Journal || July 2016

Patient Making in a Scottish Village

Babitha George

Keywords: Workshops, IoT, UnBox, Design

I spent a week this June in Scotland as part of the Open IoT Design Sprint, organised by the Mozilla Foundation and hosted by Jon Rogers in his seaside village of Anstruther and the University of Dundee.

This was the third in a series of labs/sprints this year, that started with the UnBox Caravan at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design campus in February 2016. The intent of all these events has been to bring together a group of interesting and interested people to explore our collective futures through multi-cultural and inter-disciplinary lenses.

There are two aspects that I would like to reflect upon with regard to my week in Scotland.

The first is about what it means to move beyond obvious spaces when we think of designing for the future. As my friend Jon likes to say, there is a same-ness and pace to the format and locales of design sprints and hackathons, that almost seems overbearing and arrogant. This is particularly true when these hacks are attempting to design real products and solutions for people. Unless we begin to see people as not just users, but also producers and collaborators, we cannot ever hope to ‘design right’.

During the week in Scotland, we got to spend time with local teens, fishermen, and farmers. Most IoT conversations tend to focus on cities with their all-encompassing connectivity, so it seemed particularly meaningful to situate this sprint in a rural village with similar connectivity constraints that vast segments of the world still live with; thus opening up questions of access and participation. It was also humbling to attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of communities that have established systems and methods of efficient and cooperative functioning. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that innovation is emerging primarily in cities with affluent communities. However older communities have had years of experience dealing with ambiguity and hardship in ways that are extremely robust and flexible. And the sprint was a great experience in reminding ourselves about this and not forgetting where we come from.

Unless we begin to see people as not just users, but also producers and collaborators, we cannot ever hope to ‘design right’.

I think this opportunity to immerse ourselves in a small community helped us think not about how we could ‘help’ them but instead about how we could learn from them. A lot of the local practices for example, had very relevant lessons for IoT, including the fact that ultimately everything has to be about security and trust- something that seems to be oft-forgotten, thus resulting in complex and opaque solutions that provide no agency or control to people to make informed decisions. Technology companies and practitioners tend to get swallowed whole in their obsession with the new and the shiny along with a misguided belief that the world revolves around them; this week was a welcome change in getting us all out of these patterns that we tend to be surrounded by.

The second aspect is one that we have been thinking about and experimenting with over several years now with the UnBox platform. While there is merit in action-packed fast-paced events in being able to see a lot of new things and people, we have always felt that there is a real need for slower events that allow people to be themselves and engage deeply with others and the space that they are in. The UnBox LABS have been a conscious effort in putting together a space of this sort and it was extremely valuable for me to be a participant (and not an anchor/host) and experience this from the other side at the Scotland Design Sprint.

Though there is value in challenging people and pulling them out of their comfort zones, surely there can be a more nurturing, safe way of doing this. What Jon and Michelle managed to do really well during the week was to create exactly this, with great food, spaces to unwind, chances to be with nature, and more than anything the opportunity to meet with new people and make friends in a manner that didn’t seem artificial or overly-directed. I am an adult and I hate going to events that continuously assume that I need to be always told what to do. This week didn’t do that, thus giving me a chance to do what I really enjoy and work with people I ended up becoming friends with. Over the week I got to work with folks who were working on interesting projects for both teens and fishermen; all the while pushing ourselves to think about what we were learning and challenging ourselves to think about how we could make new ideas that were relevant to the community.

Doing the dishes, going swimming, drinking a lot, and walking through beautiful landscapes were all things we did together and a lot of the reflection, critical thinking, and ideation happened in these settings. What a lot of events forget are exactly these settings, that allow people to feel like they have agency and that they are in a co-owned process that everyone is in charge of, simultaneously leading and participating in. And over the few iterations of such events that we have hosted and been a part of, I am increasingly convinced that this has to be the way of the future for us, if we want to initiate and engage in truly trans-disciplinary work.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that innovation is emerging primarily in cities with affluent communities.

I also got to work with the amazing Tommy Perman & Sean Dooley (along with Sarah and Erika from Mozilla and many other folks) on a book that we made during the week. While it seemed like a separate exercise with not much to do with IoT per se, I think the book was made with exactly the same spirit that the sprint sought to bring forward:

– Being open to new ideas and new ways

– Working with new people and learning new things

– Pushing ourselves but also having fun along the way

– Working with local resources (we printed and bound using multiple techniques ranging from Jon’s home printer, to Tommy’s very versatile vinyl cutter to a fairly temperamental Riso machine at Dundee Contemporary Arts)

– Getting everyone involved in making

– Focusing on creating, even while making mistakes (instead of getting lost in the noise in our heads)

Here is a link to the book. I haven’t had as much fun making something in a long while!

The week brought together a lot of nascent thoughts that I had been toying with as a curator & producer at UnBox about the need for slower, more nurturing, friendlier events. Most of all, the week was a brilliant demonstration of how we think and feel differently when we make together. Thank you Jon & Michelle and all the other amazing folks at the sprint- each of you brought something special to an already magical setting and space.

PS: The Mozilla Open IoT Studio seeks to push practice, in a way that makes IoT more open and accessible. You can read more about the studio as well as the various communities associated with it in Michelle’s piece here.

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