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What if Lab: Safety matters

Municipalities have an important umbrella function in ensuring a safe living environment. As a consequence of this they often have to tackle complex issues employing current methods that sometimes fall short. Designers are specialised in offering new perspectives, which is why the VNG (Association of Netherlands Municipalities) has organised a What if Lab in collaboration with Dutch Design Foundation (DDF) for the third year running. This year the Lab will form part of DDW 2019 in the new Embassy of Safety, which will investigate how design can contribute to a society where people feel safe.

A society in which not suspicion, but trust leads

Residents want to feel safe in their neighbourhood or district. A feeling of safety is influenced by little things, like illegal parking and litter, as well as bigger issues, such as nuisance from confused people, organised crime and illegal cannabis plantations. New less visible channels for criminal activity are evolving online that the traditional law and order organisations like the police, customs and tax authorities struggle to cope with. Offline too criminal networks are increasingly formed through flexible cooperations that are organised went the opportunity arises and where the underworld and legitimate business mingle. Against this background we still expect the authorities to be able to estimate and limit risks adequately. How can we ensure that the responsibility is distributed more fairly, so that entrepreneurs, organisations and residents can play a role in creating a safe environment?

Together we have to consider an effective cohesive and flexible approach. Especially on a local level there are tangible starting points for tackling these issues. Within a municipality, many links between organisations, institutes and residents are anchored that could share in forming the answer. A focus on preventative and early notification of tension is possible and necessary. The organisation of information is crucial if this strategy is to gain more momentum and relevant cooperative partners will have to be sought (both off and online) who are of added value in approaching these issues.

Embassy of Safety

Within the various World Design Embassies, designers and partners involved are working on new perspectives and solutions for complex social challenges. The new ‘Embassy of Safety’ will start in 2019, bringing together the VNG (Association of Netherlands Municipalities), National Police and Undermining Task Force. This first edition is investigating the question ‘Is safety a right?’

A safe society is currently chiefly based on policy, laws and rules and protocols. Safety is approached as a system issue with a rigid and hierarchical division of tasks in government and its implementing bodies. To be able to continue to guarantee safety in the future, a policy is established based on analyses of objectively measured statistics. The human dimension is sometimes hard to find in this systematic approach, while in fact the perception of safety is very subjective.

Trust, emotions and attributing meaning are decisive for the experience of safety for people. The deployment of self-thinking security systems can be effective, but this does not immediately mean that it also has effect on the human perception of safety. Falling crime figures are important benchmarks but only amass value once people experience society as being safer too. Another important question within the Embassy of Safety is consequently ‘How can we organise safety systems so that they focus on human perception?’ Together with partners, experts and designers we want to explore new perspectives for the future within the What if Lab, make consequences tangible and comprehensible and, in co-creation, transform concepts into possible new policies.

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Pop-up What if Lab?

During the last two years a lot of hard work has gone into preparing for the VNG What if Lab behind the scenes presenting prototypes during DDW in the Klokgebouw developed in the preceding months. In the coming edition - as an important part of the Embassy of Safety on the Ketelhuisplein – the approach has become more dynamic: Dutch Design Week will be made the most of through deploying the busy festival as a ‘Living Lab’ all week. So no predetermined result will be presented, but the municipalities involved, design studios, safety experts and DDW visitors come together to investigate and experiment with this during DDW and to make the developments tangible for and with the public.

In addition to the non-stop Living Lab at DDW, a Demo Day will also be organised, in which the concept of 5 entire days of development and testing will be presented to a selected group for feedback and possible partnerships in the further development. On 25 October the VNG will organise an in-depth conference based on the theme safety, inviting the What if Lab participants to present projects. During this conference, policy makers and safety experts from the network of the partners of the Embassy of Safety will be present, the ideal network for discussing the possibilities for the further development through implementation in daily practice.

