Sissel Olander, Tau Lenskjold, Signe Yndigegn, Maria Foverskov
“When my daughter goes shopping, she sometimes takes a picture [with her smartphone] as she tries on clothes and sends it to me to ask for my opinion,” Daniella tells us during a workshop with senior citizens.
After a while, Mogens, another senior citizen, returns to Daniella’s story. “I think I need to learn that from Daniella. My girls [his daughters] often help me buy clothes, but sometimes they don’t have the time to go shopping with me. I can do what Daniella does, so that I can avoid getting in trouble when I get home, since I often return with the wrong clothes.”
This seemingly mundane exchange of experiences between two senior citizens raises more profound questions: How do we frame and understand design processes and use innovations that take place in everyday lives and in local communities? And how do we as design researchers support social and cultural communities in their efforts to affect and craft their own futures?
These questions become especially urgent in participatory design (PD) research, in which we move from the more or less stable structure of a workplace or an organization to the more heterogeneous and less organized landscape of the public sphere and everyday life. If we consider the intentions that drove early participatory design research in Scandinavianamely, the distribution of authorship and power to those affected by new design proposals and solutionsit becomes clear why a movement from workplace-oriented research activities to those geared toward the public sphere poses some challenges and raises some questions.
First, the design field is vast, and some of the networks that occupy this space will be, by definition, more porous than those contained in the structure of an organization or a workplace. This means the mapping of the design field itself is a different task to begin with. Second, the question of what to design and whom to include in the design process is fundamentally open and constantly negotiable. PD research activities situated in this highly volatile landscape intersect and negotiate boundaries among numerous grassroots initiatives, existing organizations, and research-funding requirements, to mention but a few. Here, the mobilization of stakeholders takes on a central meaning.
For some time now, we have been engaged with two PD design projects that deal with community building and everyday innovation in the city of Copenhagen. The aim of the Senior Interaction project (SI; http://seniorinteraktion.dk/) is to explore how technology, social media, and new services can support senior citizens in augmenting and extending their social networks to ensure a better quality of life and to tackle persisting challenges, such as loneliness and self-sufficiency, in an increasingly aging population.
The second project we describe is the Network Laboratory project. It is situated in three local cultural administration units (LCAU) consisting of public libraries and cultural centers in different boroughs of Copenhagen. Its aim is to explore novel approaches to community building by mobilizing local networks and citizens. The network laboratory, as described here, is a specific research approach to cultural innovation, which we will refer to in more general terms as the design laboratory.
Establishing a Design Laboratory
The design laboratory is a way to frame the process of participatory inquiry. It can be conceptualized both as an organizational tool, which helps to structure open and complex design assignments with many stakeholders, and as a sort of programmatic platform, which stresses the interventionist and experimental aspects of design research. It grows out of the Scandinavian tradition of PD, with its emphasis on distributed agency and user involvement, and is one way to approach the complex work of providing infrastructures of democratization and innovation to the diverse assemblage of public administration, ordinary citizens, and private enterprises in the welfare industry.
One way of mobilizing for cultural and everyday innovation is to provide networks of diverse stakeholders with an infrastructure, or a platform, in which these innovations can unfold. This infrastructure should be filled with the appropriate devices and processes of staging dialogues. In the projects presented here, this undertaking is situated within the conceptual frame of the design laboratory. As a specific framing of designerly interventions, the design laboratory aims to mobilize participants into long-term relationships. The results are co-created design outcomes, which directly affect the participants’ own life situations and also affect othersas seen in the example of Daniella, who inspired Mogens to seek new solutions for an obstacle in his everyday life. The question is how to establish a platform or infrastructure so this continues after the designers have left.
Following Bruno Latour , innovation can be seen as the activity of connecting humans and non-humans. The notion of infrastructuring, initially developed by Leigh Star, becomes particularly useful in conceptualizing this assemblage: “An infrastructure, like railroad tracks or the Internet, is not reinvented every time, but is ‘sunk into’ other social-material structures and only accessible by membership in a specific community-of-practice” .
In the process of mobilization, the design laboratory works as a platform from which to engage and sustain participation in the design process. The activities are located within, or in close proximity to, the everyday lives of the people involved in order to delegate ownership and enable adaptations to concrete life situations. As a result, the primary aim of the design process is not to design an artifact per se. What is being designed is first and foremost an infrastructure with the ambition and potential of self-supporting continuance after the design project has come to an end. What entails from this approach to designing and mobilizing is that the design situation and the use situation merge into a mutually interdependent network of relations. The reason for proposing infrastructuring as the object of the design instead of a device is a consequence of a shift in focus toward creating extended possibilities for the cultural and everyday innovations that are already being crafted by people as they go about their daily lives.
