A raised thumb. In many cultures this gesture is still enough to communicate to passing car drivers that the person making the signal is hitchhiking and would like a lift. It is not all that is necessary, however, if the person thumbing wishes to go anywhere. They must be stood in an appropriate place (near a road on which speeds are not too high to stop, for example); they may need a sign saying where they are going; they will need to think about what they are wearing, who they are with, and what time of day it is; they will need to smile and appear unthreatening; they must be prepared to wait. In this way it is suggested that there is a code to hitching. The aim of this research is to identify, through ethnographic methods and historical inquiry, the ‘rules’ that pertain to such a practice. From this the intention is then to build a ‘Hitching Kit’, a design tool or facilitating device, the purpose of which will be to make it possible to transfer what has been learnt from hitching into another context. This Hitching Kit will then be tested out in a workshop, whereby people who participate in another form of cultural activity, (in this case living in housing co-operatives, but it could equally be in healthcare, urban planning, education or a range of other scenarios), will be asked to test the tool to see how useful such a device might be for them in negotiating the challenges of such a field of social activity.
Dr Damon Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Design, University of Brighton
Dr Lesley Murray, Senior Lecturer, Applied Social Science, University of Brighton
Professor Monika Buscher, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Lancaster
Professor Chris Speed, Chair of Design Informatics, University of Edinburgh
Dr Theodore Zamenopoulos, Senior Lecturer, Open University
Louise Dredge, Outreach and Impact Manager, The Glass-House Community Led Design
The world would be a better place if more people hitchhiked, if more people shared cars, and you know, you could maybe chart the decline of hitchhiking with the rise of, you know, rampant individualism in our society.
‘Alan’ extract from hitchhiking ethnographic interviews
Stage 1: Beginnings
It began with a conversation about thumbs. That is to say, how in many cultures it is possible to get where you’re going by raising a thumb. This led onto a fascinating discussion about the way that hitching used to be a common way of getting about, how some of us had done it, and how interesting it is as a practice. As others joined in, it started to become clear that there was something worth investigating here.
What we established quite quickly was that we were not interested in redesigning hitchhiking for the digital age. There are a number of websites such as Carpooling.com, BlaBlaCar.com and hitchhikers.org, and smartphone apps like iThumb and Rideshare4less that are already doing that. It also seemed to us that somehow these kinds of interventions missed the point a little in terms of the human experience of hitching and its spontaneity. We also realized that it would not be enough simply take hitching as a metaphor for social action that depends upon people helping each other out.
As the conversation progressed so an idea began to form. If hitch hiking can be understood as intervention into an infrastructure that wasn’t built for this practice but supported it, perhaps such a process could be made to work in other infrastructures? Soon we had worked through other examples: health, housing, social care, education. Yes, it seemed to us (on the level of an informal conversation, at least), that there was a possibility that knowledge and methodologies developed in one context could be transposed to another.
It also seemed clear at this point that an area of housing such as the development and maintenance of housing cooperatives could be a fruitful territory into which knowledge gained from the study of hitching could be transposed.
Stage 2: Initial Research
Given how prevalent hitching was until recently, there is surprisingly little academic work that deals with it (a fact that was noted in almost all of the few studies that do exist). So, as well as reading the papers we could find, we had to begin by ferretting out the more general knowledge that was out there in the wider culture.
Youtube also proved a good source for harvesting material. There are many examples of people detailing their adventures. This short film Lift, by Nathan Rae is an excellent example of some of the more thoughtful examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Yyk6xzhAik
Stage 3: Interviews and Analysis
In order to ground the investigation in more formal social research, the team began by setting out to conduct a small-scale ethnographic study of hitchhiking. This first of all involved finding people who had hitchhiked. We then conducted semi-structured interviews, which were complemented by autoethnographic observations from trips undertaken during the research and from our personal histories. These interviews sought to elicit descriptions of why and how people did their hitchhiking. Analysis then proceeded through grounded theory coding. This looked on the one hand for key aspects of hitchhiking as ‘a practice’ and on the other descriptions of how these aspects were realised in practice. The results were then interpreted and analysed by the team, led by those with expertise in social research.
The intention was to develop a body of hitching knowledge that could then be ‘transposed’ into another context. This would then be tested in a workshop in late July.
Stage 4: Building the ‘Hitching Kit’
Once we had developed the body of hitching knowledge and shaped it into a useable form the next step was to work with our partner organization, The Glass-House Community Led Design, to begin to develop the ‘Hitching Kit’ that would be used to transpose this knowledge, and shape the workshop where this would be done.
