City Eco Lab
Saint-Étienne, France, 2008

Creative Organisation: Doors of Perception, John Thackara.

Funders / Commissioners: Cité du Design

Cost: EUR250,000

Cost Details: Cash and in-kind support.

Duration: Temporary

Location Details: Ancienne Manufacture d’Armes (former artilleries factory) 3, rue Javelin Pagnon, Saint-Étienne, France.

Date of Delivery: 15–30 November 2008.

Medium: Installation

Dimensions / Technical Specs: Variable

Project Delivery Team: John Thackara (Commissioner/Producer), EXYZT (Architects), various local designers. Elsa Francès, Chloé Heyraud, Julien Géry, Thomas Goux and 2008 Saint-Étienne International Design Biennial team.

Funding Sources: Local Government

Themes: Renewal & Regeneration

Duration: Temporary/Ephemeral

Author: Lucy Ainsworth

City Eco Lab was a two-way learning exchange between the Saint-Étienne community and local designers, artists and other experts, applying design innovation to improve the sustainability of everyday modes of living. City Eco Lab engaged existing social enterprise projects within the Rhône-Alpes region and devised methods for ecological and economic improvement. The objective of City Eco Lab was to start a conversation with designers, asking them what they were doing, what their hopes and expectations were and how the biennial could help them to improve their projects. It was a transitional point for the region to engage project leaders to implement social change within their communities, to move towards making the region more sustainable and to be able to address future environmental and economic problems.

Part of the 2008 Biennial Internationale Design (Cite du Design), City Eco Lab, Saint-Étienne presented 46 projects from the region to visitors in the form of a marketplace. These projects included productive urban gardens, low energy food storage, communal composting solutions, de-motorised courier services and software tools to help people share resources. Over16 days a series of workshops, events and discussions were held around key themes including food, water, energy, mobility, and education with the aim of activating change towards sustainability within the city.

Featured projects:

Tool Shed – Bethany Koby & Ellie Thornhill
The Tool Shed presented a variety of ‘soft’ tools or resources that addressed alternative sustainable social structures and allowed visitors to start their own projects. These included workshops, new economic models, such as local systems of exchange and complimentary currencies, urban and small-scale farming systems and design and communication tools. The soft tools were presented in physical containers and jars and placed on shelves in a storage room or shop-like configuration.

Vélos-cargos– Les Coursiers Verts
Saint-Étienne based Les Coursiers Verts (the Green Couriers) relocated their office to the City Eco Lab to workshop means for creating an efficient and effective courier system without emissions. La Poste, the French postal service, presented an electric quad-bike and electric bicycle, which they are currently using in place of motorised vehicles.

Story Scripts for City Eco Lab – Francois Jegou.
18 Saint- Étienne residents were interviewed about how their city could be made more sustainable. These stories were presented through short films or ‘photo novels’ in City Eco Lab and included, personalised public transport, local organic canteen, vegetable bag subscription, bicycle workshop, energy reduction kit, and on-line carpooling.

Neighbourhood Energy Dashboard – Magalie Restalo
Created by a local designer, the Neighbourhood Energy Dashboard prototype could indicate the environmental benefits of the community making conscious sustainable changes to their everyday lives, e.g. if all mail was delivered via Le Coursiers Verts bicycles and residents were fed from community gardens. The energy used and saved in each activity is recorded and displayed on the dashboard.

Explorers Club
In the middle of City Eco Lab was an Explorers Club for members of the public to meet with designers and projects leaders to discuss topics and themes surrounding City Eco Lab and practical means for improving growing their design projects.

Other projects:
Urban Fish-Farming prototype – Hugo Bont and Olivier Peyricot
Urban Garden Toolkit – Emanuel Louisgrand
Cantine 80km – café serving food sourced within 80km of Saint-Étienne.



Aesthetic/Innovation: The producer of City Eco Lab, John Thackara, aimed to steer away from the conventional aesthetics of a design exhibition and create a different format. He wanted to transform an old warehouse into a marketplace. By doing this Thackara aimed to reconsider principles of design and create a scalable and re-producible design market to address urban regeneration and sustainability. The intention was to primarily source projects with a sustainable focus from within a 50 km radius of Saint-Étienne in the Rhône-Alpes region and allow local designers to determine the direction of the projects. This would form citizen/designer partnerships with workshop projects.