Purpose of the programme

VNG has recently appealed to all the municipalities in the Netherlands (and/or their cooperative partners) to register with a current safety issue from their area that could benefit from new perspectives. From these submissions 10 issues will be selected by a committee comprising VNG, Embassy of Safety partners and DDF. The previous What if Labs with VNG demonstrated that a designer sees these issues from an entirely different angle than a civil servant. Which is why the ‘issue owners’ will start with a masterclass in the field of Design Thinking at the beginning of September, so that they receive an introduction to the design methods, and they can hone their issue with future cooperation in mind.

In the meantime the registration period for designers has closed and three studios have been selected to participate in the What if Lab based on their portfolio and motivation. These three studios will be invited for the pitches for the 10 issue owners on 16 September. Together with VNG, DDF, Innovatiekabinet and partners from the Embassy of Safety they will form the jury to ultimately select 3 of the 10 issues. At the end of the day, the designers can meet with the issue owner to get to know each other, discuss and make a start for the Pop-up What if Lab.

During the period following the selection until DDW the designers will work with the issue owners on fine-tuning the issue and investigating how they can best organise this for the Living Lab during DDW. The idea is that DDW forms the beating heart of an intensive period of research, in which the other partners of the Embassy of Safety, invited experts and the public can be deployed to explore and experiment. For this, in addition to the intrinsic question, it is also important to consider how you can make your process visible and involve the public in your own design process.

After DDW there is still time to flesh out the first tentative steps and concepts that have occurred during DDW into prototypes. This process will always be a collaborative one with the issue owner. In the course of 2020 the last results will be presented. VNG strives to actually implement good ideas and can – when required – help throughout the entire process to look for and find external cooperative partners or investors, should this be necessary.

Criteria for participants

For this What if Lab we are looking specifically for studios with plenty of experience, preferably also in working with governmental authorities or organisations of a similar nature or with a link to them. You have to be comfortable with involving the public and harmonising your design process with the environment where you simultaneously work and imagine the future. Another criterium is availability during Dutch Design Week, considering that the Living Lab is an active and interactive part of the Embassy of Safety. During the Embassy opening hours (daily between 11:00 and 18:00) and the planned Demo Day and conference, a minimum of one person from your studio will have to be present. As a consequence of this intensive work period during DDW we believe it is imperative that multiple members of your studio operate cooperatively here. This can be a cooperative that is organised for this occasion.


Registration is possible until 21 August 2019 23:59 hours via this link.

When registering, you will need to provide references for 3 to 5 relevant, previously executed projects and a brief motivation for your participation.

Please note: it is not possible to save entered data during the registration and return to it a later date. Which is why we recommend that you work on your text in a word processing programme like MS Word and that you copy this into the registration form.

Description of relevant projects: max. 150 words per project. Motivation for participation: max. 600 words. Images: JPG. Minimum image size: 600 pixels in width, 72 dpi. Maximum image size: 2 MB.

Before registering, please read through the participation conditions. In registering you automatically agree to the conditions as described in the document below ‘Deelnamevoorwaarden What if Lab VNG 2019’.

Terms of participation (Dutch only)



Deadline registrations 21 August 2019
Selection three participants 29 August 2019
Briefing and introduction 9 September
Pitches and selection of municipal issues 16 September 2019
Preparation pop-up What if Lab VNG (in cooperation with municipal partner) 17 September until 18 October 2019
Pop-up What if Lab VNG during DDW 2019 19 October until 27 October 2019 
Demo Day 24 October 2019
Conference Embassy of Safety 25 October 2019
Further development concept to prototype 28 October 2019 until 8 June 2020
Presentation of prototype at annual VNG congress 9 June 2020


The three selected design studios will each receive a reimbursement of € 17,500 in total for the entire assignment. This payment will take place in phases:

  • € 5000 for the preparatory phase up until DDW 2019, incl. selection day.
  • € 7500 for the implementation of the programme during DDW 2019 (each day during DDW someone from the studio must be present in the pop-up What if Lab)
  • € 5000 for the future development of the concept to prototype after DDW 2019. This also includes the final presentation of the prototype in 2020.


If you have any questions about this What if Lab, please contact Lio de Bruin.