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Fictions Matter Too: A Vision for an Imaginaries Lab in Design

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”
William Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas, 1928 — later named as the ‘Thomas Theorem’

Billboard in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh, PA, 2017

The events of the last couple of years, from Brexit to Trump, have been a vivid demonstration for our time of the power of the imaginary to affect human affairs. Not for the first time, of course — but amplified in an unprecedented way by algorithms, bots, targeting, and strategic use of personal data via social media — huge decisions are being influenced by imagined versions of what ‘reality’ is.

We cannot avoid trying to work out how to make sense of terms such as alternative facts, fake news, and post-truth as being part of everyday discourse, and incorporating them and their effects into our own models of how the world works. As Maciej Ceglowski says, people “will happily construct alternative realities for themselves, and adjust them as necessary to fit the changing facts,” and this is greatly aided by the technological infrastructures being employed by those who want to control public opinion. The powerful are, as always, those who can create the simplest, easiest to spread, most superficially persuasive images, myths, conceptions, metaphors, frames, cause-and-effect pairings, and indeed stories, in the public mind. We shouldn’t be surprised: it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, in other eras, using different means, and we all know the outcomes of that. Fictions are political, and they matter.

Shared fictions as central to society

If I were better informed by sociological theory, I could make more insightful points here about Arjun Appadurai’s consideration of “the imagination as a social practice… a form of negotiation between sites of agency (‘individuals’) and globally determined fields of possibility”, or about the concept of imaginaries in a sociotechnical sense — the specific concept developed by Sheila Jasanoff, Sang-Hyun Kim, and others around the ways in which certain dominant ‘shared’ visions of societal futures centred around certain types of (technological) progress have effects on what happens in the present — “representations of how the world works — as well as how it should work”. It’s arguable that understanding our shared (or not) visions of what climate change, or artificial intelligence, or immigration, or identity, or law, or ‘sovereignty’, or even countries themselves, are, are all important in understanding our current situation and trajectory, but also that historically, these have had potentially vital roles in the ways in which human civilisations and societies developed. Yuval Noah Harari suggests that “Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination”, and that this is partly due to the emergence of the ability to describe the imaginary in language, to “transmit information about things that do not exist at all… entities that [people] have never seen, touched or smelled.”

“We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1962.

Design and imaginaries

The idea of design (and art more broadly) as being a different form of language which can also describe the fictional or imaginary, making it real enough to be addressable, to be considered and critiqued and reflected on, is interesting. Design has the power to make visible and tangible imagined ‘better‘ (or worse) situations, to design artefacts as ‘tokens of better ages’, to apply ideas of utopia as a method, and to inspire and open up vistas – if not always actual maps — towards different futures, through speculation and design fiction. What do designers do, if not, in some sense, give us experiential pockets of imaginaries — both our own, reflected back at us, and visions of different futures, fictional at present? I find Clive Dilnot’s notion of design simultaneously stating “This!” and asking “This?” to be quite a clear way of thinking about this, because the ‘This?’ implicitly allows for speculation which is critical, which we may interpret as warnings or at least provocations to think further about what consequences might be of the proposition in question. By making our own imaginaries (more) visible, and doing the same for others’, whether new or old, design can be a translator between minds and ideas and the world. This is where I see that design essentially makes fictions matter (dual meaning intended).

“Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?”
Tennyson, The Higher Pantheism, 1867

There can be a self-fulfilling nature to imaginaries, as the Thomas Theorem implies. If we believe something to be real, and act as if it is real, and build institutions and infrastructures around that ‘reality’, the effect may be the same as if it had been real in the first place. Fictions become fact. For example, Stephen Metcalf discusses the self-fulfillingness of imagining society as a market: “The more closely the world can be made to resemble an ideal market governed only by perfect competition, the more law-like and “scientific” human behaviour, in the aggregate, becomes.” In a design context, the idea of a kind of circular causality in which designers’ imaginaries (models, or even stereotypes, we might say), of people’s lives end up being designed into systems which then effectively make those imaginaries real is not uncommon (I looked briefly at this kind of effect in this piece for the recent Science Gallery Dublin staging of Design and Violence.) There’s something here close to Anne-Marie Willis’s idea of ontological designing, or various formulations of the “We shape our X, and then our X shape us” idea by Churchill/McLuhan/Bill Mitchell and others — we shape our imaginaries, and then, through acting on them, designing systems around them, designing systems as if they were real, they shape our actions.

