CPI - Bringing scholars, designers, artists, policymakers and publics together

About the Center for Public Imagination

We seek to establish an inter-university center that investigates the contemporary status of ‘the public’. It does so with active participation of a variety of publics. The Center for Public Imagination (CPI) seeks not only to ‘research’ the public but to imagine it by bringing together scholars, interest groups, designers, artists, policy-makers and activists with a view to, and possibly a stake in, public issues.

All the processes usually called ‘grand challenges’ or ‘wicked problems’, all the major issues from big data and smart cities to climate change and sustainable economies, and all the things now associated with the umbrella concept ‘innovation’ are through and through public. And yet the status of the public has become uncertain. Processes ranging from neoliberalization to the increasing ubiquity of the technological mediation of social and political life have severely problematized received liberal conceptions of the public realm, of the dichotomy public/private and of the public sphere.

The result has been, on the one hand, an increasing commodification of practices formerly recognized as public. What used to be called ‘the public’ has consequently pulverized and has been replaced, for instance when online public formation is concerned, by what have been called ‘networked publics’, ‘calculated publics’ and ‘algorithmic publics’. On the other hand, public practices have become fragmented and ephemeral. That is not to say they have become less important or influential, but rather that their anatomy and material mediation, their mode of emerging and of dissipating, and their effects, have radically changed. Also, it has become increasingly difficult to articulate the public aspects of and stakes in political issues. Often, publics exist in a latent state, prior to their articulation. One example would be the ‘public’ concerned with human enhancement, which connects, amongst others, patients, athletes and scientists, although such connections may remain largely unarticulated. And equally often, the public aspects of political issues are sublimated or coded in private terms. This is for instance what currently happens frequently in discussions about the public role of universities, or about public funding for the arts.

The CPI intends to actively seek out such articulations of the public. Hence its emphasis on public imagination. Publics and public issues need imagination in order to be actualized. This means that CPI is not interested in conducting merely descriptive analyses. On the contrary, it seeks to contribute to the articulation of the public moments in collective life, and to imagine alternatives to current modes of imagining and governing. It does so out of the conviction that whatever we call the public in democracy is in need of imaginative dissent. 


This translates into the following concerns and questions that characterize the activities of CPI: 

-       Investigations of the infrastructures of the public. Through which socio-material mediations are publics and public issues shaped? For instance, which natural phenomena, knowledge forms, contestations, organizations and media contribute to the existence of climate publics?

-       Reflection and debate on public potentialities, i.e., on existing and possible articulations and translations of publics and public issues (what can be called ‘public articulations’). How, for instance, can algorithmic changes affect the self-observations of networked publics (for instance through Facebook or Twitter)?

-       Generating forms of imagination (narrative, critical-conceptual, and visual) aimed at forging new ways of public articulation. This means giving new space to what is today a troubled practice, namely critique, and it involves the visualization of and research into alternative public articulations. How, for instance, is it possible to show that even a neoliberal economy is predatory upon, and impossible to sustain without, properly public processes (economies of excess, forms of trust, informal forms of support and solidarity)? In sum, the imagination of public articulations concerns the question how knowledge of public infrastructures and insights into public potentialities can be accounted for in such ways that they actively contribute to public articulation?

Since public and public issues do not adhere to disciplinary parameters, CPI has no disciplinary orientation and imposes no disciplinary restrictions. It seeks openness to scholars from disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, political science, Science & Technology Studies, history, economics, theology, cultural studies, literary studies, postcolonial studies, public administration, geography, computer sciences, physics, technical sciences, systems science, medical sciences, mathematics, media studies and others, as well as to artists, designers and architects.

For all those involved, CPI is to be a place for serious academic reflection and research, but not for academic hair-splitting or purely intra-academic work. An active concern with questions of public articulation needs connections with publics and requires the strong desire to search for means to make public articulate or even to support the coming into being of publics when they are unable to organize or to recognize themselves. It is the conviction of CPI that academic work on the contemporary status of the public gains its substance and its relevance from an engagement with such publics.


·      Willem Schinkel, Professor of Social Theory, Erasmus University Rotterdam.

·      Huub Dijstelbloem, Professor of Philosophy of Science and Politics, University of Amsterdam.

·      Noortje Marres, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick.

·      Maarten Hajer, Professor of Urban Futures, Utrecht University.

·      Sarah de Rijcke, Center for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University.

·      Peter-Paul Verbeek, Professor of Philosophy of Technology, Twente University.