I self-published preliminary findings of my first real-world experiment as a research booklet (Ziehl 2017). The so-called Laboratory Report was conceptualised as a boundary object in the sense of a shared reference for the cooperation partners. It was my aim to invite them to reflect upon their behaviour in the cooperation process and to thus encourage them to overcome the deadlock in the cooperation. Furthermore, with the help of the booklet I asked for feedback about my interpretation of obstacles and conflicts. Although representatives of the local administration ignored this call, the Laboratory Report has been productive within my research process: I collected a diverse range of critical feedback from the Gängeviertel activists and associated researchers. Furthermore, I shared and discussed my findings with activists, researchers and administrative staff from outside the cooperation network and other cities. These feedback loops encouraged and helped me to develop fourteen suggestions for action for civil society and public actors to cooperate effectively as the final outcome of my research (Ziehl 2020).



Schneidewind, Uwe/Singer-Brodowski, Mandy (2015): “Vom experimentellen Lernen zum transformativen Experimentieren: Reallabore als Katalysator für eine lernende Gesellschaft auf dem Weg zu einer Nachhaltigen Entwicklung”, in: Zeitschrift für Wirtschafts- und Unternehmensethik. Augsburg: Rainer Hampp Verlag,  pp. 10–23.

Ziehl, Michael (2020): Koproduktion Urbaner Resilienz: Das Gängeviertel in Hamburg als Reallabor für eine zukunftsfähige Stadtentwicklung mittels Kooperation von Zivilgesellschaft, Politik und Verwaltung, Berlin: Jovis.

Ziehl, Michael (2019): “A Space of Performing Citizenship: The Gängeviertel in Hamburg”, in: Hildebrandt, Paula M./Evert, Kerstin/Peters, Sibylle/Schaub, Mirjam/Wildner, Kathrin/Ziemer, Gesa (eds): Performing Citizenship. Bodies, Agencies, Limitations. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 161–174.

Ziehl, Michael (2018): A Real-World Laboratory for Urban Resilience: The Gängeviertel in Hamburg,

Ziehl, Michael (2017): Zukunftsfähigkeit durch Kooperation: Ein Laborbericht aus dem Gängeviertel,