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Expansive Design Open Data

The Expansive Design thesis was crafted on the methodology of historical analysis from Cultural Historical Activity Theory and Production of Space Theory. This page explains in details how data was collected and analyzed, as well as introduces the data records, which are made public here.

Open data

The graphical maps used for data collection and analysis are available online. Some parts of the maps are not included to preserve the identity of the participants and the organizations involved.

Alternatively, you can download the research data [ZIP] and import it into CompendiunNG. The video files, audio files, and pictures collected are not publicly available. These can be obtained by contacting the researcher directly and explaining the purpose of the request.

The graphical maps entail:

  • 815 actual-empirical nodes (purple)
  • 738 object-historical nodes (yellow)
  • 1546 theory-historical nodes (blue)

Research method

The thesis research method combines the historical analysis of the production of space and the historical analysis of activity theory.

The historical analysis in the production of space is called regressive-progressive (Lefebvre, 1991; Stanek, 2011). In order to understand the multiple determinations of the present, it is necessary to go back to the past (regression), understand how contradictions originated and accumulated over time, and come back to analyze the present again with a richer understanding of its multiple determinations. In the return moment (progression), the potential for further development becomes clearer together with the conditions that prevented what could have been made into the present — the alternative presents. “For how could we come to understand a genesis, the genesis of the present, along with the preconditions and processes involved, other than by starting from that present, working our way back to the past and then retracing our steps?” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 66)

Regressive progressive method

The historical analysis method from activity theory is similar to the regressive-progressive, but there are three distinguished research strands: object-historical, theory-historical, and actual empirical (Engeström, 2015). The goal is to reconstruct a certain object through the available propositions and findings about the object, tracking how the object is theorized across history, and how it is being transformed right now in practice. The object-historical analysis focus on the quest of architecture and design practice to grasp what is happening and what is going to happen with their products. The theory-historical analysis discusses how theories expanded their scope to include activity as an essential element of design and architecture. Finally, the actual-empirical analysis collects evidence of this expansion from the involvement of the author with architectural design projects. These three strands are applied to work out the data collected from scientific articles, books, and fieldwork. The result is a systemic understanding of design activity and design space, highlighting its inner contradictions.

The research investigation applies the regressive-progressive method over the three aforementioned strands. The historical reconstruction of the object already presupposes the regressive moment, however, since the investigation aims not only to describe but also to change the practice analyzed, the progressive moment is equally important. In the way back to the present, the object is confronted with its own possibilities for expansion through alternative courses of development. In this way, it is expected to grasp what else the object could be in the present and the reasons why it is not like that yet.

Definition according to Engeström (2015)“Identifying and analyzing the successive developmental phases of the activity system. ““Analysis of the development of the theories introduced into the central activity and eventually of the instrument-producing activities behind those theories.”“Analysis of the internalized and invented models professed and actually used or upheld by the participants of the activity.”
Regressive momentIdentify the object; trace its transformations; reconstruct the activity around the object.Disentangle theories and models used in practice; identify the historical contradictions related to them.Model and describe the specific activity studied; evaluate these models based on the historical analyses.
Progressive momentIdentify changes in motivation towards the object. Anticipate the object’s next transformations.Find promising theories and models that can shed a new light into existing contradictions and support the object’s expansion.Remodel activity and prototype instruments; simulate or try the new configuration.

Writing the thesis and its inner chapters is also considered part of the method. In the text, the strands are laid down and intertwined. That means each section devotes as much space to object description, theoretical discussion, and empirical analysis. The concepts and theories are considered part of the data collected in the fieldwork. In fact, the fieldwork was influenced by these concepts and theories, not just within the researcher’s action, but also within the participants’ action, who were well aware of some of the concepts and theories here discussed. The research method that follows strives for keeping the praxis tradition of Marxist research that states theory is also practice (Marx, 1993).

Data collection

The data collected through the project was stored in an Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) as individual nodes, which were classified according to the method above and graphically interlinked (Kunz & Rittel, 1970; Selvin et al., 2001). The interlinked nodes form a map, which can contain also other maps. This nested structured provided a sense of depth while conserving the breadth of a graphical map. Such system was chosen by its capacity to store and connect data in both strands of research: object-historical, theory-historical, and actual-empirical.

The object-historical data consists of the notes that contribute to defining the object of research, such as concept sketches, outlines, and classifications. They were made mainly before writing project proposals, articles, and this thesis. The notes try to grasp the object while it is expanding in the research context, as a result of confronting theory-historical data with actual-empirical data. The object-historical strand plays a mediating role between the two other strands.

The theory-historical data consists of published articles and books about the topic. One article typically has a handful of interlinked notes in the system and it is connected to other articles that share a topic. The main theoretical concepts were extracted as individual notes and related to each other in a graphical connection. The streams followed in literature review produced different maps of interlinked notes.

The actual-empirical data consists mainly of notes transcribed from a pencil-and-paper notebook carried during the interventions in design projects. The project interventions are framed as case studies (Yin, 2009). Data was collected through observations, interviews, meetings, workshops, and experiments. It was primarily qualitative, stored in formats such as documents, photos, audio and video recordings. Each step of an intervention — online communication, interview, meeting, or workshop — was represented as a graphical map in the IBIS. The criterion for connecting notes was quite loose; it just defines that there was a relationship between the notes without stating the nature of this relationship. A large part of notes were added later based on the rehearsing of audio and video recordings of the interventions.

Data analysis

The graphical maps served as an intermediate step in the research process, being often consulted and updated, but never fully formalized. The graphical maps connected the concepts proposed by theories, the concepts adopted by practitioners and the concepts developed during the interventions, providing an on-going visualization of the investigation. They were mainly used for keeping up with the big picture while analysing data in the three research strands. The visual feedback of comparing the maps was essential to understand the data itself.

For example, the maps created for the main works in cultural historical activity theory in comparison to the equivalent to the production of space theory reveal a big difference between a philosophical treatise — many concepts are raised and connected to each other in the making of a comprehensive world view…

Production of space

… and a PhD thesis —a smaller amount of concepts are connected to favor a deeper understanding of a specific phenomenon.

Learning by expanding

With the purpose of clarifying how this analysis was performed across time, the notes were organized in chronological and methodological order in the image below (made by importing the IBIS data into Gephi). The chronological order roughly matches the data collection activity, what should not be mistaken by the data-analysis itself. The data analysis is better characterized by the connections that cut across the chronological periods. The image shows the effort of developing the strands in relation to each other as an effort to tie the development of the strands together, to keep the research oriented to wholes, not just parts.



Engeström, Y. (2015). Learning by expanding. An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research (Second.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kunz, W., & Rittel, H. W. J. (1970). Issues as elements of information systems (No. 131). Berkeley, Calif.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Marx, K. (1993). Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics).

Selvin, A., Buckingham Shum, S., Seirhuis, M., Conklin, J., Zimmerman, B., Charles, P., … Li, G. (2001). Compendium: making meetings into knowledge events. In Knowledge Technologies 2001 (pp. 4–7). Texas, USA.

Stanek, Ł. (2011). Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Yin, R. (2009). Case study research: Design and methods. Sage publications.

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