The ProtoPublics Sprint Workshop took place at Imagination Lancaster on 16-17 April. A group of 45 researchers- crossing disciplines and practices- got together to test out and explore new methods of ‘doing’ socially engaged design research. Here are some photographs to document the day.
Justin Spinney is lecturer in human geography at the University of Cardiff. In this interview, which we conducted over email, he reflects on his work on mobilities and transport, his application of ethnography in relation to design research and the groups and communities he would like to be able to engage with more through his work.
Tell me briefly about your current or previous research.
The main project I am currently working on is the cross council funded Cycle Boom project. Working across 4 UK cities this project seeks to build up a better picture of cycling in older age with specific reference to the ways in which urban design and new technology (such as e-bikes) can get more older people enjoying cycling. A particular focus for me is ways in which we can understand and measure affect and emotional experience and design environments which promote positive affect rather than simply minimising negative affects.
In addition to this I am also working on a project on HGV design. HGVs are over-represented in collisions with cyclists and pedestrians on European roads, partly because of mass and speed but also because of a design which gives very little direct visibility. I am interested in the effect on drivers of new visual safety technologies – do they for example create ‘sensory overload’ possibly making driving less safe? In addition, I am interested in the passage of new EU safety regulations to modify HGV design, and the ways in which this is being shaped by different stakeholders.
Previous research has looked at the materialities of parenthood, in particular the ways in which objects such as buggies and slings shape the experiences, identities and mobility patterns of new mothers.
Can you identify a group/institution you have not previously worked or collaborated with, but think it might be helpful to do so?
I would very much like to work with car/motorcycle/bicycle manufacturers to look at the possibilities of creating a new kind of ‘bicycle’ which would deviate from the normalised bicycle and encourage more people to cycle who do not currently identify with it for various reasons. Another group who I believe are very important are design students. So to forge partnerships with the RCA, Coventry and Loughborough would also be very productive.
How can we think about mobilities in radical ways?
I believe we need to think through mobility in two inter-related ways. Both of these relate to the ways in which mobility is represented and normalised as this and not that. In much of the Global North we have currently normalised driving because of what it offers us in relation to the ways in which our lives are currently configured. Driving does indeed have many benefits. The challenge is to transfer (through design) the best of these (comfort, care, convenience) to a new breed of ‘vehicle’ whilst leaving the worst (pollution, congestion, harm, sedentarism).
In doing so we are not only attempting to shift the practices of mobility, but also the meanings of mobility. For non (or less-motorised) transport to be successful requires a shift in meanings that is rooted in the alternative practice and representation of mobility. We need positive role models for alternative mobilities rather than the discourses of eccentricity which emerge around new forms of mobility (think Segway and Sinclair C5!).
One of the goals here is to develop more inclusive forms of mobility. Our current vision for cycling in the UK for example currently excludes many people on health, social and cultural grounds. A different approach to design that facilitates new forms of practice and meaning can also engender a more inclusive and equitable politics of mobility.
What are the limits of considering affect in your research field?
Two of the questions I am currently grappling with in the EPSRC Cycle Boom project are how do affects arise and how can we measure them? One of the limitations is how to understand something which has multiple and fleeting influences – it is impossible to isolate ‘variables’ as such so the best we can do is ask participants to relate particular experiences to phenomena. The picture this gives however is far from complete. As a result one of the things we are trying to do is quantitatively measure and map affect using mobile Electroencephalography (EEG) and GIS. This offers up the possibility of bodies ‘speaking for themselves’ and offering less rationalised accounts of emotional and affective experience. However there are also considerable limitations in doing so, not least because the technology we have to measure such experiences whilst mobile is inferior to that available in laboratory settings.
Do you see limitations in the application of ethnography in design research?
I am a big fan of ethnography in design research; I believe if done well it can facilitate a much more grounded understanding of use than (for example) the focus group. In order to do this however requires a great understanding of people’s everyday lives – we cannot look at how people use a particular object in its context of use, rather we need to see how it relates (or doesn’t) to other aspects of life. There are of course limitations. It is time consuming and requires ‘attunement’ of the researcher to the context. It also requires great collaboration between researcher and participant in order to ensure correctness of interpretations.
You use the term ‘destabilisation’…what does it mean and how can this operate in design for collective societal ends?
This relates to my previous point regarding the ways in which norms regarding mobility become sedimented. For example why are ‘cars’ so narrowly conceived as metal boxes with four wheels and a motor? Why are bicycles so narrowly conceived as having two wheels, no motor, no protection from the elements? I believe we need to de-stabilise, upset and over-turn these myopic classifications and find many more hybrids that can break us out of current mobility patterns.
Interview by Leah Armstrong and Guy Julier for ProtoPublics.org
Dr Dan Lockton, Senior Research Associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre, RCA, reflects upon research cultures in academia and design practice, the particular approach of design in relation to behaviour change and identifies local councils and communities as groups he is particularly interested in engaging with more in his research.
Dan also made a short position statement on civic participation:
Q: Please summarise your current or previous research.