Understanding understanding

In design, human-computer interaction, and human factors research, both academic and applied, we often investigate the mental models people have, or appear to have, when they are using a piece of technology, or a system. We try to find out how they think something works, or how they expect it to work, from driverless cars to government, to heating systems, to website structure, and, learning from those insights, try to (re)design those systems, or at least interfaces to those systems. The redesigns either try to match better how people think something works, or — more rarely but more interestingly — change those models.

“When we don’t know how a thing works, we make it up”.
“We can only trust something if we think we know how it works”.
Louise Downe, Chicken Shops, Platforms and Chaos, 2013 (now Head of Design for the UK Government).

Most of the research I’ve done over the last ten years, which started in questions of how people’s behaviour is influenced by the design of the products, services, and environments they use, has moved towards something much more around using design methods to understand people’s situations, the social and environmental contexts in which people live and make decisions, how they are thinking about what they’re doing and the world more widely, and what agency they have to change things. Understanding understanding (or at least trying to) — investigating how people imagine and make sense of the world — seems as though it ought to be central to any form of design research which claims to be human-centred, and the generative, or future-facing complement is enabling people to have new understandings, new imaginaries. If you’ve followed any of my more recent work, it’s been a kind of patchy way of gradually — driven by the opportunities afforded by different funded projects and teaching needs — addressing some of these questions of current and new imaginaries, from investigating mental imagery and new kinds of display for energy, to forms of design fiction as a way of enabling students to explore consequences and ambiguity, re-imagine what interactions with AI could be, and materialise invisible phenomena.

“The future is not empty. The future is loaded with fantasies, aspirations and fears, with persuasive visions of the future that shape our cultural imaginaries.”
Ramia Mazé, ‘Forms and Politics of Design Futures‘, 2014

What the Imaginaries Lab aims to do

Part of my reason for joining Carnegie Mellon a year ago was the opportunity to build a research (and teaching) platform which explores exactly these kinds of ideas in a more structured way, through a design lens. The Imaginaries Lab is small, and so far internally funded at Carnegie Mellon, but since the start of 2017, a team of graduate research assistants and I have been looking at people’s imaginaries of local government in Pittsburgh (and their agency in relation to it), ways of externalising mental imagery through landscape metaphors, and approaches to new kinds of qualitative interface. We had a ‘soft launch’ in May, during Carnegie Mellon’s Design Week, and in the coming year will be expanding and continuing these projects and developing new collaborations and directions. One of these already announced is Electric Acoustic, a situated energy sonification installation funded by the Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts, but there are also some other interesting ideas in the pipeline.

So, what’s the vision for the Lab? I see us concentrating on two big (linked) challenges: New ways to understand, and New ways to live. In both cases, we’ll be creating tools to support people’s imagining, both what they already imagine (which is still important), but also helping people imagine in new ways. What starts as fiction can become real, explorable, experiential. We will be creating new fictions, but also creating tools to help people understand and deconstruct the fictions that are already having an effect on them. The Lab’s work cannot help but be political: questions of understanding and futures are inextricable from questions of worldview, belief in how the world is and how it should be.

New ways to understand encompasses ideas such as creating new metaphors (to use Mary Catherine Bateson’s term), new kinds of interface, new ways of explaining and visualising systems and the relationships between ideas, and using design methods to help people have agency to use these new ways of understanding. This builds on projects such as Powerchord, Drawing Energy, Qualitative Interfaces, Mental Landscapes, Materialising the Invisible, and aspects of Civic Visions, taking some of these ideas in new directions and finishing or consolidating some of the work we have already done. One particular domain that seems especially worth exploring from a design point of view is imaginaries around artificial intelligence and automation — to offer some ethical perspectives that could help designers working in the field, but also to “develop alternative narratives to technological futures” in Dunne & Raby’s words. More widely, new ways to understand could have a substantially activist stance, helping counter the intentional fictions of the post-truth world and giving people agency to challenge and change things, in their communities and beyond.

New ways to live is more explicitly about linking imaginaries to everyday life (and indeed changes in practices and behaviours) through prototyping new ways of living — and helping people imagine new ways of living, both at a household and societal level (thus linking more explicitly to the ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ notion in sociology as discussed earlier). What is it like to live in a different way, with different premises to your everyday routines? How can design fictions that you can actually use (or live ‘in’), together with new tools for understanding the world, affect what you do? This builds on the work I did around living labs and design for behaviour change, intersecting with some of the ideas in Carnegie Mellon’s transition design research area, and learning from the experiential futures work of futurists such as my new Carnegie Mellon colleague Stuart Candy. ‘New ways to live’ is going to involve some bigger kinds of projects, with more ambitious goals.

