Masters in Relational Design Pontio

photo Sebastien Coell

Wellbeing is intimately linked to connection –  to other people, but also to place. Relational design creates those connections. If you – or someone on your staff –  would like to spend a year developing a project to do with wellness, adventure, tourism, and education, this one year research masters is for you.

(I’m teaching on the course as its senior advisor. This web page is my personal take; the official page is here).

Connecting assets – place, people, knowledge, tech – can create new value, livelihoods, and enterprise. But assets do not readily connect themselves. Small firms especially – such as 99% of Welsh firms – tend to be resource and time-poor.

API Pontio connects the ‘what is?’, with the ‘what if?’ in a designed process:
– scoping: for opportunities in the region, and emerging models elsewhere;
– curation of actors and stakeholders;
– collaboration design, such as new ways of meeting, and deciding;
– a focus on prototypes unites diverse actors in a commitment to take action.

To indicate the types of research project we have in mind, here are some project scenarios:

Co-op Grains Platform
Social Farming

Coders in the Countryside
Tree Care Services
Beyond Adventure Sport
Beauty and Biorefining
Connected Botanic Garden
New Uses for Welsh Chapels
Local shops as service hubs
Tourist Office As Platform
Bike Friendly Infrastructure

1: A Platform for the Co-op Grains Movement

Between Autumn 2015 and Autumn 2016, in an artist-led project called A Field Of Wheat, a collective made up of 42 members of the public, the food industry, farming community, artists and researchers become active stakeholders in a field of wheat in Branston Booths, Lincolnshire, England.

Following two years of research into the culture and economics of wheat growing on a local and global scale, the Field of Wheat project meant building relationships with the region’s farmers, representatives of the farming industry, local historians, and researchers.

A direct outcome of this experiment is a project called – the live prototype of a co-op grains movement. Sixty citizens have each invested in a farmer’s field for a year. Together with the farmer, they decide what to grow, how to grow it and what happens with the crop.

#OurField is a shared farming experience: It supports farmers financially and emotionally, and  connects mostly city people to what it takes to grow food.

#OurField is brilliant experiment. It has huge potential. But building on this opportunity is easier said than done. As is true for most pioneers, the founders and organisers of #OurField lack the time and space to build the co-operation platform they know is needed.

So, one project scenario for the #api_MRRD masters is easily described: an ideal candidate would spend spend a year developing the prototype of an #OurField platform – together with the movement’s founders, a farmer from the North Wales region, and relevant other partners.

2: Welsh Chapels and Coworking

The 6,426 chapels in Wales (like Capel Salem chapel in Pwllheli, above) were once at at the heart of community life in remote communities.

There are numerous ways chapels could be be part of the next economy, too – but these ways need to be designed, and with diverse collaborators.

Possibilities range from CoWoLi (Coworking-Coliving), or new kinds of creative residencies, to learning hubs and new kinds of school.

3: Connected Botanic Garden

When the first botanical gardens were established 3,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, they combined scientific enquiry with public education.

Today’s botanical gardens and ecomuseums are looking for new ways to engage citizens – and as active participants, not just as paying visitors. These new relationships need to be designed, enabled and supported.

One #api_MRRD project scenario could be to work with Tregorth Botanic Garden (top); develop new relationships; and design a platform to enable them. An inspiring example of this approach was envisaged by @DubberlyDesign in their project Engaging members to re-imagine National Geographic. See also #RethinkingParks

At Pontio, in North Wales, a new Masters by Research in Relational Design (#api_MRRD) helps you make a positive step-change in a live wellness project for a region. Here is one project scenario: develop a service, or platform, to meet the growing need for social farming. Scroll down for other project ideas. (Shown above: a formerly abandoned city farm in Milan has been given new life as a multi–functional centre).

We all have to eat, and the health of the soils, watersheds and biodiversity is in all our interests – so why should farmers do it all on their own? Interest is growing in ways by which citizens can play a practical role. The social, educational and health benefits of social farming can be huge – but they need to be organised.

Care farms can create social value as convivial locations for young or elderly people in need. In Ireland, dozens of farms enable city people to participate in  farm activities in a non-clinical environment. The practice reconnects farmers with their local community as part of the social support system. And in Scotland, Whitmuir Learning Farm is a thriving hub hub for myriad activities: cooking, composting, seed swaps, bird, soil and wildlife courses.

Growing, harvesting and processing food can be a shared activity, too. In a project called #OurField in England, 40 citizens co-invest in a farmer’s field for a year; together with the farmer they decide what to grow, how to grow it and what happens with the crop.

