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A Systems Framework for Designing of Urban Commons and Sharing Practice: Three Case Studies in Singapore

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Architecture & Planning

Jeffrey Chan and Ye Zhang

“Inventive architectural solutions can contribute invaluably to the dynamics of common space creation. But architecture alone cannot guarantee that designed spaces will become commoned spaces, spaces of commoning and spaces-as-commons.” (Stavrides, 2016).

Inexorably in a milieu characterized by the relentless privatizations and enclosures of neoliberal urbanism (Harvey, 2012), the counterpoise of the urban commons has found a steady traction simultaneously in different disciplines today. From critical urban studies (Harvey, 2012; Kip, Bieniok, Dellenbaugh, Muller & Schwegmann, 2015); sociology (Kornberger & Borch, 2015); urban design (Ferguson, 2014); planning (McLaren & Agyeman, 2015); architecture and urbanism (Stavrides, 2016), the study of commoning and the commons has increasingly taken an urban turn. Not only does the urban commons conceptually promise a new field of thought beyond the canonical dichotomy of public versus the private (Schwarz, 2016: 84), but it has also been suggested as a kind of commons that can increase in value while it is being consumed (Kornberger & Borch, 2015).

In turn, these promises have prompted different attempts to design the urban commons, and how various sharing institutions can come to facilitate it (see Ferguson, 2014). Even so, there is still little systemic knowledge on how to either design for shareability (Schwarz, 2016: 87), or the urban commons (Stavrides, 2014). Unlike the commons of common-pool resources (CPRs) pertaining to how bounded communities collectively and sustainably manage woodlands, meadows, or fisheries (Ostrom, 2006), the commons in any city is situated in a system characterized by openness, value pluralism, and conflict. And unlike the goals of many commons in history—where the commons was established to maximize survivability and inclusivity of the least advantaged member of any community (see Linebaugh, 2008)—the goals of urban commons today are admittedly more plural, fluid and contentious (Stavrides, 2016).

Here, we suggest that the design of the urban commons will benefit from a framework predicated on the systems approach. Relying on the systems approach (see Churchman, 1968; Churchman, 1979), this framework asks the following guiding questions for design:

(i) What is the goal of either the urban commons, or the sharing system?
(ii) Specifically, whose goals are these? How is attaining these goals consonant, or contradictory, to the goals of a larger system (e.g., the flourishing of humanity)?
(iii) To what extent is this goal (or goals) appropriate, proper or justifiable? In other words, what is the ethics of this system?
(iv) Who, or what, is the ‘enemy’ of the system to be designed (i.e., what are the variables that can oppose these goals or counteract the attainment and maintenance of these goals)?

And because every design presumes a certain choice for a certain kind of urban commons, there is therefore also a need to ask this question:

(v) Which commons is being championed at the expense of what other commons? What is the ethics behind choosing one commons over another commons?

In this paper, we propose to analyse three case studies from a design studio conducted on the theme of urban commons and sharing. Each of these case studies presents a different system of sharing and posits different goals that then entail a different set of ethical issues and possibly, resolutions. Here, we briefly introduce the design studio and three case studies and then in a table summarise—tentatively— what some of the abovementioned guiding questions of systems approach may prompt for each case study.

The studio explored what kind of urban commons and sharing system can be designed for regenerating a multicultural historical neighbourhood in Singapore. And design investigation was stratified to tackle the different dimensions of the neighbourhood respectively including urban infrastructure, public amenities, economic production, cultural consumption, etc. The three case studies analysed in this paper are therefore hypothetical proposals each addressing one single dimension of the neighbourhood.

Case study A introduced a system of self-driving cars and energy generators. The former primarily serves as local taxis that facilitate residents moving around in the neighbourhood and in particular connecting to public transport nodes, while the latter produce electricity from the waste of the entire neighbourhood to power the self-driving cars. Residents can use the self-driving car service for free based on the amount of credit earned through contributing waste to the system.

Case study B proposed to deinstitutionalise existing schools and complement them with an open education system using the redundant and/or temporarily underutilised spaces within the neighbourhood. In this system, both residents and visitors with certain expertise and certifications can offer open lessons for a mix of different ‘students’, who are expected to benefit from a diversity of exposures without paying extra school fees.

The final case study (C) proposed a physical–virtual marketplace for work within the neighbourhood. In this system, a number of digital screens are introduced to the neighbourhood centre as interactive public installations, where different QR codes that link to different work in constant change are displayed, and those who are interested and/or would like to earn extra income can scan the codes to apply for these jobs. The QR codes are deliberately kept offline and only displayed all together in one place in order to bring residents or visitors to the neighbourhood centre.

Case studies System of sharing Goal(s) of the system Counteraction to the attainment of goal(s)

A: Self-driving cars / Energy / Enhanced mobility/ Energy efficiency / Frugality / Parsimoniousness

B: Teaching / Learning/ Knowledge proliferation / Community engagement / Privatisation / Profit-seeking

C: Labour / Work/ Full employment / Optimal productivity / Leisure / Inertia

Presentation & paper


Churchman, C.W. (1968). The Systems Approach. New York, NY: Delta Books.

Churchman, C.W. (1979). The Systems Approach and its Enemies. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ferguson, F. (ed.) (2014). Make_Shift City: Renegotiating the Urban Commons. Berlin, Germany: Jovis.

Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London, UK: Verso.

Kip, M., Bieniok, M., Dellenbaugh, M., Muller, A.K. & Schwegmann, M. (2015). Seizing the (Every)day: Welcome to the Urban Commons! In M. Dellenbaugh, M. Kip, M. Bieniok, A.K. Muller & M. Schwegmann (eds.), Urban Commons: Moving Beyond State and Market. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhauser, pp. 9-25.

Kornberger, M. & Borch, C. (2015). Introduction: Urban Commons. In C. Borch & M. Kornberger (eds.), Urban Commons: Rethinking the City. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 1-21.

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Ostrom, E. (2006). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Schwarz, M. (2016). A Sustainist Lexicon: Seven Entries to Recast the Future—Rethinking Design and Heritage. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Architectura & Natura Press.

Stavrides, S. (2014). On Urban Commoning: The City Shapes Institutions of Sharing. In F. Ferguson (ed.), Make_Shift City: Renegotiating the Urban Commons. Berlin, Germany: Jovis, pp. 83-85.

Stavrides, S. (2016). Common Space: The City as Commons. London, UK: Zed Books.




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2017
Title: A Systems Framework for Designing of Urban Commons and Sharing Practice: Three Case Studies in Singapore
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 12 October 2017
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