As a Lab, we will grow slowly — I don’t want to be spending the entirety of my time looking for funding for the next project — but one of the things that excites me about doing this is that it is, in itself, an exploration of the power of imaginaries. Putting the lab’s name on the office door and in my email signature, and treating it as a real thing within the university and externally, has made it a real thing, in a way which was refreshingly simple. It’s not now a fiction, but once upon a time, it was — as with every other design project and every other human endeavour. We can bring different worlds into being.

Imaginaries Lab, Carnegie Mellon School of DesignImaginaries Lab, Carnegie Mellon School of DesignImaginaries Lab, Carnegie Mellon School of DesignImaginaries Lab team, May 2017

Above, right: The Imaginaries Lab team May 2017. Left to right: Silvia Mata-Marin, Dan Lockton, Delanie Ricketts, Nehal Vora, Theora Kvitka, Ashlesha Dhotey

Parts of this article are based on talks I have given this year at Cornell University (the Hillier Lecture) and at the Universidad del Desarrollo in Santiago.

I’d like to thank Delanie Ricketts, Theora Kvitka, and Nehal Vora for their work with the Lab on its first few projects and wish them the best of luck in their new careers, thank Sarah Foley for her summer research work on service fictions, welcome back Ashlesha Dhotey and Silvia Mata-Marin, and also welcome our new research assistants joining this fall, Devika Singh, Matt Prindible, and Shengzhi Wu. Thanks too to Sebastian Deterding for putting me on to the Thomas Theorem, which expresses succinctly something that otherwise would have led to a rambling explanation on my part, and to Cameron Tonkinwise and Peter Scupelli for encouraging me to put the name on the door.

Two-faced: Looking back and forwards

Thanks everyone who’s helped and been supportive in 2015. It’s been a busy year and I barely stopped to think about a lot of very important things, but spent too long thinking about other things which in retrospect probably aren’t so important. I’m sure that’s normal.

First: what’s coming up in 2016?

  • On 20 January, I’m talking at Behavior Design Amsterdam – thanks Wilbert Baan and Iskander Smit for the invitation
  • In February, I’m off to Mexico City as the RCA lead, working with Laura Ferrarello, for a collaborative Mexico—UK project with Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Superflux, Future Cities Catapult and UNAM. Supported by the British Council’s Newton Fund, we’ll be looking at aspects of how to make policy visible, tangible and interactable-with (agency?), in the city environment, transposing ideas between Mexico City and London and vice versa. Thank you to Dan Hill, Claire Mookerjee, Gabriella Gómez-Mont, and everyone else involved in setting this up.
  • From 27—30 June, DRS2016 in Brighton, the Design Research Society conference, is shaping up into an interesting and diverse programme of perspectives on design, research and society. I’m conference experience chair, along with Veronica Ranner, and we’ll be trying to help curate a good experience for everyone taking part. Some thoughts here on how you can help.
  • The biggest event in 2016, scheduled for the autumn, will be O’Reilly’s publication of my Design with Intent book – see below for some more details.
  • Living Labs, a book arising from the SusLabNWE project, for which I am an editor along with David Keyson and Olivia Guerra Santin from TU Delft, will be published by Springer
  • ‘Taking the Code for a Walk’, written by Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and myself for Elisa Giaccardi’s ‘Connected Everyday’ forum in ACM Interactions will be published. This is a brief but exciting article detailing some of the research Delfina has done for her PhD around human interaction with the algorithmic systems of the ‘smart’ home, taking a second-order cybernetic perspective.
  • ‘Plans and Speculated Actions’, a chapter that Veronica Ranner and I have written for Jonathan Chapman’s Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Product Design, should be published (though I see as I write this that the intended publication date is actually 2017). We’re exploring what happens when design for behaviour change and speculative design collide, with a sustainability focus.
  • At the RCA, Research Culture Action will continue in 2016, a series of informal lunchtime talks bringing together research students and staff from across the College. Our first ‘prototype’ event, in October, featured Daisy Ginsberg, Grit Hartung and Sarah Teasley, and I’m hoping we can have them every couple of months.