Co-designing New Service Concepts with Senior Citizens
The Senior Interaction project comprises a diverse range of participants, from senior citizens and researchers to members of service sectors, design companies, and technological industries to employees from the municipality of Copenhagen. As design researchers we deliberately engage these stakeholders in common design dialogues from the very beginning of the process. We try to make ideas and proposals tangible from the startfor example, by trying out quick sketches and using tangible props to support the dialogue and prototyping of scenarios. The aim is to stage a common envisioning of shared possibilities. We perceive this as a way of rehearsing the future . These designerly interventions can also be seen as a way to mobilize and create fruitful connections among the different resources in the project. To sustain these emerging connections and collaborations, the next phase of the project will be to move these experimenting design encounters into the seniors’ private homes and activity centers, and then into their favorite public places. As the design laboratory expands to different local sites, we are also distributing agents who can further mobilize new networks that have not been part of the project from the beginning.
Infrastructuring Among the Seniors
When we explore future possibilities, we focus on the ingenuity of the seniors. The conversation between Mogens and Daniella about using mobile phones shows first that Daniella has created a technique or everyday innovation with her daughter to facilitate shopping, and second, that an emerging connection between Daniella and Mogens through Daniella’s story is developing. Daniella’s everyday innovation is made comprehensible to Mogens, and he sees future possibilities of deploying this technique in his own life.
As design researchers we have thus instigated a situation whereby everyday innovation like this can take place. But simultaneously, the workshop, with its diverse group of participants, conversations, facilitated exercises, and related design materials, has established the sociomaterial elements for an infrastructure, which, in turn, becomes constitutive for the senior citizens’ participation in the project.
To sustain new openings and collaborations, we use new media and social platforms such as Facebook. By gently introducing the seniors to the idea of continuing the dialogue on Facebook, a platform some already use, we try to nurture the seeds that have been sown. We can compare it with the concept of cultural probes , in the sense that the seniors participate in their own space and time. This provides a space for collaboration for everyone, as well as an asynchronous dialogue to which people can contribute when they wish. The support of an online platform creates an extended space for thoughts, questions, and discussions from everyone interested in participating in the project, during and between the design encounters . In projects like the SI, the participants do not necessarily belong to the same community; the SI Facebook group can therefore provide an extension of the design encounters and support the feeling of affinity to the project among the participants.
Another example of how we work with building and sustaining possible infrastructures in the SI project is the new concept of a bus trip, devised by the municipality of Copenhagen. The destination is a shopping center; the idea is that the senior citizens invited onto the bus are capable of buying their own groceries and don’t need a caretaker to do it for them. The bus trip can be seen as a sociomaterial frame “for controversies, ready for unexpected use, opening up new ways of thinking and behaving” . We consider the bus trip to be such a frame, open for different possibilities of appropriation. The seniors can, for instance, use it for social interaction or clothes shopping. At the same time, it captures a new way of thinking about services for seniorsthat the municipality is not just delivering services for the individual citizen, but rather co-producing services with communities of citizens.
This is an approach that goes hand-in-hand with our approach in the SI project. The infrastructure we try to build must adapt to the life-worlds and evolving ecology of devices . The idea is to mobilize the seniors from within their own life-worlds by providing a structuring principle for an ever-evolving ecology of devicesfor example, buses, timetables, and city routes. As stressed by Ehn, infrastructuring, however, can never be reduced to and be supported only by a technical platform. Designing infrastructures involves the situation into which it is going to be “sunk” and includes human and non-human actors of the assembly . Therefore, our engagement in design encounters with diverse stakeholders must always start with the participants’ everyday lives.
The Network Laboratory
The general aim of the project is to explore new ways of community building with local networks and grassroots movements, and to include new groups of citizens in the everyday lives and projects of the local cultural administration units. The inclination for this is an increased focus on user-driven innovation in the public administration in Denmark. Public libraries and cultural centers in Denmark are traditionally based on the idea of democratization, that every citizen should have access to knowledge and cultural experiences and should have the opportunity to be part of the community.
What we want to do in this project is investigate ways to organize participatory innovation and co-design, and to sustain this way of working with the local communities beyond the project period. We approach this by staging a laboratory at each of the three local sites. We prototype the laboratory as a platform for participatory inquiry by doing cultural work with employees from the LCAUs and different communities. We look for ways to organize, mobilize, and sustain the collaborative cultural work. In a sense, this program can be seen as a top-down initiated endeavor that wants to work bottom up with local empowerment and community building.
