Designing for Playful Democratic Participation

By Mathias Poulsen

In this post, I will introduce my PhD project, “Designing for Playful Democratic Participation”, and share the current status of the project.

My Motivation

The project has grown out of more than a decade of work with grassroots communities, where I have been experimenting with different strategies to cultivate ownership and participation.

Since 2014, I have been running the international play festival CounterPlay[1] at the (amazing!) library Dokk1. My aim was to develop a space and community for exploring play and playful ways of learning, working and living, across society and throughout life. What struck me about the atmosphere and many of the encounters taking place there were how strangers so readily engaged in courageous experiments together, and how they brought forward difficult, complex, personal and – not least – political questions. Quite often, these engagements were not expressed in words, but rather through bodily interaction with materials, the physical surroundings and other bodies.

Over the years it dawned on me that what they were doing, what we were all doing, was (also) an inquiry into new ways of living together. It resonates with the way the American sociologist and play scholar Thomas S. Henricks describes play in “Play and the Human Condition”:

“When people agree on the terms of their engagement with one another and collectively bring those little worlds into being, they effectively create models for living” (Henricks, 2015).

A question was slowly forming in my head: “can this somehow be considered democratic participation?” – and if so, is it something we can design for?

The challenge

I believe that my anecdotal observations really stood out and resonated with me because they seemed to be in rather stark contrast to how we usually tend to think of participation in democratic societies. Typically, as citizens we are expected to exercise our civic agency through participating in formalized political institutions and procedures, such as elections and political debates.

The current manifestation of democracy seems to be trapped in a peculiar paradox, where it is simultaneously praised as the best possible form of government, and considered to be in an increasingly deeper crisis. A number of national and international studies indicate that most democracies are troubled by a declining legitimacy and that public support is waning. These studies also show that many citizens feel disconnected and alienated from representative democracy, by which they do not feel properly represented and with few meaningful avenues towards participation. Here I agree with Papacharissi when she states that “If we want lively citizens, we have to offer engaging opportunities of interaction” (Papacharissi 2021).

My proposal

With my PhD-project, I suggest that there may be an unfulfilled potential in expanding our collective, participatory repertoire; what might other ways of enacting democratic citizenship look like and (how) can we design for such formats?

Most of the important democratic innovations in recent years have continued Habermas’ work on public deliberation (Habermas, 1991), where citizens are directly engaged in debate and decision-making through public forums such as mini-publics and citizen initiatives. While I believe these are indeed valuable initiatives, they also seem inadequate and they have been criticized for typically excluding everything that cannot be captured in rational discourse. I therefore paraphrase Höök, when I ask if we can “really continue to design democratic interactions as if we do not have bodies?” (based on Höök, 2018).

In suggesting a new conception of democratic participation, closer to the issues that people encounter in their daily lives, the project moves outside institutionalized politics and away from the typical end goal of impacting political institutions. My project seeks instead to expand the notion of deliberation, from a relatively narrow idea of rational debate, a primarily cognitive, verbal exercise, to include a fuller spectrum of the human experience –  head, hands and heart, as we often say at DSKD. I draw on design research to better understand materials and material participation, and to frame the open-ended processes as critical and speculative rather than solution-oriented.

To study this concept, which I describe as embodied deliberation, I view the Danish tradition of junk-yard playgrounds through the prism of design and frame them as public, political spaces akin to the agora, forum or square. I use these playgrounds literally as a space for playing with materials and as a metaphor for reinterpreting democratic participation as playful, embodied and speculative practices where citizens can engage with each other around issues of importance to their local community. Here, the head, the hands and the heart are engaged in creative construction, using a range of tools and materials, to create what has been described as “a free society in miniature” (Ward 1961) and to imagine and explore alternative worlds.


My project is rooted in research-through-design, and programmatic design research, more specifically, which means that it evolves through a series of design experiments as interventions.

I seek to conduct 3-5 experiments in the coming 4-5 months, where I will collaborate with organizations and local communities to interpret what a “skrammellegeplads” might look like in different contexts. I expect the time span will be from one day up to maybe a week, and that participants will choose which topics to engage with through playful processes of experimentation and construction.

In the spirit of co-design and democracy, and in direct continuation of my previous work, I hope to develop these experiments together with interested stakeholders. I have decided to pursue an experimental approach to recruiting participants, where I openly invite anyone interested to join in. To evoke curiosity, I made a video and a blog post[2] (both in Danish), which I shared on social media along with a short text. Especially on LinkedIn[3], the invitation gained some momentum, and I have received overwhelmingly positive feedback, as well as a number of requests to collaborate on the experiments. I am now organizing dialogue meetings with the people who are eager to collaborate, and who seem keen to enter a process of sincere co-design.

Along the way, I have realized that there seems to be a lack of research into the process of inviting and engaging participants in design research, and participatory research more broadly (Lindström & Ståhl, 2016; Arieli, Friedman, og Agbaria, 2009). As a consequence, I have decided to dive deeper into this and I hope to make both theoretical and practical contributions to this crucial phase.

I hope for many opportunities to explore all of these issues and questions together with you – also outside of online meetings, with our hands, bodies and materials.

By: Mathias Poulsen

Project page:

Personal project blog:

Main supervisor: Eva Brandt, Lab for Social Design

Project supervisor: Helle Marie Skovbjerg, Lab for Play and Design






Arieli, D.; Friedman, V.; Agbaria, K. (2009): The paradox of participation in action research

Habermas, J. (1991): The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society

Henricks, T.S. (2015): Play and the Human Condition

Höok, K. (2018): Designing with the Body: Somaesthetic Interaction Design,

Lindström, K. & Ståhl, Å. (2016): Politics of Inviting: Co-Articulations of Issues in Designerly Public Engagement

Papacharissi, Z. (2021): After Democracy – Imagining Our Political Future

Ward, C. (1961): Adventure Playground: a parable of anarchy

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