What if…?/ Scotland: Shared hopes, dreams and wishes for our places

A boy in a dimly lit exhibition space looking up at postcards hanging from the ceiling. The postcards contain wishes of citizens for the future of their place.
Published: 22/11/2021

An exhibition at V&A Dundee in 2021 showed just what can happen when designers and residents come together to plan a better future for the places they call home.

At Architecture and Design Scotland, we know from experience that designers shape and create better places when they work closely with the people who use them.

In early 2020, before the national lockdown, 25 people from across Scotland were paired up with 25 architects, designers and artists to share their hopes and dreams for the future of the places they call home.

The architects and designers then used those wishes to explore ideas in response to challenges communities are facing. A year later, their responses went on public display for six months at the What if...?/Scotland exhibition at the V&A Dundee.

What if…?/ Scotland trailer

“In the face of a changing and uncertain climate, it’s vital that conversation and participation and ambitious ideas are prioritised when we design our collective future.”

Ewan Anderson, Project Lead, 7N Architects

How the project came about

What if...?/Scotland was delivered by award-winning design practice 7N Architects.

The project sought to re-ignite design professionals’ civic role. It was a response to the theme at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice: How will we live together?

The Venice exhibition was where the project was designed to be staged, but it was relocated to Scotland due to the pandemic.

Where the people were from

The 25 citizens came from five places across the country:

  • Wester Hailes in Edinburgh

  • Paisley in Renfrewshire

  • Annan in Dumfries and Galloway

  • Elgin in Morayshire

  • Lerwick in Shetland

The questions asked

The citizens were asked how they would like their towns to be changed for the better with open questions like: “How will we live together?”, “What if…?”, “What does the future of your place look like?”, and “What if you could change it?”  This encouraged collaborative thinking between designers and communities.

They were then invited to frame a “wish” about the future of their place, and the designers responded visually with an idea: a “What if…”. The exhibition also asked museum visitors what they want Dundee to look and feel like in the future.

The importance of involving communities in design

As Scotland emerges from the pandemic, the notion of its communities coming together to plan for a better future has never been more important. Project lead Ewan Anderson of 7N Architects explains more about What if...?/Scotland’s collaborative approach:

“If the past year has shown us anything, it is the importance of community, so the Biennale Architettura 2021’s theme ‘How will we live together?’ is more salient than ever.

With What if…?/Scotland, we really wanted to encourage collaborative thinking between designers and communities to demonstrate how community-led, grassroots engagement can stimulate big ideas from conversations about people’s wishes for the future of their places.

‘What if…?’ is an open question that can and has stimulated fantastic and energetic discussion, debate and creative thinking within the communities we have worked with across Scotland. It’s pointed towards ways in which we can make meaningful and positive change.

In the face of a changing and uncertain climate, it’s vital that conversation and participation and ambitious ideas are prioritised when we design our collective future.”

Exhibition events

A&DS and V&A Dundee also delivered a series of digital events that discussed key issues:

  • What if…/ we lived in spaces of small distances?

  • What if…/ we consider how we live together?

  • What if…/ young people designed our future?

The events brought together more than 230 people from around the world. Speakers came from Scotland, England, Ireland, Denmark, Kenya and Romania, with guests from Jordan, Sri Lanka, Dublin, Brussels, Canada and the UK.

Creatives were brought together with students and recent graduates on projects to explore What if…? through talks, workshops, drawing and tutorials.

Watch event series


The What if...? exhibition:

  • won the Edinburgh Architecture Association Ambassadors Award

  • welcomed more than 100,000 visitors

  • collected more than 10,000 wishes from the people of Scotland and beyond

Series of short films

The collaborative process was captured in a series of short films by Basharat Khan. These provided the narration for the exhibition. Each place’s story was told by its citizens and set within the rich landscapes of rural and urban Scotland.

The films were displayed in an immersive environment designed by 7N Architects and O Street. It had spaces for reflection and inspiration.

The Scotland + Venice Partnership

Scotland’s contribution to the International Architecture Exhibition (Biennale Architettura) is delivered through the Scotland + Venice partnership. The ambition of the partnership is to commission and showcase art and architecture that reflects the best of contemporary practice and thinking in Scotland.

The partnership is between the Scottish Government, Creative Scotland, British Council Scotland, National Galleries Scotland, V&A Dundee and Architecture and Design Scotland.

Hosts, designers and citizens


Shelley Bell, Economic Development Officer, Dumfries and Galloway Council


Andrew Piggott, 7N Architects 
Sam Boyle, 7N Architects
Nicola Atkinson, Beautiful Materials
Jordan McCrae + Sean Fitzpatrick, Collective Architecture
Nick Wright, Nick Wright Planning


Roderick McCallum
Calum McDougall
Ben Pool
Lynne Russell
Alan Thomson


Heather Claridge, Architecture and Design Scotland 


Niamh O’Reilly, 7N Architects
Lisa Mackenzie / Landscape Architecture
Ben Scrimgeour and Rosemary Scrimgeour, Building Workshop
Claire Hope, BuroHappold Engineers
Andrew Macpherson, MOXON Architects


Christy Bolland
Jennifer Evans
Sophie McWilliam
Wendy Toner
Tim Wakefield


Suzanne Shearer, Team Leader, Shetland Island Council


Ewan Anderson, 7N Architects
Daniel Clark, Gaada
Thomas Hamilton, Hoskins Architects
David Muir, Rankinfraser
Richard Gibson and Emma Gibson


Jim Anderson
Alastair Hamilton
Graeme Howell
Anthony Nicol
Alisha Taylor


Leonie Bell, Strategic Lead, Paisley Partnership


Ffion Roberts, 7N Architects
Graeme Nicholls, Graeme Nicholls Architects
Ian Alexander and Henry McKeown, JM Architects
Gerry Grams, Threesixty Architecture
Anne Duff and Cathy Houston, Voices of Experience


Linzi Clark
Johannes Gonani
Alison Love
Gillian Steel
Dr Valerie Wright


Leah Black, Chief Executive, WHALE Arts + Eoghan Howard, Wester Hailes Community Trust


Katie Hay, 7N Architects
Mike Harrison, Harrison Stevens
Ian Gilzean, Chief Architect, Scottish Government
Rowan MacKinnon-Pryde and Nicky Thomson, Studio NIRO
Daisy Narayanan, Director of Urbanism, Sustrans


Bahiya Basheikh
Louize Gibson
Eoghan Howard
Eunice Main
Chuks Ododo
Ilisapeci Rawalai
Emily Stevenson

Header image credit: Alan Richardson

Learn more

Find out more about the project on the Scotland + Venice website.