How to co-design our digital future A Proposal
How to co-design our digital future A Proposal
Editors Jon Rogers, Jon Spooner and Paul Egglestone Photography Simon Allen Design www.uniform.net A collaboration between Unlimited Theatre, Storythings and the Product Design Research Studio, University of Dundee. A Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project, supported by Nesta, Arts & Humanities Research Council and public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
Introduction I Jon Spooner
Uneditions is a new digital platform for publishing playscripts on mobile devices that includes lighting and sound design to create a unique, immersive reading experience. The platform was created through a co-design process led by Unlimited Theatre in collaboration with technology partner Storythings, Professor Jon Rogers of the University of Dundee Product Research Studio and a Community Lab of volunteers from West Yorkshire. Unlimited has often worked with new technologies (mostly just out of a geeky interest inspired by being bought a Dragon 32 when I was 10), but increasingly because those new, mostly digital technologies also offer us other ways of telling our stories to a potentially much bigger audience than we ever could if we only made it for the theatre. We’ve always recognised that by choosing to make our work primarily for, with and in theatres we’re working in a pretty niche environment. Most people don’t go to the theatre. And most people who do don’t come to see the type of theatre that we’re making – it’s far enough away from the mainstream to mean that we’re often working in a niche of a niche. This isn’t A Bad Thing – small is definitely beautiful. But it’s worth recognising that if we were making our work primarily for almost any other medium (TV, film, the internet, books), the types of stories we tell would find a much bigger niche. So Uneditions is a sincere, rigorous exploration of how we – as theatre makers and as a wider arts community – can better transpose the stories we’re telling to other mediums. And I’m massively excited by the potential this platform has to allow existing audiences to both deepen their understanding of the work we make and also, importantly, open both Unlimited’s and our sector’s work up to a much wider range of people. More than filming a show or publishing a traditional playscript ever could, we wanted to offer you a beautiful take-home experience – to create a sort of digital bottle that includes the sound, lighting and atmosphere that we as theatre makers handcraft (using technology) that people can then open at home. A gift. Enjoy.
Introduction II Matt Locke
I’ve always been interested in stories. I’ve spent most of my career trying to hang out with, and sometimes help, people who are really, really good at telling stories, in all sorts of interesting ways. This is how I first met Jon Spooner. I was running a digital media art project in Huddersfield in the late 1990s, and Jon and Unlimited Theatre were starting to get interested in how to tell stories over digital networks. We’d just started experimenting with using SMS as a medium for art, and I managed to convince Jon that we should put on the first ever SMS play in Edinburgh that year, using the dialogue from their play STATIC. Ten years later, we were in the interview stage for the Digital R&D Fund for the arts project that became Uneditions when we realised that the bid was essentially us circling back to look at the same problem we’d started exploring with the SMS play: How have digital technologies changed the relationship between storytellers and audiences? And how can we change the shape of our stories to meet the new attention patterns and behaviours of audiences on new digital platforms? At Storythings, we love technology, but we’re not obsessed by it. We’re only interested in technology when it creates new ways to connect storytellers and audiences, and when we can see how people are using technology in new and unexpected ways. We love stories, and making things that tell stories. We’re incredibly pleased that we could work with Jon, the team at Unlimited, the team at Dundee Product Research Studio and the Community Labs to make a new thing that tells stories. Uneditions is a story thing, and we’re incredible excited about it. We hope you enjoy it too.
Innovation from within society Jon Rogers
I have a problem and it’s this. Absolutely everything I own, like, play with and wonder about has been made by someone famous that I don’t know. My world has pubs, galleries, trains, terraced houses, chip shops, roundabouts, cinemas, double-decker buses, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Chana Masala, but In none of the places that I go have I met someone who says, “I made that”. I’d love it if Joss Whedon and Madhur Jaffrey frequented my local, the Dreel Tavern, but they don’t. I’d love it if the person next to me in coach C on the East Coast intercity designed the interior. I’d love it if while having a cup of tea on the northbound M6 Tebay services the inventor of roundabouts would walk in and, just for once, say hello. But this never happens. (Well, ok, except for the fact that my son plays Minecraft with Jude from Jude and the Giant Of Pittenweem. He’s pretty cool and has no swagger of self-indulgence from being the only kid in the village to have a book starring a watercolour version of himself.) No, it’s just that we don’t meet the people that make the things in our lives. No one does. The people that make things are a different breed of people. They go to special dinners and travel on special trains and have their own service stations. They drink in special pubs and only talk to special people like them that have made other things in the world. The world of the people who make things is there, and my world, and everyone I know, is here. This was brought home to me when my friend Praveen Nahar from the National Institute of Design in India visited the UK for his second time. He made an incredibly astute observation on city life in Dundee: “I’ve not seen anything being made here.” For anyone that has been to any city in India, you will know that making is everywhere. People are making the food that you eat on the roadside next to people making tools for repairing the road, along a street full of furniture makers, or people soldering radios, spinning a loom or casting gold jewellery. When I bought a pair of scissors they were sharpened by the street seller before I took them away. They’re the best pair of scissors I own.