In career, personal development, and work-life balance terms, 2016 needs to be very different to 2015. I won’t go into it here, but I have come to the conclusion that I need to heed Mary Dankoski‘s advice outlined here by Kate Clancy:

Dr. Dankoski asked us if we were the type of academic who lived by Plan A: did what we were asked to do and hoped we would have a rewarding fulfilling career while also meeting the promotion and tenure expectations, or Plan B: were proactive, developed a plan and negotiated responsibilities to be sure we will have vitality, find real meaning in our work, and meet promotion expectations.

You can probably guess which type most of us were, and which type Dankoski encouraged us to become. The Plan A academic says yes to most things because she is directionless and is trying to meet expectations, whereas the Plan B academic uses her personal values and interests to define and express her scholarly worth.

I have been trying to follow Plan A for the past few years, because I thought it would lead somewhere, but my resolution for 2016 is Plan B, or something better. And the main part of that is making things. I used to do it, and have done it a bit with things like Powerchord in recent years, but nowhere near to the extent I would like to. Writing papers, and book chapters, and reports that no-one will read, has squeezed out something that I really enjoyed. I need to get back to it, and find a way to make an academic career work that isn’t primarily about being seen to produce outputs, but actually to do things (and have the freedom to think about them too).

2015 certainly involved doing a lot, even if I didn’t make much. It’s strange how in an everyday life so flooded by information and essential updates from everything from household objects to people whom I vaguely remember who added me on LinkedIn, I still forget a lot of what I was doing only a few months ago. Updating my CV recently, I suddenly remembered an entire industry collaboration project I did in summer 2013, with meetings, and diagrams, and presentations and everything, that had completely slipped my mind. So, because I know that I’ll forget them if I don’t record them, below, here’s some of what happened in 2015:

Architectures of Control in Design

10 years of this blog

The anniversary slipped by unrecorded here, but it was back in November 2005 that I first started this blog, then called Architectures of Control in Design. It changed my life: it led to changing career, doing a PhD, meeting people from all over the world. Still on the same WordPress installation, with layers of tinkering and lots of things that no longer work, the blog probably deserves a bit of attention for its 11th year.

O'Reilly

Design with Intent book

In August I signed a contract with O’Reilly to publish a Design with Intent book, which aims to give practitioners a more nuanced approach to design and behaviour, working with people, people’s understanding, and the complexities of everyday human experience. It will build on the toolkit, and my PhD, but also what I’ve learned over the last few years on practical research projects, with people in real contexts, around people’s understanding of, and interaction with, technology and designed systems.

It’s taking longer to write than I had hoped, not due to the content as much as the difficulty of arranging uninterrupted periods of time to concentrate on writing it. That’s certainly not a problem unique to me, but it gives me new (extra) respect for people who manage to write these kinds of books alongside busy jobs, looking after children, and everything else. Publication date should be Autumn 2016: see the website for updates.

Drawing Energy

Drawing Energy book published

Drawing Energy was published in July by the RCA. Written by Flora Bowden, together with myself, Rama Gheerawo and Clare Brass, and designed by Hannah Montague, the book explores public perceptions of energy, through a drawing project Flora and I ran, in which more than 180 people illustrated their thoughts and reactions to the question ‘What does energy look like?’, as part of the Interreg IVB-funded SusLabNWE project.

You can view the drawings online, download a PDF or order a free copy of the book.

Design for Action This Happened

Talks

I’ve done a few talks this year, around design, behaviour, understanding and related subjects, most notably Design for Action 2015 in Washington, DC, the Hans Sauer Foundation’s Social Design Elevation Days in Munich, Product Tank in London, This Happened at Goldsmiths (on “The Power to Act: Exploring agency, design and participation in cities”), Green Sky Thinking week (as part of Max Fordham’s programme), the launch of Keep Britain Tidy’s Centre for Social Innovation. Thanks to Steve Wendel, Zarak Khan, Nynke Tromp, Ralph Boch, Barbara Lersch, Alison Austin, Gyorgyi Galik, Kate Pincott, Henry Pelly, Tim Burns and everyone else involved in these events, for the invitations.


Here’s a video of my talk at Mind The Product’s Product Tank in March.