Many citizens already participate in the regeneration of forests, meadows, and rivers. Government funding for High Nature Value Farming schemes expand the range of possibilities; farmers are rewarded for biodiversity improvement, and value-creating work is needed to look after pastures, meadows and orchards, as well as large hedges and copses. High Nature Value farming can also be a source of new produce – from herbs used in biorefining, to artisan cheeses. 

Marginal and neglected woodlands can also be the basis of new social enterprise. A pilot programme in the UK, which involves 50 woodland social enterprises, is exploring new  ideas that that span woodfuel and timber, to woodlands being used in an educational or health and well-being setting.

At Pontio, in North Wales, a new Masters by Research in Relational Design (#api_MRRD) helps you make a positive step-change in a live wellness project for a region.

One project scenario could be to develop a tool, and a collaboration platform, to monitor the health of nature in new ways.

Just one gram of forest soil can contain more microorganisms than there are people on earth, and hundreds of meters of fungal mycelia. Two questions arise: how did they count them? and, second, what’s that got to do with human health and wellness?

The convergence of citizen science, and digital craft, is driven by a simple idea: the health of all living systems, including our own, are part of the same story. Soil health, human health, microbiomes, biodiversity, the climate – all are connected.

So if growth, in a region, were to mean soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, we’d need to measure their health. If value were to arise from relationships among living systems – and not things – we’d need to put systems in place to monitor progress, and feed back results.

Digital tools can help us perceive the living world in new ways – but this is not just a design task. Biologists, designers, engineers, artists and educators need to be involved in the development of new devices. A pioneer in this field, @Naturebytes (see photos above) is growing an engaged community of engineers, scientists, designers and enthusiasts to create new ways to reconnect with wildlife and living systems.

One project scenario could involve performance equipment for professional arborists.

In hundreds of cities around the world, mayors and citizen groups are planting trees – to provide shade, reduce ambient heat, improve air quality, assist with storm water runoff, and improve public amenity. Community groups, too, are starting forests on school campuses and brownfield sites; in the North of England, funding is available for the community care and management of local woods In New York ‘s Street Tree Census hundreds of volunteers explore their neighborhood, meet new people, and map trees using a fast-growing Open Tree Map. On a somewhat larger scale, China is committed to cover nearly a quarter of the country with forests by 2020.

But planting trees is just the start. A wide variety of activities and equipment – and a lot of knowledge-sharing – are involved in the management of tree populations. Trees have to be climbed, pruned, inspected, and surveyed. Seeds must be collected  from notable trees, and foliage sampled for research purposes. Specialist courses and industry guidance must be delivered for tree climbers and forest managers.

A love of trees and forests has fostered a growing variety range of spin-off activities. These range from: Forest Schools  and different approaches to edible forest gardens and edible forests Other activities include tree-climbing competitions and camping in trees You can even participate in Applied Splicing Workshops

In North Wales, DMM is a world leaders in the design of high-performance equipment for professional arborists – or ‘arbs’ (who describe their work as ‘veterinary care for trees’). And it’s not just about hardware. Because public money is often involved, safety regulations can means that every bit of kit needs its own certificate of conformance. Together with another local firm, Paper Trail, DMM has launched an Identity and Information Management platform, DMM iD, in which RFID technology is used to make carabina scannable and checkable anywhere in the world. It’s a far cry from a man, a rope, and an axe.

At Pontio, in North Wales, a new Masters by Research in Relational Design (#api_MRRD) is designed to help you make a positive step-change in a live wellness project for a region.

One project scenario could be to re-invent Outward Bound as a co-operation platform that connects citizens, sports adventure companies, and public bodies.

Born in Wales in 1941, Outward Bound began as a school on the coast of Wales that helped train seamen for the harsh life of working at sea. The model soon expanded to include outdoor, adventure-based, programs that enabled individuals and groups to explore nature and test their physical and mental strength.

Today, more than half of European adults are overweight; obesity has tripled in many European countries since the 1980s. Governments have started to start taxing unhealthy food and beverages – but they struggle to connect health, sport, and education programmes. The focus of the private sector, too, has been on transactions – “sell more adventures” – than on longer-term, system-wide relationships.

On the plus side, millions more people than one might think already engage with the natural environment. They visit the countryside, enjoy green spaces in towns and cities, watch wildlife, and volunteer to help protect the natural environment.

What’s missing are networks and connections. A Relational Design masters could be a timely opportunity to reinvent Outward Bound as a cooperation platform that connects citizens, sports adventure companies, and public bodies.

The elements of a thriving bio-economy exist in Wales – but they are disconnected. One project scenario could be a product-service platform that links biorefining and beauty.

Natural ingredients have the potential to transform everyday products in ways that enhance wellness – from skin care, to coffee bags. Citizens want this to happen: demand for all things natural, local, and small scale, is huge.