“I’ve not seen anything being made here,” rings like an echo on our dying high streets. I don’t believe that this needs to be true. I would love to live in a world where I walk into any of the everyday places on this planet and people are talking about what they helped make today. I’d love people to put their hands on their chest and say with pride, “I did that”. “I was a part of that story”. This sounds ideological. It isn’t. It’s in fact incredibly practical, deliverable and in every way what our society should be attempting to do. I want to challenge the notion that our high streets, and the wider economy, can be saved by a ‘Queen Of Shops’. Instead I want us all to think about how innovation and production can happen in new ways. My call is for a creative cultural economy that empowers and has clear routes for everyone to make things. I want to know the people that make things. But I don’t want them to be the famous elite; I want to bump into them in the pub I drink in or the chippy I buy chips from, even sit next to me on the train I travel on. That might just very well be you. This book is a story of how this happened between a theatre company wanting to develop a new way of presenting playscripts, a creative agency that makes digital products and a fantastic group of volunteers from within and around Leeds. It shows how we can all make things together, how we can harness the talent of our arts community, our digital community, and the people in our communities. We hope the story is translatable into your world. That you are able to take what we’ve done and start to think about how you might get involved with the making of things on your doorstep.
What is a Community Lab?
A Community Lab is an emerging concept for engaging citizens with research and development in the places that they live. In Dundee, I’ve been working with the director of Dundee Contemporary Arts to build a shared space where researchers from across the city can meet and work with inhabitants of the city on projects that matter to them. We are calling this The Small Society Lab. In this project, the idea of the Community Lab was born out of the need to form a community of people that would work with us to develop the digital R&D. Exactly what the Community Lab is beyond this idea is not something that I’m going to answer here. It’s not that I’m dodging the question, it’s that I don’t know. I and many of my colleagues, collaborators and friends have an ambition to establish a new way of working with people on research in their locality, but we’re not exactly sure how. So bear with us on this one for a few more years. I can tell you what the Community Lab is for this project. It is a group of people that have been attracted to, and have coalesced, the idea of developing a new way of experiencing the reading of play scripts in a digital form. It is a community of participants that are part owners in the product of this project. It is a group of people that have shared a twelve-month exploration. Beyond these people, the Community Lab is also a process. It is a process that encourages and explores the co-design of new concepts, from idea through to reality. In other words, a Community Lab is a diverse group of people following a highly engaging process for R&D in the place that they live.
Small Society Lab Formed out of a partnership between Dundee Contemporary Arts, University of Dundee, University of Abertay, Nesta and Creative Scotland, the Small Society Lab is planned as a centre for joint research and action in progressing the development and understanding of the small city of the future. By exploring the intersection between art, community and technology, the partnership will support and develop a range of projects, interventions and events, which will all be aimed at defining the values, actions and solutions that will support a sustainable future for the post-industrial urban environment. Focusing on the growth of a broad set of values within diverse and sometimes fractured communities, the work of the Small Society Lab will challenge current orthodoxies around concepts of growth and engagement. Its work will be to locate future planning in a context in which there is a clear definition of shared values that are locally owned and supportive of an optimistic and sustainable future. One that acknowledges that wealth takes many forms (economic, social and cultural) and that the health and well-being of our citizens requires that all these forms be in balance. It will do this through processes of creative technical disruption and methodologies to challenge existing methods and activity of cultural empowerment and activation.
How do we have diversity in a Community Lab?