Guardian visitor pass

Guardian Tech Weekly Podcast

In October I was a guest on the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast, hosted by Nathalie Nahaï, talking about dark patterns, along with Cennydd Bowles, and Geoff White from Channel 4 News. Listen to it here (I’m on at about 13 minutes in, and say “kind of” about 20 times during my few minutes of airtime).

Relational Materials workshop, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar Repair cultural probes, Nazli Terzioglu
Left: Relational Materials workshop, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar; Right: Cultural probes around repair, Nazlı Gökçe Terzioğlu

PhD supervision

This year I have been a visiting (i.e. entirely uncontracted adjunct) research tutor for Innovation Design Engineering at the RCA, working mainly with a wonderful group of research students, including five whom I’m supervising:

  • Delfina Fantini van Ditmar (2012—2016), ‘The Internet of Dwelling’ (second-order cybernetics and human interaction with IoT and ‘smart’ homes–image above). Supervised with Professor Ashley Hall, RCA Innovation Design Engineering and Dr Paul Pangaro, College for Creative Studies, Detroit
  • Dr Dave Pao (MBBS, MRCP, MD) (2013—present), ‘Design as the 3rd voice in the clinician-patient conversation’ (new interfaces for facilitating conversations in sexual health contexts). Supervised with Dr John Stevens, RCA Global Innovation Design
  • Nazlı Gökçe TerzioÄŸlu (2013—present), ‘Exploring the Means of Creating New Relationships between Users and Products Through Repair’–image above. Supervised with Clare Brass, SustainRCA
  • Hugo Glover (2013—present), ‘Stereoscopic Spatiality: A Practice-based Investigation into the Use of Stereoscopic 3D‐Depth Technologies in Physical and Digital Space’. Supervised with Neil Barron, RCA Innovation Design Engineering
  • Chang Hee Lee (2014—present), ‘Synaesthesia Materialisation: Synaesthetic Inputs within the Product Design Industry’. Supervised with Dr John Stevens, RCA Global Innovation Design

Thanks to all the IDE research students for all your enthusiasm and help this year, and well done on everything you’ve achieved. In November, Nazlı Gökçe TerzioÄŸlu and Yoon Choi both presented papers at Sustainable Innovation 2015 on which I was a co-author, covering two intriguing directions in understanding (and changing) people’s relationships with products from a sustainability perspective:

–TerzioÄŸlu, N., Brass, C. & Lockton, D. (2015) ‘Understanding user motivations and drawbacks related to product repair’. Sustainable Innovation 2015, 9-10 November 2015, Epsom, UK. (PDF)

–Choi, Y., Lockton, D., Brass, C., & Stevens, J. (2015) ‘Opportunities for sustainable packaging design: Learning from pregnancy as a metaphor’. Sustainable Innovation 2015, 9-10 November 2015, Epsom, UK. (PDF on ResearchGate)

V&A Design Culture Salon

V&A Design Culture Salon

As my look of terror / staring into nothingness in the above photo (by Jonny Jiang) might suggest, I chaired a Design Culture Salon at the V&A in November, with the title “Is Designing for Behaviour Change ‘Creepy’?” With a fantastic panel of Alison Powell, Phoebe Moore, Jessica Pykett, Peter John and Simon Blyth, we debated issues from the Quantified Self to the Nudge Unit to algorithmic governance: all with a “design and behaviour” theme, too broad really for a single event, but very enjoyable. Thanks to Guy Julier and Leah Armstrong for organising the event, to the panellists, and to so many people who came to see and take part.

Here’s a transcript of my introduction (I’m partly putting it here for future reference), while there are some reflections here from Lucy Kimbell, Jocelyn Bailey and Stephen Feber, collated by Guy Julier, and Phoebe Moore has written up her introductory talk, covering specifically design for behaviour change in the workplace.

Konstfack, Stockholm The Performance of Nonhuman Behaviour, Nordes

The Performance of Nonhuman Behaviour

In June, I ran a workshop at Nordes 2015, at Konstfack, in Stockholm, with Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and Claudia Dutson, looking at conversations between people and machines. We packed a lot into the day, with some great participants, but my part of the workshop was mostly focused on “thinking about how machines think we think”–applying some basic forms from R.D. Laing’s Knots to situations that might arise in the smart home (or other algorithmic developments). We got some nice examples of knot-like scenarios, particularly around people trying to cajole the technology to make different assumptions. I can see why, as Paul Pangaro commented, Gordon Pask liked Knots so much. I am, slowly, working on a paper drawing on some of the ideas generated in the workshop: thank you to all the participants and to Salu Ylirisku for the organisation.