Stage 5: The Workshop
The participants had been invited because they were either part of, or were setting up, housing co-operatives or co-housing schemes. In the end there were nine people from five different organisations: Brandrams Wharf Housing Co-op; London Community Housing Co-op; Sandford’s Housing Co-op; Rosa Bridge Housing C-op; and Sussex Co-Housing.
The initial meeting point was at Gatwick Airport, where the group was picked up in the Big Lemon bus (a Brighton company whose vehicles all run on biodiesel made from used cooking oil harvested from the local area; http://www.thebiglemon.com/). The thinking behind meeting at Gatwick was to emphasise its role as a transport hub, a space where people are in transit and nobody belongs. They were then taken to Pease Pottage Services, just off the M23, since the services are the natural home of the hitchhiker.
At Pease Pottage Service Station the group was briefed on the day’s activities and introduced to the hitch hiking knowledge generated through the ethnographic work. They were also told about the research team’s interest in the principle of ‘transposition’. After the briefing, and having been asked, through their presence at the services to reflect upon the marginal nature of hitch hiking as a material mobility practice, the party rejoined the coach. On the journey to Brighton they were then required to sit next to somebody they had mnot met before and keep the conversation going until they arrive at the University of Brighton, thus mimicking such hitching interactions. After a light lunch all then moved up to the university’s Design Lab at the Grand Parade Campus.
The ‘Hitching Kit’ Game
The ‘Hitching Kit’ that was developed by the project team takes the form of an open-ended game. The game allows participants to build a ‘road map’ of their current context, challenges and aspirations and then ultimately explore alternative ‘journeys’ within this map that utilise an existing network of resources (infrastructure) in new ways.
The processes for the first day was divided in three phases. The first two phases being preparatory, while the final phase had a game-like structure for generating and analysing alternative journeys based on hitchhiking principles:
The Phases of the Game
Phase 1 was about the identification of themes and groups
STEP 1: Participants were asked to identify and discuss the ‘challenges’ and opportunities that characterise their context (i.e. housing cooperatives)
STEP 2: Participants were formed into two groups and asked to select a particular challenge or opportunity that they wanted to further elaborate and explore
Phase 2 was about setting up the two most important elements of the exploration: a sign with the desired final destination and a road map that represents the existing network of resources and actors (infrastructure).
STEP 3: participants were asked to create a ‘sign’ of their desired destination on a piece of cardboard. They were also asked to create a ‘road map’ of the existing network of resources and actors on A0 paper
Phase 3 was concerned with the generation of alternative journeys within the existing roadmap (infrastructure); and reflection upon possible ideas or solutions to problems using key themes transposed from hitchhiking practices
STEP 4: Participants were asked to identify critical points in their roadmap and colour-code them. They also had to identify their starting point (their current situation) and their desired destination
STEP 5: Participants were asked to move from the start point to the end point using the ‘chance wheel’. As they move from one colour to another (as directed by the wheel), they picked up a ‘resilience card’ for each move that provided a theme for reflection drawn from the ethnographic work.
The themes are core principles of hitchhiking practices derived from the interviews and analysis. The cards required that participants think about the relation between the two connected elements of the roadmap based on a certain hitchhiking practice.
STEP 6: Participants were asked to record their responses to each chance card (and routes taken) on A4 paper sheets. The aggregation of the A4 papers then created a storyboard of their journey from start to finish. Multiple journeys and therefore stories could be created
Reactions and Reflections
The overall reaction to the experience, as captured at the time and in subsequent feedback questionnaires, was very positive. Though it was noted that the actual knowledge of hitching itself was not necessarily particularly useful for co-operatives per se, the process of coming together through this had been very valuable, that the ‘meshing’ of the two subjects in this manner had produced new and potentially useful insights. Many of the participants reported that the resilience cards had been the most effective tools for reflection in the process. It was noted that the quotes drawn from the ethnographic research helped to open up conversation in a way that would probably have not been possible if the participants had simply been talking without such prompts. One respondent suggested that the game had sufficient structure to act as a framework, yet was ‘loose’ enough to be flexible.
Though to a degree it was serendipity that led the research team to hitchhiking whilst considering how it might be possible to ‘design’ social futures, and the concept and method of contextual transposition was, in one sense, an improvised response to the challenge of interdisciplinary research collaboration, it turned out tot be a rich area of investigation. What started as improvised analytical affinity turned into a highly generative approach when we put our analytical methodological approaches together and joined forces with practitioners at the coalface of ‘systemic’ contemporary challenges. In this way this ‘sprint’ experiment therefore seemed to suggest that there is a definite space for exploring how high-level abstract concepts could be interpreted and explored within specific contexts and transposed into new domains as experiments in future making.