In recent years I’ve been to the madness that is the South By South West Festival in Austin, Texas. If you don’t know what that is, picture a spring break techfest for one hundred thousand swarming geeks. People come from all over the globe to get connected to the latest thinking, products and ideas that the world has to offer. There are lots of bad things to say about this mass call for commercialisation, and it’s easy to say that the event has long since jumped the autonomous robo-shark, but there is something good that lies beneath the decisions the organisers make. They have devised their VOWEL principal to guide them in selecting the most diverse speakers possible. Thousands apply. Only a few get accepted… Our approach to casting a diverse group for the lab was to use the inherent knowledge built into the outreach processes of Unlimited and their partners at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Based on earlier work forming a public laboratory space within Dundee Contemporary Arts, we found that using outreach people with existing trusted relationships across the community enabled audiences for events to be formed quickly, reliably and diversely. This thinking was first tested when working with Paul Egglestone on Bespoke, a two-year project looking at digital economy within communities. Bespoke was built on ten years of community relationships that UCLan had made within Preston.
Variety More than 4,500 proposals were submitted to the 2013 SXSW Interactive, EDU, Music, and Film Festival and Conferences. In other words, we have lots and lots of very qualified people who want to speak at the event — so only aiming for big name speakers on your session is probably unwise. Also remember that each speaker at SXSW can only participate in ONE session per conference. Opinion If all the other speakers on your proposal have the same opinion on the given topic, the resulting conversation will likely be boring. Whatever topic you are addressing at SXSW, you need to include at least one person whose opinion differs sharply from yours. Women There are thousands of extremely qualified women in the media industry. If you are organising a session with at least three total speakers, then at least one of these speakers must be female. Ethnicity Different ethnic backgrounds and cultures take a different approach to different topics and often offer more diverse viewpoints. Different is usually a good thing at SXSW. Location Lots of amazingly talented professionals call New York, L.A. and the Bay Area home, but there are also scores of very qualified media experts in various other locations in the US and around the world. Their voices also help contribute to the ongoing goal of diversity.
How did we The structuring of the Community Labs, and structure our particularly the planning and delivery of the first Community Labs? Community Lab, was strongly influenced by the playscript of The Noise that Jon Spooner was working on at the time. It gave us a natural focus and backdrop to what our workshop would be. The clear thing that leapt out was that three of the locations used in the play (The Pub, The Den and The Police Station) were all natural places to have conversations, collect data and interview people, three themes at the heart of any co-design process. We decided to set the first workshop entirely within these core areas, both to structure our planned activity and enable the Community Lab participants to immerse themselves in the play from the start. And although we didn’t keep this structure running through all three labs, we decided to keep The Den running as a reflective area for participants. Beyond this project the idea of a reflective space is something that we would recommend building into the design of future codesign environments.
Excerpt from the Noise The Police Station. Lights and sound pull focus to the office at the Police Station. THE AGENT sits in a chair in front of FRANCES’s desk, waiting. PAUL comes in from outside singing the Whitely Drinking Song, followed by FRANCES. PAUL stops when he sees THE AGENT, FRANCES almost bumps into him. THE AGENT stands. PAUL: Oh look. You’ve got a visitor. Watch out mate. I’m a murderer. Coming through, Dead man walking. AGENT: Hi. So sorry. I let myself in. FRANCES: Can I help you? PAUL: You want to watch her, mate. AGENT: Came in on a yacht. My yacht, actually. Couple of hours ago. Do you need anyFRANCES: No. Thank you. Protocol is to radio when you’re expected before you sail so we know to look for you. If you don’t show up. AGENT: Yes, sorry about that. Bit of an impulse trip. Didn’t really know I was coming myself. I’m like that. I know it can be a pain. Means nobody ever expects you. I’m sorry if I’m putting you to any trouble. Just wanted to register myself as here. I understand that’s how it’s done. With the authorities. Which I understand are pretty muchYou Ms Jones FRANCES: Chief. Chief Jones. AGENT: Of course. Chief. Smith. Ben Smith FRANCES: We weren’t expecting you, Mr Smith.
