On 1 March 2021, The New York Post tweeted the picture of an elaborate looking space station orbiting Earth with the headline “First ever space hotel to be operational by 2027”. The following day, Twitter user @benyahr responds with the tweet “We literally just want Healthcare”.

a text in its being a text is a being in the world

—Edward W. Said (1975)

From individuals to state organisations, “what if” questions are used on a day-to-day basis to think into the future or to think otherwise. In many circumstances they are used across contexts, situations and disciplines as “tools” for collective and material imagining. In the field of critical and speculative design, the “what if” question, sometimes unfairly, shares a close alliance with the techno-utopianism now commonly associated with Silicon Valley and its insatiable desires for developing new technologies, usually within a problem-solving saviour matrix to colonise space, fix the environmental crisis and even eradicate global poverty. As such, “what if ” questions in design, and specifically “speculative” design and architecture, rarely focus on technologies of the everyday, on what some might describe as banal technologies of governance that are in constant (but out of view) development, such as state policies.

Maybe one reason is that it is difficult to render policies into captivating imagery that can be smoothly mediated for public consumption. Another is that as statements of intent policies already have a close affinity with “what if ” questions, as they can also be seen along the same spectrum as tools that point to organising and disciplining futures. This closeness could be one excuse why policies of all types are rarely welcomed into creative arts practices and education. Given that national policies provide shape and material to our designed and living environments, design education and subsequent design practice have a negligent history of viewing policies as guidelines, conditions and even creative frameworks to both critique or work with. In design education, policies are generally deemed to be obstacles to creative thinking, based on the mindset that students should somehow be free to express themselves and not be burdened by the reality of everyday governance. When in exceptional circumstances policies are brought into the space of design education and practice, they are rarely seen as living, organising things in the world to negotiate, to trouble and stay with.

What if “what if” questions could be used as tools to open up the space for alternative possibilities with and within national policies? Given that policies are crafted by those in the proximity of and access to power, the opportunity presented is not only to bring policies into the domain of design education and practice, but also to imagine the public forums and frameworks that could allow broader sections of society understand how policies determine their designed and lived environments. Furthermore, how might we facilitate collective processes to not only think through policies but closely think with them, as a means to reimagine and be hopeful? We could define this exercise as a form of ongoing public enquiry, considered as a space to not only understand policies but equally as forums to challenge and rethink how policies are not only implemented but could be imagined otherwise.

As an example within the context of Sweden, one such policy in need of closer scrutiny, or even public enquiry, is the government bill “Gestaltad Livsmiljö—Policy for Designed Living Environment” (Bill 2017/18:110). Although not necessarily in the domain of education, this policy has received much attention in certain quarters of Sweden’s cultural sector, the attention siding with an enthusiasm that recognises that with any new policy follows a commitment for much required funding for the sector. To some degree this enthusiasm consumes and ignores any room and appetite for genuine critique of what the policy is saying and how, and who it is really speaking to. One of the key repeats of the policy, for example, is that “architecture and design will help to create a sustainable, equitable and less segregated society with carefully designed living environments in which everyone is well placed to influence the development of their shared environment.”[1]

What if we take this statement, and therefore policy, at face value rather than reading it as an ambition that risks being ground down and diluted by the system it sets out to reform? While indeed pointing at the value of our designed living environment, the bulk of the policy reads as “realpolitik”—a peace treaty, setting out the rules of the game, postulating and consolidating the territories of existing governmental bodies. But what if we read the above quote not as ambition but as an obligation for real change? If we did so, is it ambitious enough? “Sustainable”—yes! “Equitable”—yes! But is “ less segregated” acceptable? Why not desegregated?[2] And what would a situation “in which everyone is well placed to influence the development of their shared environment” really look like?

Furthermore, we should ask who is the “everyone”, what is “well placed” and what does “influence” entail? If we are to read “well placed” as pertaining to access, it is equally important to outline how and where access could be realised.

Before returning to these questions, we would like to revisit another governmental policy, a precursor of “Gestaltad Livsmiljö”—the so-called “1%-regeln” (SOU 1936:50) from 1937, which states that at least one per cent of the budget, when building, refurbishing and/or extending properties, infrastructure and public environments must be invested in building-related art. From having been a national programme and general rule, funding art projects on a regular basis that created some of the values that are now associated with the notion of “Gestaltad Livsmiljö”, “1%-regels” has now been watered down to an optional policy practised by only 41% of Sweden’s 290 municipalities and 55% of the 21 regions.[3] And while “Gestaltad Livsmiljö” indeed acknowledges the importance of the quality of our designed living environment and that a more sustainable agenda needs to be adopted, the current status quo is not challenged in any substantial way. Reason is that it also lacks the more radical dimension of the 1% rule in its original form, which committed to putting a structural change into play. And, while the focus of the policy is primarily on governmental aspects of its implementation, in doing so the dominant perspective is sadly professional, disciplinary and exclusionary.


What if the 1% Rule for Art could be thought differently, as a framework for the “Gestaltad Livsmiljö”? Some might argue it already is, but bear with us for a moment. What if we thought of it like in its origins, as a supporting and structural framework that could work towards some of the key policy goals of sustainability, equality and desegregation? And to avoid repeating the dominant authorship modality of the 1% Rule for Art in its current guise, we could consider making a claim for an alternative and/or complementary 1% Rule for Design. The aim is not to suggest that a 1% Rule for Design is used for the planning, procurement and acquisition of newly designed public artefacts —consider playgrounds as an example—but to begin to imagine how publics themselves are provided access to “influence the development of their shared environment” supported through a 1% Rule for Design.