The elements of a thriving bio-economy exist in Wales – but they are disconnected. The country’s uplands, for example, are filled with grasses, colourful wild flowers. A variety of citizen researchers, meanwhile, are exploring the cosmetic, culinary, medicinal and aromatic potential of the region’s plants. There is processing expertise, too: Bangor’s Biocomposites Centre has plans to develop a network of grassland micro-refineries that would produce fibres, proteins and oils on a regional scale. Above all there is a market need – for biopolymers, packaging, essential oils, cosmetics, personal care products, nutraceuticals.

A Relational Design masters can be about connecting this patchwork of human, ecological and technical potential. What’s probably needed are a product, a field-to-face trading platform, and a sustainable business model.

The new Masters by Research in Relational Design (#api_MRRD) is hosted by Arloesi Pontio Innovation (API) and based in Pontio, a new arts centre at Bangor University in North Wales.

The region is one of the most resilient in Europe. It enjoys clean air, spectacular landscapes, unspoiled soils, abundant biodiversity, low population density – and ancient but still thriving cultural roots.

A thriving ecosystem of companies in North Wales ranges from world-leading outdoor, extreme sports and adventure tourism, to biorefining, grain and fiber networks, maker networks, boat builders. There’s also a 500-strong North Wales Tech Community.

Project Scenario 9: High Street Shops As Service Hubs

The global meltdown of transactional retail presents an opportunity: co-create new services in which location, connection, and social co-presence, are key.
 Imagine, for example, the high street itself as an as hotel: rooms are owned and run by different people; multiple services (food, experiences, cycle access, adventure) are delivered by local actors – Co-working/CoLiving developed in diverse ways. (Above: Alibaba’s expreimental project in China to turn a local convenience store into a multi-service hub).

Project Scenario 10: Tourist Office As Platform 

New kinds of tourism are emerging that connect city and country in new ways – learning journeys, food routes, Green Grand Tours – and tomorrow’s tourist office will enable those connections on a continuous basis. It will partner, too, with new kinds of destination: watersheds, bioregions, industrial heritage, wool and fibre makers, urban nature. By acting as a platform, tomorrow’s tourist office will enable new actors to prototype new services, and transition from a transactional to a relational model of service.

Project Scenario 11: Bike Friendly Infrastructure
 & Services

Nine millions people took cycling holidays in France last year, and Vienna has committed to move 80 percent of parcel delivery onto cargo bikes. Physical infrastructure is a modest part of these transformations. Co-ordination among local government agencies; support services for cyclists (repair, food, accommodation, maps, laundry); and consultation with other road users; all these are mission critical. 



Wellbeing is intimately linked to connection –  to other people, but also to place, and the living systems that inhabit it. Relational design creates those connections.

The #api_MRRD Masters is not theoretical. Structured around a live project. you will learn creative ways to connect the “what is?” with the “what if?” in ways that create new livelihoods and sustainable enterprises.

Your research will be delivered in the form of a Business Proposal, an Exhibition, and a public Presentation to stakeholders and peers. The Lab’s experts will help you develop and tell your story effectively.

Relational Design is not just about start-ups. It’s also about connecting with anchor and legacy institutions.

Heritage buildings can be restored as Coworking/Coliving (CoWoLi) sites. Chapels, pubs, libraries, regional  museums, hostels, post offices, local shops – all can be enhanced hubs for new kinds of activity.

The masters course is supported by expertise in depth at Bangor University: sport science, extreme environments, health sciences, medical and neuroscience research, environmental sciences, and soil science.

The home-base of the #api_MRRD course is a new arts and performance centre, Pontio; it has facilities and expertise to match. The course is also connected internationally with networks developing new business and governance models such as Cooperation Platforms.

Is this Masters for you?

The Masters in Relational Design course is for those who wish to:
– develop a project or business idea – perhaps in collaboration with an industry, government or anchor institution from your own territory;
– find employment in the public or private sectors;
– start a new enterprise; or
– work in regional development or innovation policy.

The course is residential, and runs full time from September to August. The course language is English. To get in touch please email Sara Roberts,


I first learned that North Wales as a living laboratory for innovation back in 2011. Here is my story from that first visit: From Druids, to Biorefineries: Innovation In A Small Nation

My input to this new Pontio masters also builds on lessons learned in our xskool workshops over recent years. In diverse contexts, we asked the same question: If the health of people, and the places where we live, are connected, what kinds of enterprise can help city and rural thrive together? 

The story-so-far is summarised in Back To The Land 2.0 – A Design Agenda For Bioregions.  See also my my recent interview with @DomusWeb When Value Arises From Relationships, Not From Things