Community Lab 1 Everything needs to be prepared, to have a Arriving at a precursor. Consider Christmas without Christmas shared challenge Eve; Doctor Who without a Regeneration Episode; Summer without Spring; A holiday without travel; all these things simply wouldn’t work. In other words, you need to have the thing-before to make the thing-after right. We all need a nice call to action for that action to ever happen. That was the point of our first Community Lab. We all wanted, and Unlimited insisted, for the arrival to be something special to ensure that the project got out on the right side of the bed. And we think it did. The Police Station grilled people with the sergeant-in-chief Jon Spooner in character, complete with hat, as Whitley Island Police Chief; the Monitoring Station invited people into The Den to take some quiet time to reflect; and The Pub was pretty much a pub, especially for the afternoon team who were treated to a treat from the bar downstairs. The cushions on the psychiatrist’s chairs were thoroughly plumped by asking people to bring a memory of their favourite childhood book. This levelled people; everyone joined the shared space of talking about each other’s books. They were taken deeper into the lab by sharing a reading of a very early draft of The Noise. Each participant took on a character in a fifteen minute group reading exercise that brilliantly and openly invited people into the lab; everyone knew that there were no secrets here and that they were coming into something that had the express purpose of making something together.
Reflections on When the time for the first Community Lab arrived Community Lab 1 I was nervous, as I always am in new situations, Andrew Strachan especially when I donâ€™t know anybody. But when the group was assembled, I quickly became comfortable despite its size. It was well organised, with an excellent ice-breaker question about the books we enjoyed as children. The answers and resulting discussion allowed us to learn something of each other and establish some common ground. After this we had a table reading of a few parts of the script, which let us see the playâ€™s plot, tone and characters. It also offered a chance to do a bit of acting, which I hesitated to join in initially, but did enjoy immensely. The nature of the project required some paperwork (getting feedback from the lab), but this was made interesting with themed questionnaires, some good questions and some group working. By the end of the first session I felt completely at ease and looked forward to the next, which was a few weeks later
Community Lab 2 Chicken. Egg. Chicken. Egg. You know how Prototyping this story goes. It’s a story familiar to R&D. We Experiences can’t arrive at the product without testing the experience. We can’t test the experience without having the final product. Yet luckily, we have a tool not available to the world of chicken evolution. We have the ability to fake it. We can build prototypes that test one aspect of the experience in a convincing way in order to gain insights on how people might react. In effect, we can kick the tyres on experiences and see whether they stand up or not. This form of ‘experience prototyping’ is really a spoof-of-concept testing in which we asked our lab to suspend their disbelief in the product not being the final thing and focus on a number of key interactions to see how they felt. In this second lab we asked the following questions through four experience prototypes developed by Storythings. Anticipation: can we build to excite before reading? We tested this with a prototype of the welcome screen. Clarity: can we make it easier to read playscripts? This was tested through a paper prototype where Silvia and Dean from Storythings pulled different text layouts for participants through a mock-up foam iPad. Drama: can we communicate gravitas and pacing? In this prototype we wondered whether we could control the speed of scrolling to dictate the reading experience. Ambience: can we create a sense of Theatre? This prototype ran to the core of the project by exploring the effect of background sound and lighting on the reading experience. We also wanted to gather feedback on how people were feeling about the lab itself. Were they enjoying the experience? If they weren’t, why not? We kept The Den from the first lab as a space where people could take time out from working on the prototypes and write us a postcard with their reflections.
GRAVITAS AND PACING DRAMA
EASIER TO READ
Community Lab 3 In our third Community Lab we wanted to explore Iterating two key aspects of our digital playscript reading: Prototypes how people would navigate and how they experience sound and light. One of the findings from the second Community Lab was that our lab participants felt we were giving them too much paper work, and they were missing interactions amongst the group. One of the feedback postcards specifically asked if there could be less form filling and more scribing of conversations. With this feedback in mind, this is how we documented our lab’s response to two detailed prototypes that asked the following questions: Structure Can we build a clear intuitive journey? Theatre Can we create a rich layered reading experience? As a scribe it was useful not just to take direct conversational notes, but also to observe people’s interactions with the developed prototypes. Both Ric (Unlimited’s producer) and I found this approach worked well for this stage of development. This wouldn’t have worked in the first or second lab – it worked because the lab knew us. That they had requested scribing rather than paper-based activity after the second lab was a result not just of the fact that we had made the evaluating experience too paper-based, but that we had built up a relationship where the lab was taking control. This is incredibly important. To have quickly built up a great relationship through considered and mindful co-design activity, provided a great experience for people volunteering their time, and then evolved to a new position where the Community Lab directed the activity is a clear take-away for me.