Currently, the 1% Rule for Art is predominantly accessed by individuals or collectives able to define themselves as professionalised artists. Our objective is not to repeat this vocational delineation for qualified designers to be able to access a complementary rule. Instead, we see this as contrary to how a 1% Rule for Design could operate, recognising that this type of delineation limits the possibility for “non-artists” to contribute without being included as “participants”, “users” and/or “audiences”. Here we make an important distinction that individuals already embody a certain type of (non-professionalised) design knowledge through lived experience. With this in mind, the 1% Rule for Design could be described as the 1% Rule for Public Design.

Returning to our questions: how might a 1% Rule for Public Design provide access for publics to influence the planning of their designed living environments? To avoid some of the obvious problems of public consultation processes, here we begin by acknowledging that to participate in the public realm, individuals should be compensated for their time. A 1% Rule for Public Design would mainly be activated through waged labour. The “what if ” of a Public Design Wage is not a radical idea; participants in collective decision-making processes such as juries and citizens assemblies are regularly paid for their time and expenses. Although it may seem simplified, a Public Design Wage can contribute to making the case for facilitating individuals from different age groups, social classes, professions, and in varying temporal conditions—in-between jobs and retired are two examples—to contribute to public decision-making. This not only makes possible involvement from wider sections of society, but acknowledges the importance of civic participation in the public realm.

Returning to the “Gestaltad Livsmiljö” and considering its call for the appointment of national and city architects to promote, support and steer policy goals, what if instead of a national designer (as also suggested in the policy) there was a more collective ethos to support, steer and continually assess the policy and its goals? Working through the principle of public design as waged labour, a Public Design Office could advise and support on local and regional projects. Depending on scale, a Public Design Office could operate through smaller group consultations for local projects with citizen (design) assemblies for larger regional and national projects. Through varying forms of assembly and assembling, a decentralised and peer-supported Public Design Office could work against both segregation and polarisation by providing much needed (slow) spaces for imagining otherwise, difference and disagreement, challenging assumptions and prejudices, as opposed to facilitating democratic legitimacy and tokenism mirrored in many current public consultation and public art processes.

Extending further, a Public Design Office could support the very notion of “public interest design” by situating itself in private enterprise to both question and make private enterprise accountable. Here the 1% Rule for Public Design could be used to facilitate a Public Design Office directly within private sector development. Public Interest Design would require private enterprise to “make a case” for how “the other 99%” is planned—embedded in other sectoral frameworks and policies—and considered into the future both as sustainable and as public good.

A Public Design Office in turn prompts the question of educational contexts that could cultivate and strengthen such a public design capacity. Here design education has an obvious role to play. That is, if it has the capacity to rethink itself in relation to its narrow orientation as a disciplinary field. By overcoming its problem-solving centredness, design education could yet discover its public value by rethinking and repositioning its role within society as a tool for imagining-in-common the types of designed living environments and societies that we want to build. This requires more decentralised forms of Public Design Education and learning that recognises that the ability to read and understand the designed and the designing world is itself a special kind of right.

Supported through a Public Design Wage and a life-long-learning strategy, Public Design Education and a Public Design Office could both offer access to and influence the implementation and democratic values as expressed in the policy. With such an ecology in place, the civic capacity to process and anchor agendas addressing pressing matters—such as Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals— would be enhanced.

While we recognise that “Gestaltad Livsmiljö” has its flaws, like any policy, it being in the world as a gesture or direction not only offers us the possibility of rethinking with and within it. It also offers us the possibility of holding it to account. Treating the policy as merely a policy is the best way to stick to business as usual. Treating the policy as a (political) reality and as “a text in its being a text is a being in the world” is to embrace the policy as a tool for change, as something useful, to challenge and imagine otherwise. The policy should thus not only be read as a vision, but as an imperative. And the question from our perspective as designers and design educators is how we can rise to this challenge.

And while we acknowledge that our “what if”’ is utopic, it is not unrealistic. On the contrary, our “what if ” is actually quite feasible, as it aligns not only with the goals and values of “Gestaltad Livsmiljö”, but mirrors calls for a more fundamental restructuring of society that is happening across the globe, and in doing so aligns with transformational processes in dire need of consolidation, which have already begun.

– –

What if…A 1% rule for Public Design was originally published in the AIO Journal 10, Disruptions in Utopia, Left Behind Land, June 2021. We would like to thank Art-Inside-Out for the permission to republish here.

The Voyager Station Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC) 2021


  1. See https://www.government.se/information-material/2019/01/policy-for-designed-living-environment/ (accessed 2022-05-29).
  2. We acknowledge there is a requirement to elaborate further on what we mean by “desegregation”. However, within the scope of this text we outline “desegregation” as an active process that intersects urban segregation with political, economic, cultural and educational segregation.
  3. See https://statenskonstrad.se/arbeta-med-konst-i-offentliga-miljoer/finansiering-av-offentlig-konst/staten-och-enprocentsregeln-en-lang-historia/ (accessed 2022-05-29).