Learn our language!

What we do is new. There is no job title for our work and often there are no adequate terms for the tools we use. With this glossary we hope to make it a bit easier for you to speak ‘our language’ and to give you a deeper insight into what we do.

Field theory

The term ‘field theory’ was initially coined in 19th century natural sciences where it describes the non-linear impact of forces on objects in space and time (e.g. the magnetic field). Field theory in psychology was primarily developed by the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) by transferring field theory to the social sphere. The basic idea is that an individual’s actions take place in the life space, which is seen as a field in time-space. Actions within this field are in non-linear interaction with each other. Field theory can help in examining these complex dynamics. In our work we draw on both field theory and systems theory approaches, depending on the requirements of the design challenge at hand. We regard the apparent contradiction between the two theories as different points of view towards similar phenomenological experiences and their analysis results. See also Wikipedia: Field theory (physics), Wikipedia: Field theory (psychology) und Dictionary of Gestalt therapy (in German).


We use the adjective ‘generative’ in accordance with Christopher Alexander’s pattern theory in order to specify processes and the steps contained therein (process sequence), which are recursively generated out of themselves. These processes lead to designs which at the start of the processes were not yet (fully) visible. In contrast, there are descriptive processes (procedures) which are prescribed in detail and arrive at a predefined result. These are normally plans, designs, or control sequences, e.g. in production or quality assurance, which are based on functional-causal process understanding. Christopher Alexander writes the following on generative processes: “When we cook a soufflé, we generate the soufflé by initiating transformations between eggs, butter, sugar, and so on: we do not try to build it (…).”

Collective intelligence

Collective intelligence is the joint intelligence that emerges from a group. It is interesting to see how this phenomenon is described and explained. The simplest definition of CI is that it is the ‘sum of intelligences’ which is unlocked through the use of special technologies. The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence regards Google and Wikipedia as forms of collective intelligence:  these platforms use special technologies to collect the knowledge of many and make it available to all. At the Institute for Participative Design we have found that CI can also be a live experience. People experience a group’s collective intelligence if, within a given context, they engage in a deep exchange with this group and with each other. IPG defines collective intelligence as the intelligence generated in a group of participateurs resonating within a common field.


Greek: “the way towards”. A procedure leading to technical skill in the implementation of theoretical and practical tasks. A number of different methods can be employed in the various steps of a participative design process, e.g. observation methods, analytical methods, interlinking methods, evaluation methods, drafting methods etc.


We understand sustainability as a normative definition of goals, i.e. as our desire and endeavour to sustainably maintain and support life and aliveness. In order to reach this goal it is in our opinion necessary, to set generative processes in motion which enable positive change and foster diversity. We consider it self-evident that sustainability must concern all spheres and areas of life and that there can be no alternative to sustainable development. However, the best ways and means of achieving sustainability must continuously be adapted, newly developed and discovered. Therefore, the tangible expressions of sustainability always result out of the context in question.


In the sociology of science, and in actor network theories in particular, the terms actor and actant are in use. In this context, actors are defined as generators of actions who need not necessarily be human. In contrast, the term actants denotes collectives of semiotic behavioural function (see e.g. Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour). Both terms aim at providing alternatives to the subject-object dichotomy. On this basis we have developed the term ‘participateur’, as unlike the terms actor and actant it avoids the dichotomous differentiation between activity and passivity. In polydirectional communication, a participateur contributes to the development of meaning and thus design. The term participateur encompasses humans, non-human entities, and abstract elements, each of which participate in a narrative in their own specific way and so characterize the common field.


The term participation is derived from the Latin ‘particeps’ = “to partake in something” and stands for: taking part, cooperation, involvement, association, and co-determination. In a political context the term participation is often used to express involvement in decision-making. In contrast, we are mostly concerned with involvement in design.


Latin: “progress, advance”. A process is a development in time. A process can follow a series of steps (as for example in iterative succession) or it can be continuous and develop in a recursive manner. We understand a design process as a meaningful and generative sequence of a variety of actions, methods and events which lead to a design. The design process results from the interaction of the participateurs. From this interaction arises a flexible choice of a sequence of methods. Our work aims at giving rise to generative processes: Processes that, out of their own aliveness, lead to similarly living results. Each one of these processes is new and challenging. In contrast, we are often confronted with a functional understanding of processes where these are seen as a pre-defined sequence of causal and imperative steps (procedures). This type of process is primarily used in (industrial) production and mechanical engineering as well as in standardized procedures such as, for example, in quality management. However, we do not consider such processes as being suitable to designing new solutions and innovation adapted to the context in question.

Qualified assessment

We use the term ‘qualified assessment’ to delimit it from ‘personal assessment’ and ‘objective assessment’. We define ‘personal assessment’ as an assessment based on specific interests, expressing the private interests of an individual person or a common interest group. This may be necessary or desirable in certain instances but it may also hinder qualified assessments. Objective assessments in the sense of essentialist science are not possible in our view. Here we agree with Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the illusion that observations can be made without an observer.” Qualified assessment arises when those who participate in a generative process articulate assessments made on the basis of their engagement and connection with the context. Qualified assessments can thus be understood as a form of expression of the field, where this expression is based on the common intelligence and field intuition of the participants.

"There is nothing more practical than a good theory." Kurt Lewin