A: My research explores the digital dimension of contemporary ‘mobile lives’ with a focus on IT ethics. Information and comunication technologies are an integral part of everyday life and often central to societies’ answers to the complex challenges of the 21st Century. Efforts to decarbonise transport and energy, improve health and well-being and enhance security often assume that more of the right information at the right time can enhance efficiency and change behaviour. Yet informational and communicative mobilities are not innocent. Based in the mobilties.lab, I combine qualitative, often ethnographic studies, social theory, and design through mobile methods, experimental, inventive, disclosive approaches, and engagement with industry and diverse publics to design IT for ‘good’. This research is interdisciplinary, experimental, engaged ‘public sociology’ that produces insights and methodologies to explore and shape socio-technical futures. I have a long- standing interest in design for design and design for ‘infrastructuring’, that is, designing in ways that enables people to make (technical, but also social, political) infrastructures ‘palpable’. My most recent research brings this perspective to the informationalization of ‘smart cities’ and disaster mobilities, which affords new forms of knowledge, command and control, public engagement, emergency planning and emergency response. Opportunities include emergent interoperability, agile and ‘whole community’ approaches, collective intelligence and data sharing, while challenges arise around data protection, privacy, social sorting, automation, technologically augmented human reasoning and action at a distance (SecInCore and BRIDGE projects). My colleagues and I are using concepts of relational ethics and cyborg phenomenology to inform innovation.
Q: Are there any groups/institutions you have not previously collaborated with but think it would be helpful to do so?
A: I currently work mostly with publics who have declared an interest in the design of IT infrastructures and technologies, ranging from healthcare and disaster response professionals to ad-hoc social media publics to policy-makers. But the ethical, legal and social issues arising have much wider importance. For example, literally everyone is affected by the design of systems that enable emergent interoperability and data sharing in ‘common information spaces’. As different institutions and agencies involved in transport, emergency planning and emergency response (including operators and control centres, social, police, fire and healthcare services, local authorities and government organisations) are invited to shape innovation, research related to ‘the wider public’ is too often about how education and design can foster more wide-spread ‘acceptance’, when it should be about ‘acceptability’ (see, e.g. Boucher 2014). I would like to work with publics and/or researchers and projects:
- to collectively identify risks, intended, unintended, and emergent systemic consequences of IT innovation in everyday life
- to study and shape everyday creativity and social innovation that can mitigate risks and negative consequences
- to maximise the potential of IT to become part of more equal, enjoyable, effective futures, respectful of environmental, social, political, moral and cultural values.
Q: How do you see design and social innovation being linked?
A: Social innovation is both a source of momentum and direction for design and an important site of design in its own right. Recognising the temporal and spatial multi-sitedness of design opens up questions about expertise, knowledge, power, control, ignorance, responsibility, response-ability, located accountabilities, context, and method. It also raises questions about the object of design. My work is about designing and analysing socio-technical ‘things’ or futures – assemblies or configurations of social practices, imaginaries, technologies, material worlds, regulatory frameworks, policies. This is never-ending ‘disruptive’ innovation, inevitably accompanied by positive and negative effects, which emerge in the making and inhabiting of futures. It is one of the main responsibilities of sociological enquiry, in my view, to study and evaluate emergent future practices and effects of such reconfigurations, to fold insights into design at (ideally) all its locations, and to help to fairly put those with an interest in a position to notice, influence, at least debate, at best ‘control’ the morality of innovation.
Q: What is distributed collaboration and how does it best function as a research mode?
A: Distributed collaboration is a necessary mode of doing the research co-creation, collaborative design, collective experimentation, and contestation of futures that is needed to define and make innovation ‘good’. Things – analysis, design, social innovation – happen in different places and at different times. To synchronise them intensely collaborative and postdisciplinary methods are needed. Methods that bring together multiple perspectives and modes of knowledge and expertise, that disclose specific articulations of agency at different places in the system, and that enable reflective practice, experimentation and mutual learning by doing have worked best for me. They include prototyping, provotyping, living laboratories, co-design, critical, speculative design, value sensitive design, disclosive ethics, ethical and privacy impact assessment, forms of experimentation that allow multiple actors to reflectively inhabit futures.
Q: What is interoperability and can it function in social design?
A: Interoperability is a socio-technical concept that seems to travel across many fields. The US Department of Homeland Security recognises that ‘jurisdictions must connect technology, people, and organizations to achieve interoperability’. Interoperability may emerge as a temporary effect of the processes and practices people and organizations employ to collaborate, but it is also an effect of technical and material agency, so design and infrastucturing matters, and interoperability is not singularly benign. In the exceptional circumstances of a disaster, a commitment to connection between the multiple agencies involved may be desirable. However, when and where does the disaster stop? And who decides? How far do we allow preventative logics to shape our capacities to notice and resist surveillance? What does this do to what it means to be human, freedom and equality? ‘Good’ interoperability between technologies, people and organizations involved in social design, design, and analysis requires concepts and policy and technology support for practices of collaboration, debate and dialog, that allow attention to frictions, multiplicities, located accountabilities, response-abilities and ways of ‘cutting the network’.
Is there a question you would like us to ask another ProtoPublics participant?
Do you ‘scale up’ your practices of research co-creation, experimentation, collaborative design to go beyond localised participatory projects to meet the ‘grand challenges’ of the 21st Century? Is it possible/necessary to design our way out of complex, global and interconnected problems like climate change and surveillance at other than local scales? If you do it, how do you do it? If you don’t why not?
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Dr Noortje Marres is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. In this interview for ProtoPublics, she talks about her work on publics and issue entanglement, the historical perspectives she draws on and reflects upon the value of engagement and participation across the social sciences and arts and humanities.