Tag Archives: UCL

Beyond Engagement

Last month I ran a workshop at the univerCities one-day conference on urban innovation and entrepreneurship organised by MA/MSc students from the urban design, sustainable cities and planning courses at Kings College London, LSE and UCL’s The Bartlett School. The event was billed as “a unique inter-university and cross-disciplinary conference on the topic of solving today’s urban challenges”, and featured panels  of speakers from a range of different backgrounds to address questions of equality and inclusivity in housing development; humanising the city though urban design; and trends and challenges in urban futures: citizen engagement, digital participation and tech innovation.

I was asked to devise a workshop for the afternoon session to bring focus on engagement and the future in urban design and planning. I decided to adapt the methods I used in a previous urban futures workshop I ran back in 2015 (Peeking over the Horizon) – which aim to push people further in their thinking than just talking about whatever innovations which already exist are at the forefront of their minds. The workshop was titled, Beyond Engagement, to address a signature problem in fields such as planning and urban design – namely that citizens are often subject to engagement and consultation processes and exercises which rarely report back to them or offer any real agency in the process. So many consultations and engagements are simply hollow, ‘box-ticking’ attempts to provide a veneer of transparency and democratic involvement, often to mask decisions already taken. This workshop aimed both to build upon the themes and talks from the earlier panels and to inspire the participants to think beyond just engaging or consulting citizens, and to try to anticipate the impacts and outcomes of innovative practices in their fields, and their intersectional effects on society more widely. Thinking about the future not just to describe trends on the horizon, but to anticipate what ‘next practices’ and effects might be.

The workshop had two exercises – “Vectoring the Future” and a StoryCubes experiment to finish. “Vectoring the Future” uses large worksheets with 6 ‘vectors’. Participants chose which vectors they wanted to think about (themes such as, Public Benefit, Private Profit, Infrastructure, Health & Wellbeing, Work & Leisure, Housing, Equality, Inclusivity, Privatisation Public Realm, Private Space, Sustainability, Resilience, Planning, Regulation, innovation, Enterprise) and worked from the outside of the sheet inwards. The outer section providing a space for describing the state of the art or cutting edge innovations in each vector. The next section providing space to reflect on what potential impact or consequences they might have, with the next section for imagining what the next directions such effects would suggest. In the centre is a space for anticipating the ’emergent’ qualities and effects that might arise from the intersection of innovations, effects and next directions across the various vectors chosen by the participants.

At the event, we had 6 tables, each with 5 or 6 participants who each completed one of the worksheets. Once each group had completed the process, they reported back, giving a summary of what vectors they had chosen and how the conversation had flowed towards the space of emergence. Interestingly, each group found a unique perspective even when they shared similar initial vectors and the quality and range of the discussion across topics of technology and innovation in particular was significant.

After a short break, we returned for the final StoryCubes exercise – a simple and fun way to bring things together and open up the discussion even further. Each participant was given a StoryCube and asked to write 6 things on it that they thought were most interesting or important to them from the whole day. Then I asked a first participant to put their cube on a table in the middle and describe one or two things they had written down. From there, then next person came up, placed their cube next or on top of another and linked it to one of the themes on someone else’s cube. Eventually building up a structure of connections between issues and ideas people felt had inspired or motivated them, as well as revealing gaps and other issues that were still to be explored.

I was really impressed  by the energy and focus of the event and its participants, as much as by the ambition of the organisers : a brilliant initiative by students from different universities to come together to learn from each other and value their different disciplinary perspectives on shared problems and issues.

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Tender Shoots

Today my new role got under way as a Creativeworks Entrepreneur in Residence in School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Birkbeck University of London. Over the next three months I’ll be collaborating with George Roussos, Professor of Pervasive Computing in a very different way to how we’ve worked before (we collaborated on a couple of projects back in 2006 and 2008). This time we don’t have a specific project in mind, rather we have structured the residency as a way of embedding me within the department to bring some of my concepts and methods into the mix of practices already being used by staff and students. Specifically we are focusing on ideas around “data manifestation” and “embodying meaning” emanating from the Lifestreams project I led with Stefan Kueppers (in collaboration with Philips Research) – i.e. introducing some radical and dynamic ways of thinking about the nature of how we interact with “data” and computation.

This rather elegantly complements the other strands I have been developing and working on this year. A few months ago I was made an Honorary Research Associate of the ExCiteS research group at UCL, where I am collaborating with Professor Muki Haklay and Dr Jerome Lewis on exploring new ways of recording and sharing indigenous forms of knowledge for forest peoples. This is itself an extension of my ongoing collaboration with anthropologist Professor James Leach (University of Western Australia/CNRS Marseille) on indigenous knowledge documentation and sharing in Papua New Guinea with the people of Reite. James and I have recently been awarded funding from the Christensen Fund to continue our work in PNG over the next two years.

There are also very interesting cross-cutting currents with the project I have been consulting on this summer for Professor Helen Dawes in the Movement Science Research group at Oxford Brooke’s University. They are developing a Rehabilitation Tool to assist survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury in documenting and sharing their experiences of rehabilitation. I have been helping them devise a strategy for developing such systems from scratch to include not just the clinical and medical research perspectives, but fundamentally the ‘patient’ or TBI survivor’s perspective too. This is part of a large EU project, CENTER-TBI, so part of our work is in thinking about the implications for designing something that could potentially be rolled out across 28 countries and many languages, on top of the multifarious cognitive and physical disabilities that TBI survivors typically endure.

This last year has been a challenging shift for me, from being wholly focused on leading Proboscis and devising projects around a team of people with different talents and skills, towards a new horizon based on my own practice and how I can work personally with others. Its taken quite a while to pull enough things together to feel like I’m on solid ground again – and there are other irons in the fire that I’m hoping will begin to take shape over the next few months. I hope to be sharing more exciting projects and news as the year progresses.