The municipality of Copenhagen wishes to engage with users, citizens, communities, and networks to build strong communities that actively participate in local development and democracy. But they also want to provide better and more efficient services for less money, and they want many people to visit their cultural institutions in order to secure future funding. The question of whom to include in the design process therefore becomes central. In spite of the overall broader political programs and innovation policies that usually set design research programs like this in motion, it is evident that there are always different local and central agendas at stake. Therefore, the task of achieving the program we set out to create becomes a complex matter.
One example of this is the mobilization of cultural workers in the LCAUs. Not every librarian and cultural worker sees the Network Laboratory project as the answer to the future challenges of the LCAUs. To some of them, the core task of the organization is to provide services for the local community, not to do cultural work with them. They don’t necessarily want a greater number of people to visit the library, nor do they want the library to expand beyond the physical building that currently more or less contains the library services. To them the library is a public space with a special quality to it, something that cannot be found anywhere else in the public arena. The quietness, the slowness, and the invitation to come and do absolutely nothing is exactly the core quality that yet another project is now staged to threaten. Because we want to sustain the Network Laboratory project as a platform and infrastructure of innovation after the research project is over, we cannot easily disregard these cultural workers’ and librarians’ matters of concern. If we exclude their voices from our maps and accounts, we certainly run the risk of becoming “yet another project.”
Mobilizing Participants for Everyday Innovations
As we have argued, mobilization may be carried out by providing infrastructures for cultural and everyday innovation and through designerly interventions, such as the design laboratory. But these approaches still leave aside the question of how, and to what effect, this engagement can be seen as a strategy of democratization.
Mobilization, in this understanding, differs from the description of mobilization presented by Rinku Sin  as one of several types of activist work by which large-scale efforts to engage the public (marches, petition signing, and so on) are carried out as singular events, without expectations of continued involvement by the participants .
The long-term relationship with participants and the unhierarchical structure of the design laboratory, on the other hand, ideally evoke a shared responsibility among the stakeholders to take part in the mobilization across individual interests and competing agendas. The delegation of power through participation is a core democratic principle in the PD tradition, but the shift from the conditions of a workplace inside a stable organization to a fluid intersection between administrative and public space poses new challenges to making a strategy of democratizing possible.
Bjørgvinsson et al., following Chantal Mouffe, have suggested locating the vital democratic force in public space in the “agonistic struggle” [3,11], between “opposing hegemonic projects that can never be reconciled rationally” . A somewhat similar conception of democratic vibrancy, though on a different scale, might be said to take hold among the stakeholders in the projects presented here. The collective mobilization may in this way be seen as continuous renegotiations among opposing matters of concern and alignment around a common goal.
An important dilemma facing the design researcher is what to do with potentially important stakeholders who for some reason fall out or are unwilling or unable to participate in the project. Should this be seen as a reason to question and readjust the initial program? Also, how far is it possible to stretch the project and still uphold cohesion among the existing stakeholders?
These questions point to the importance of maintaining a certain level of autonomy and a position of objective integrity in the midst of the stakeholders’ competing political agendas. Herein lies a crucial characteristic of the design researcher’s activist incentive: namely, to act as a sort of custodian whose job it is to ensure participation for all parties in the design lab by enabling individual voices to be heard. The SI and Network Lab research projects and the approach we have outlined in this article may also draw our attention to how these not-easily-resolved questions and controversies are always close companions to PD projects that work with strategies of mobilization, democratization, and engagement in borderlands of public administration and public space.
We thank all participants from the Senior Interaction project and Network Laboratory project, who gave us the examples and experiences we have shared here.
4. Design Activism; http://designactivism.net/
11. Mouffe, C. Artistic activism and agonistic spaces. Art & Research 1, 2 (2007); www.artandre-search.org.uk/v1n2/pdfs/mouffe.pdf
Sissel Olander is a Ph.D. student at the Danish Design School. She works with community centers, libraries, and cultural houses in Copenhagen, exploring new ways to include local networks and communities in innovation processes by building open platforms for participatory innovation.
Tau Ulv Lenskjold is a Ph.D. student at the Danish Design School. His current research investigates how contemporary design practices engage ideologically with political and societal issues and traces the historical precursors for this development in design.
Signe Louise Yndigegn is a Ph.D. student at the IT University of Copenhagen with an interest in how to engage people in design dialogues. As a design researcher, she addresses the issue of how to support and facilitate everyday inventiveness in co-design processes when designing new service concepts for seniors.
Maria Foverskov is a Ph.D. student at the Danish Design School. Her research interests include design dialogues and design interventions. By appropriating design tools like props she explores how to engage and mobilize stakeholders as actors in co-design processes.
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