AcrossRCA AcrossRCA AcrossRCA

One Another: Empathy and Experience

In October, Dr Katie Gaudion and I ran One Another: Empathy and Experience, a week-long ‘AcrossRCA’ course exploring questions of how we can experience the world as someone (or something) else does. With participants from eight different RCA MA and PhD programmes, over the week, we had a talk from Jon Adams, an autistic artist with synaesthesia, we visited London Zoo to explore the world from animals’ points of view (and human interactions), and through practical experiments, tried to see if we could “generate” empathy for inanimate objects, such as paper tissues, leaves and headphones. We backed up the practical work with some theoretical psychology background around theory of mind, empathy and the fundamental attribution error. The week ended with three really brilliant group projects, which invited participants to try to experience the world through the perspective of another:
The Human Zoo, by Sarha Hersi, Joey (Jupone) Wang, Saaya Kamita, Mariana Pedrosa
Obsessions, by Thomas Leech, Faith Wray, Andrea Fischer, Heeju Kim and Chang Hee Lee
Empathising with Claustrophobia (centre, above), by Anna Dakin, Harry Thompson, Nong Chotipatoomwan and Tess Dumon

Rice Summer School, Copenhagen Rice Summer School, Copenhagen

Rice University Urban Sustainability and Livability Summer Institute

The end of May and early June saw Flora Bowden, Claudia Dutson, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and myself run Learning New Ways of Looking at the City, an international summer programme for Rice University’s Urban Sustainability and Livability Summer Institute, at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, in Copenhagen. With visits over three weeks, working with an impressively enthusiastic and motivated group of Rice students, we used Copenhagen as a setting to explore questions around transport and mobility, tourism, green space, and cultural differences, among other issues, through student research projects. Thanks to Don Ostdiek, Michael Emerson and Julia Grasse for the organisation, and thanks to Anne-Kathrine Kjær Christensen and Larry Toups for visiting contributions.

MACE2015 Kingston University MACE2015 Kingston University

Kingston University MACE Startup Weekend

At the end of September, I returned to Kingston Business School’s MA Creative Industries and the Creative Economy, to run the Startup Weekend, a two-day workshop right at the start of the course, in which new students on this unique programme, combining design and business (with the practical requirement of creating a business by the end of the course), get a rapid introduction to design research and prototyping and carry out a group project responding to a real-life problem they have identified. In 2014, we looked at the experience of new international students; in 2015 we focused on money, with field research in Kingston town centre, including visiting (and comparing the customer experience at) Metro Bank and some more traditional establishments, and a guest talk from Stephen Wendel via Skype. Groups came up with some clever concepts, including a service that automatically puts change onto a card, new kinds of international money transfer service, and redesigning how Argos works. Thanks to Janja Song, and Mark Passera who originally invited me.

Carnegie Mellon University Carnegie Mellon University

Visit to Carnegie Mellon

In November, I visited Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to do a talk / mini-workshop called Design, Behaviour & Understanding, in the School of Design, for Master’s students in Molly Steenson’s Interaction and Service Design class, and a talk called People Don’t Really Use Energy for the Intelligent Workplace team in the School of Architecture. I also got to meet some very interesting people (students and staff), and take part in one of the Design PhD group discussions, which was very enjoyable. Thank you to Cameron Tonkinwise, Kakee Scott, Darlene Scalese, Jane Ditmore, Molly Steenson, Simon King, Terry Irwin, Peter Scupelli, Bruce Hanington, Michael Arnold Mages, Dimeji Onafuwa, and everyone else who arranged my visit and made me feel so welcome.


Good luck everyone for 2016: it’s going to be what we make it!

Update

Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore

It’s been a bit of a chaotic time recently, both in family terms and professionally, so my apologies for the lack of updates. In February I started as Visiting Research Tutor in Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) at the RCA, helping develop a programme of research and helping to supervise a group of excellent PhD researchers with a range of very interesting projects. IDE has one of the largest design research cohorts within the RCA, and I am looking forward to helping develop this further, in some new directions, through both academic and industry collaborations.

Part of this, from my point of view, will be reinvigorating and developing the Design & Behaviour Research Network which I started back in 2008, into something more substantial and which can build on other work such such as last year’s Creating Sustainable Innovation project. If you’re interested in collaborating, please get in touch.

