The Power of “This Could Be…”

During recent talks in Oslo and Malmö, I’ve been showing how a simple shift in thinking can open awareness and generate new possibilities. My goal in that specific part of the presentation is to get audiences to expand their thinking about how existing urban assets could be used in different ways, but the “conditional thinking” approach is an inspiring mindset to have when approaching anything, so I wanted to expand on it here.


Look at the image above and say to yourself “This could be a rubber band.” For some, this might seem a ridiculous statement. “It obviously is a rubber band”, comes the reply. Which is exactly the mindset we’re trying to move beyond. By using a conditional description of the object, we open a channel of awareness in our minds; if this “could be” one thing, then it could be other things as well.

This is more than one of the many ideas that come to me at 35,000 feet while flying on my way to a talk; there’s solid research behind it.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer performed an experiment showing how conditional thinking expands our awareness of possibilities. Two groups of participants performed an exercise in which they made errors while using a pencil. One group was given a rubber band and told “This is a rubber band.” In that group, 3% realized that the rubber band could also be used as an eraser.

The other group, having also made errors with a pencil, were given a rubber band, but in this group, it was introduced with the statement “This could be a rubber band.” Of that group, 40% realized that it could also be used to erase their mistakes.

As Langer and her co-author Alison Piper summarize, by using “a simple linguistic variation” [this could be instead of this is] “a different need was then generated for which the object in question was not explicitly suited but could fulfill.”

Imagine the possibilities if the mindset were applied to all the existing structures, surfaces and systems that make up the city, or for that matter, any of the objects and assets we come in contact with every day. That’s what my current initiative, Reprogramming the City, is all about, and is pretty much the foundation for all the work I’ve done around the world: doing more with what we already have by expanding awareness of the tremendous possibilities inherent in the every day.

For example, most cities look at billboards and say “This is a billboard. This is a source of revenue.”


But in areas of Lima, Peru in desperate need of fresh drinking water, an agency looked at a billboard and said “This could be a structure to harvest and provide fresh drinking water for citizens.”

UTEC Water Billboard
UTEC Water Billboard, Lima, Peru

It all begins by simply introducing ourselves to things with a conditional mindset: “This could be…”

The possibilities are endless when we carry that perception of the world with us.

We all once had this outlook as children – any thing could be anything in the rich imagination we possessed at one time. For most, the power of that imagination gets pushed deep down and is sometimes lost as we grow and learn. I’m a firm believer that it is still there in all of us, and sometimes it takes nothing more than allowing us to approach the world with a “this could be…” mindset.

I’ll let the words of Langer and Piper drop the mic and close the post:

“When subjects were asked explicitly to generate novel uses for the target items, they had no difficulty doing so. However, given the way we are traditionally taught, it simply does not occur to us to think creatively unless explicitly instructed to do so.”


Workshop: Resourceful Design Innovation by Re-imagining Existing Urban Assets






The course I teach for the University of British Columbia is being offered again this year as an online workshop, and registration is now open. As UBC describes it…

In this workshop we look at the potential of reusing, repurposing, and re-imagining a wide variety of urban assets, including existing infrastructure, materials, buildings, structures, systems, and even utilizing the skill sets of municipal employees in new ways. The workshop progresses from smaller examples of repurposing of material and street structures to larger issues of how to re-imagine Main Streets / High Streets and areas of post-industrial cities. It combines practical case studies with analytical observations and hands-on examples from the instructor’s own international projects that use existing urban materials, structures and systems in new ways to increase their functionality and to improve the daily lives of urban residents.

The first of three, 2-hour sessions lead by me will be held on September 6, 2016.

Registration closes August 23, 2016.

For more information, the course listing and registration information can be found on the UBC website here.

Reprogramming the City Stockholm What If

Stockholm’s “What If” Campaign for Reprogramming the City

Stockholm communication agency Le Bureau put together a video overview of their campaign for my Reprogramming the City initiative at ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design.

The agency did a fantastic job of taking the central “What If…” catalyst behind the project and amplifying it across media, outdoor billboards and interactive displays, creating an app for public participation and idea generation, all tightly woven around Reprogramming the City: Stockholm.

Scott Burnham Design With the City Not For It

Delivering “The Big Chance” Lecture for American Planning Association, Chicago

On Thursday, October 1, 2015 I will be delivering the latest lecture in The American Planning Association’s “The Big Chance” lecture series in Chicago.

In The Big Chance series, the APA (American Planning Association) selects leading voices in urban strategy and design and invites them to Chicago to present their work and viewpoints to a gathering of professionals at the APA headquarters. Other APA chapters throughout the US will have the opportunity to view a recording of the lecture at a later date. I’m honored to be the one invited for this leg of the series.

