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Blowdryers, combs and barber chairs: Humankind’s Hair Salon at Urban Future 2024

Three weeks ago, my colleague Irene and I were running through our pre-Urban Future checklist. Irene had stains of blue in her hands from spraying, among other things, a blowdryer and a comb in our signature Humankind blue. I had more than ten windows open on my two screens, and was still sending emails to Elke at the Urban Future team (shoutout to the great Elke, and the whole UF team!), confirming drop-off information to make sure that our barber chair and mirror would arrive safely at Ahoy’s Rotterdam Hall, where the Expo was to be held.

A blowdryer, a comb, a mirror or a barber chair are not your usual expo furniture pieces, we know that. Here’s how we got to driving a car full of hairdresser’s stuff across Rotterdam:

Earlier this year we were discussing the format of our participation at Urban Future. The conference was going to take place in Rotterdam, our home city, and we did not want to “just” show up at the Expo. So Irene, Mario and I called the whole team for a brainstorm, and we went from the need for a space that would look and feel different, to the conviction that it had to be inviting and confronting all at once. 

A few days after chewing on ideas, we landed the brief: Humankind’s Hair Salon. This is what I wrote at the time:

Barbers, hairdressers and beauty salons fulfill a universal and unique social function. One’s trusted barber is often one’s trusted source, giving these shops a priceless snippet of community life. And perhaps among snipping scissors and shampoo bubbles, the neighborhood’s future may be decided.

With a fun twist on the shockingly high amount of kapsalons (the very Rotterdam word for hairdresser) that exist in this city, we envisioned Humankind’s Hair Salon as a space for safe conversations about the urban arena, the humans that inhabit it and the changes that happen there. 

Often in high-paced environments (urbanism as a field in general, but also conferences in particular) we feel that we’re only able to scratch the surface of “the real deal” – the underlying topics, the big questions. We certainly feel like this often, and it is precisely that which we wanted to tackle at this year’s congress. 

By talking to each other, tapping into “the talk of the town”, we can learn, question and share ideas, all of which is needed to create better futures. 

So how did this play out in the end, you may wonder. Well, pretty well I would say. 

Photo by Kris Pouw, courtesy of Urban Future.

We woke up on Wednesday, June 5th to bright blue skies and a much-missed, sparkling sun. I remember cycling across the Maas excited – this usual feeling you get in The Netherlands when good weather makes you feel invincible, as if the universe were on your side, even if it’s fooling you.

Our stand was at the North corner of the 2nd floor, overlooking the intersection and the pedestrian pathway leading from Zuidplein metro station to AHOY. 

At the centre of our space, a tall, self-standing mirror was flanked by two large banners. On the left, the first question: Does your city need a makeover?; on the right, Humankind’s Hair Salon introduction and five different haircuts (and themes) to choose from. 

Facing the mirror, a barber chair; and around it, a couch, an armchair and a small, low table featuring a blue blowdryer, combs of all sorts and five different sets of cards, each with a different one of the haircuts printed on them. A large TV showcasing an ongoing presentation and a high table full of our brand-new flashy stickers completed the setup.

It worked. To this day I don’t know if it was the light reflected on our mirror, the two large funky-looking banners, the blue hair utensils or my rocking teammates, but few were the moments when we did not have a visitor at our stand. And what’s most rewarding: the story resonated. The story about how closer to street-level big conversations may be taking place. The story about how we live extra-fast times that don’t leave space to question the very foundations of what we do or how we do it. 

Perhaps the story resonated also because of how triggering our haircuts were. The five haircuts were in fact five of the most pressing topics in urbanism today (in our view), that we wanted to tap into, flip around, fold inside-out and discuss with fellow urbanists, with you. On the banner, we had the questions, and on the cards, we added our take on them. Here’s what they read: 

I could try to reproduce the conversations I had those days at our stand, but I would not do justice to the depth and the nuances of our talks. One thing that I found particularly striking and refreshing was when people that had stumbled upon our stand came back again with a friend, a colleague, or a recent acquaintance. This happened a few times and it even (funnily enough) gave me the feeling of running a shop (or an actual hairdresser's!), where as soon as people keep coming back the familiar faces make you feel rooted in the place. 

I remember this one woman who, at some point, came back to take pictures of every single haircut and theme. At the sight of it, I laughed and inquired with a smile, and she mumbled in excitement “this is just very good, I’m taking pictures for my students”. She was in a rush and left quickly, but the idea that she wanted to bring the questions into a classroom got me thinking: as professionals in urbanism, if we manage to ask better questions, isn’t that already a good path forward?

I’d like to think so, at least. Or maybe I just feel invincible because it's sunny in Rotterdam again. 

Nuria Ribas Costa - Communications Officer and Researcher 



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