The Performance of Nonhuman BehaviourAt Nordes 2015 at Konstfack in Stockholm in June, I will be running a workshop, The Performance of Nonhuman Behaviour, with Delfina Fantini van Ditmar (IDE PhD candidate) and Claudia Dutson (Architecture PhD candidate). My part of the workshop builds on many of the ideas explored in this blog over the years, around people’s understanding of the systems they interact with, and I’m hoping it will be a fun and useful event. More details in due course.

Some background

I’ll be blunt here: academic career prospects for what are termed “early career researchers” in the UK are not great, particularly in subjects which fall between the cracks of major research councils’ funding scope, and particularly at places like the RCA which don’t have any kind of staff development programme for researchers, and which depend heavily on “visiting” and part-time staff, often with no contract at all. My choices have been, essentially: 1) bring in enough funding to pay my own salary plus all of the overheads which universities require (which I have tried to do, and am trying to do, but which is very difficult starting from a near-zero base); 2) work on others’ projects on a series of short-term contracts, with little strategic input (which I don’t mind doing if I have to, but which is a step backwards); 3) leave and go somewhere with better support for early career staff. The RCA has some fantastic people, both students and staff, so I am trying option 1), as best I can, but I am aware that as an institution, it doesn’t try very hard to hold onto people.

GATEway project, Meridian ShuttleIn option 2) terms, working for the Helen Hamlyn Centre together with Vehicle Design at the RCA, I have temporarily (since January) also been project manager for setting up the public engagement work package of GATEway, an £8 million Innovate UK project looking at understanding and demonstrating driverless cars in the UK, led by TRL in conjunction with partners including the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Commonplace, and Shell. The introduction of new technology of this kind, the designed systems, services and infrastructure around it, and the potential effects on everything from urban planning to jobs, is fascinating, and I will be intrigued to see how the project develops and what it finds.

SusLab, Drawing Energy and Powerchord

My job at the Helen Hamlyn Centre as part of the RCA’s role in SusLab has ended when the RCA’s funding ended, although I am still contributing to the project by supporting other partners in analysis and writing up of the results, and co-editing an academic book with Professor David Keyson and Dr Olivia Guerra Santin from TU Delft.

From the UK perspective, our book Drawing Energy, on which Flora Bowden has led, with myself, Clare Brass and Rama Gheerawo as co-authors, should be published in June this year by the Helen Hamlyn Centre. I’ll put more details on the SusLab at the RCA blog when they’re available.

Powerchord, energy sonificationI am going to continue to work on Powerchord, the home energy sonification system, as a personal project. Being freed of the constraints of a major project ought to make this easier and faster, though of course without the benefit of funding. Claire Matthews has produced a brilliant range of sound schemes, and I’m hoping that a Mark II version of Powerchord using Jack Kelly’s approach to extracting CurrentCost/EDF individual appliance monitor data will prove more flexible than the previous approach. More news on this in due course.

Design with Intent

In February, while I was en route to Munich to talk at the wonderful Hans Sauer Foundation Social Design Elevation Days, a PHP upgrade by the webhost, combined with a long outdated version of MediaWiki meant that the Design with Intent website became unusable (blank, basically). My botched attempt to fix it rapidly via FTP, hotspotting from my phone in an airport departure lounge, made things worse. So I have put up a temporary site which has most of the same content, but does not have individual pages for each pattern. Something better is on the way when I get a spare weekend…

Some news, mostly around writing

• My PhD, which was inspired and indeed sired by this blog, back in 2007, has finally been approved by the examiners. I’ve put the thesis online with a few comments. I’ll have a proper post reflecting on it all in due course – just need some time to think about it. Thank you to everyone who’s helped along the way.

• In March I joined the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, as a senior associate working on the SusLabNWE project, and also some executive education work for partner organisations. It’s a wonderful place with some great people, and I’m very pleased to be part of it. There are some exciting events coming up around the SusLab project, which will be announced later in the summer.

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CarbonCulture blog launch

CarbonCulture blog

It’s been quiet here, for reasons which will be explained later, but in the meantime I should mention that CarbonCulture (with whom I’ve been working for the past two years as part of the TSB-supported EMPOWER collaboration) has a new blog.

In anticipation of the forthcoming public launch of the CarbonCulture product, we’re introducing some background on behaviour change approaches, energy use and environmental impact. The first few posts (as of today) introduce:


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