Social Activation/Debate: Thackara planned to instigate conversations within the community to discover what the residents of Saint-Étienne wanted for their city. He wanted to stimulate community involvement within the projects.

Community Development: The aim of City Eco Lab was to engage local designers to develop existing and new projects that addressed the community’s needs. Thackara wanted to present projects that would last beyond the exhibition and be incorporated by the community

Skills Acquisition/Education: One aim was to create opportunities for both community members and artists/designers to develop their skills and knowledge in sustainable sectors. City Eco Lab also aspired to present feasible design solutions and generate opportunities for the public to learn how they could adapt their lives using examples from the 2008 biennial.


Climate Change Adaptation: To create solutions that will allow the city/town/community to make changes that counter climate change advances. The 46 projects exhibited in City Eco Lab aimed to improve different environmental sectors, including waste reduction, energy efficiency, air quality and water management.



Artistic Merit: A successful project model was created and has since been implemented in over a dozen similar programs.

Audience Engagement: Over 80,000 people visited the biennial in 16 days.


Community Development: Existing local social enterprises were able to further develop their organisations. The open forums created opportunities for design projects to be improved and expanded. Local designers became better known to the policy makers, city planners, political groups and media, enabling potential investment and development of projects in the region. Residents became more aware of how they could improve their community.

Skills Acquisition: Designers and organisations were able to improve their existing projects. A connection was made between individuals and organisations that were working in the same areas. Relationships that would improve each project were formed.


Marketing/Place and Identity: The project enhanced Saint-Étienne’s Unesco appointment as a City of Design.


Following the success of Design Of The Times (DOTT), 2007, directed by John Thackara, the designer was commissioned to produce a project for the 2008 International Design Biennial in Saint-Étienne, France. City Eco Lab went against the traditional format and presentation of a design biennial to provide local social enterprises and organisations in the Rhône-Alpes region an opportunity to demonstrate their design projects for creating a more sustainable society. Rather than the curator or biennial dictating the content by handpicking designers from around the world, Thackara was interested in allowing the region to speak for itself by showcasing local grassroots projects and social enterprises that already existed within the region. Over one year, Thackara and local content partners travelled throughout the Rhône-Alpes meeting with designers to select projects for the biennial.

City Eco Lab was executed with little to no major issues or constraints and the project came within the original budget. Thackara’s approach to the presentation and architectural design of the biennial, i.e. commissioning EXYZT to create the marketplace format, initially created uncertainty because Thackara was applying a completely different approach to producing an international design biennial. However, this was overcome and the project was fully supported by the biennial staff.

Historically, Saint-Etienne was a part of donkey trading paths through Europe. To represent this history donkey tours were planned but were cancelled before the biennial commenced because they required the presence of a veterinarian surgeon, the cost of which exceeded the budget.


The marketplace architectural space was created with primarily recycled materials. Any new materials that were used were chosen because they were deemed to be a more environmentally friendly option and were sourced locally. All participating designers were requested to source their materials as locally as possible. One staff member calculated that it would be more environmentally sustainable to buy new wood cut to size than to use electrical equipment to resize existing materials. The majority of participants came from a 50 km radius of Saint-Étienne, which inevitably generated a smaller carbon footprint for the project than it would have had with commissioned international participants.


“Saint Etienne Biennale 08: Sustainable Mobility at ‘City Eco Lab’.” Designboom, November 19, 2008. (accessed July 16, 2008).

Thackara, John. Interview by author, July 17, 2012.

Thackara, John. “Tribal Currencies.” Observatory, entry posted October 1, 2008. (accessed July 16, 2008).

Thackara, John. “Xskool Workshops.” Doors of Perception. (accessed July 16, 2012).

This database is developed by the National Institute for Experimental Arts (NIEA) at COFA, UNSW in association with the City of Sydney and Carbon Arts as part of the Australian Research Council ARC linkage project Curating Cities.