I will be speaking about the big ideas behind Reprogramming the City and the benefits that a more resourceful, resilient method of leveraging the potential of existing urban infrastructure, structures, surfaces and systems can have on cities today and tomorrow.

The lecture is free and open to the public. To reserve tickets, go here.

Full listings information is provided below:

The Big Chance: Reprogramming the City
October 1, 2015, 6 p.m. CT
205 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1200, Chicago

Please join APA for a free lecture by urban strategist, Scott Burnham, who will discuss his Reprogramming the City project. Reprogramming the City is a global exploration of ways in which existing urban objects, structures, surfaces and systems are being re-imagined, repurposed, and reinvented to do more in the city. It is about revealing the hidden potential of the urban assets we already have at hand.

Scott Burnham Interview in Totally Stockholm Magazine

Interview in Totally Stockholm magazine

For English readers, I thought I’d share a piece of media coverage from Reprogramming the City: Stockholm that doesn’t require Google Translate. Totally Stockholm magazine ran a nice interview with me where I dig deep to talk about the inspiration and motivations behind Reprogramming the City. As the journalist introduces the piece:

“Burnham is convinced that the modern urban area of today hides large untapped possibilities within its confines … it’s not only repurposing disused industrial lots but an idea to implement multi-use functions to existing spaces and structures. To look into the possibilities here in Stockholm he made a call to Stockholm-based architects, designers and urban planners, and the result, along with examples from all around the world, will be showcased at Arkitektur-och Designcentrum this summer when *Reprogramming the City – Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure* will explore a new paradigm of urban creativity and resourcefulness.

Burnham quotes the late comedian Bill Hicks: “The next revolution will be a revolution of ideas” and hopes for a revolution in how we think about the potential for the existing urban landscape.

Any interview when I can get into the origin story of Reprogramming the City and get a Bill Hicks quote in is a good interview. You can read it in its entirety here.

SVT Stockholm Interviews Scott Burnham on Reprogramming the City

Interview with Sweden National TV News

With Reprogramming the City: Stockholm up and running at ArkDes, it’s time to share some of the gloss from the media coverage. Below is a short feature and interview with me about the project that was featured on Sweden’s SVT National News. Towards the end I talk about what sets the Stockholm project apart for me.

Reprogramming the City has really resonated with Stockholm and national Swedish media. It never gets old to be flipping through a paper at breakfast and come across an article about your work in the city.

This was staring back at me one morning in the pages of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's largest daily:
This was staring back at me one morning in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest daily.

The headline? “The American who wants to make you feel good in town.” Ah, Google Translate, you do know how to flatter.

For Swedish speakers (and those with Google Translate at the ready), the article can be found online here.

Tranebergsbron Bridge, Stockholm, Vision Divisiom

Reprogramming the City: Stockholm, Launching June 2015

I am very pleased to share the news that the next version of Reprogramming the City will launch in June 2015 at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design (ArkDes) in Stockholm, Sweden.

I’ve just returned from laying the foundations for the project there, and am particularly excited about this iteration of Reprogramming the City. ArkDes is a great institution with a very talented team, an enormous exhibition space and public outreach, which will enable the project to be experienced at an entirely new scale.

If you’re new to the project, Reprogramming the City is an exploration of ideas, prototypes and proposals for how the existing structures, surfaces and systems of the city can be repurposed and re-imagined to do more than their original function. It is about looking at the existing assets of the city and asking “What More” could they do, and “What If” the city did more with the things it already has.

Reprogramming the City is about experiencing the hidden potential of the city.

The word experience is an important one to highlight in the context of the Stockholm project. The focus at ArkDes is going to be about directly experiencing repurposed and re-imagined urban structures, surfaces and systems. Information and imagination are vital, but touching, feeling and sensing new urban ideas makes potential seem probable.

Among many meetings there last week, I had the pleasure to meet with Rahel Belatchew Lerdell of Belatchew Arkitekter, the firm behind Buzz Building, a proposed repurposing of an existing Stockholm roundabout into a future food source for the city (below). The project has been a favorite of mine since I first came across it, and plans are underway to make Buzz Building an exceptional experience within Reprogramming the City. I’m not giving any spoilers away just yet, but it’s going to be pretty fantastic.

Buzz Building by Belatchew Arkitekter
Buzz Building by Belatchew Arkitekter: Re-imagining an existing Stockholm roundabout (left) as a future food source for the city (right).

More news will come as the project develops. Any questions or want to know more? Please do get in touch.