Excerpt of observations from Community Lab 3, in response to the question: Can we create a rich layered reading experience? Rhiannon – control of the speed of scrolling was good. Polly – thought the bridge between the scenes, transition worked well – give a sense of scene / chapter, which is useful. Mark – character delineation across the lines. Slightly random colour transitions – do they mean anything in terms of the mood? Jon – explained it was basically for a lighting designer – you can change the background colour, six spotlights? P – asked if the transitions are timed rather than scrolled – triggers for transition based on position of text on the page? Asking questions about how that works? J – explained there’s a human programming element, which should make text and music match – at the moment it loops. P – asked what happens when you go back – does the music? Andrew – sound integration very successful, set location and place nicely. Not being able to scroll back is an issue – navigation issue? Scrolling felt natural? J - Are there transitions mid-scene? How is content laced into the middle of the reading experience, not just bookending the scenes. M – the ‘surprises’ give you a really nice ‘liveness’ that reminds you it’s live / interactive in a useful and theatrical way.
What is Insight Journalism?
In 2009, during the first ten minutes of a weeklong research council sandpit, I met journalist and academic Paul Egglestone and digital craft practitioner Justin Marshall. It was immediately clear that we had a lot in common and a lot to say. A twenty-five-word summary (a tip in clarity of writing from Paul) of that conversation goes something like this: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a completely new approach to accountability in design by intertwining the craft of journalism with design practice?” We then spent the best part of the next three years delivering on the research project, Bespoke, which was awarded as a consequence of our spending a week at the abovementioned Digital Economy Sandpit. The result: a new methodology for community [re] action in the form of Insight Journalism. So what is Insight Journalism? Paul describes it as: “A process of ‘filtering and mediation’ that flits between the world as it exists and what we can do in it. Really it’s about the story and the process through which the story is read and understood for the purpose of developing an insightful response that enables [re]action.” In the Bespoke project we used Insight Journalism to inform and provide a responsive approach for designers, technologists and craft practitioners working in a community in Preston. We used it as a process to arrive at a series of end products that were deployed in the community. In 2011, Paul and I further deployed Insight Journalism as an evaluative tool within Punchdrunk’s Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project “Sleep No More”. Beyond spending an exciting week going gonzo in New York, we were able to test the validity of Insight Journalism as a way to approach the evaluation of live projects. This then led to my asking Paul if he would provide Insight Journalism as a tool to hold to account and capture the story of what the Community Labs did during this project. What follows are some of the stories from Paul in his role as the Uneditions Insight Journalist.
Jon Spooner: Audience Payoff Evangelist Paul Egglestone
The catalyst Jon Spooner is in reflective mood. 2013 was a busy year for Unlimited. They maintained a schedule of writing, rehearsing and performing new work that has been received warmly by audiences and critics alike. ‘The Noise’, described as an ‘edge of the seat, sci-conspiracy thriller about memory, secrets and the effects of sound on human beings, also gave Spooner the opportunity to ‘scratch an itch’ and discover a new digital stage for Unlimited’s work. The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts supported a partnership between Unlimited, technology start up ‘Storythings’ and Dundee University’s Product Design Studio. Throughout the year, the three partners collaborated to develop an online tablet-based application for presenting new playscripts. “I have been really fascinated by how we can find digital places for our live performance work,” said Jon Spooner. “It’s taken time to find something we’re really happy with”. Spooner is justifiably critical of the rather unsophisticated ways many theatre companies have used digital technology to present work to new audiences. As he is quick to point out, great theatre performances do not necessarily make great cinema. He is also sceptical about the motives behind many of these attempts. “Just filming something live – pointing cameras at it and recording it – or even a live broadcast of something that’s being filmed I find deeply problematic because you’re told ‘this is the way we can reach bigger audiences, this is live performance’, and it just isn’t, because you’re not in the room with it. Even in the most 4th wall drama (where the cast are not even willing to acknowledge the presence of the audience) anyone – if they wanted – could just get up, go onto the stage and disrupt the performance. You can’t do that from 200 miles away when you’re watching it on a cinema screen, even if it’s still ‘live’. I’m also frustrated by the claim that the ability to live stream performances is being hailed as the way forward – the way we’re going to do it”. What people love about reading… At the heart of this dissatisfaction is a genuine yearning to recreate the essence of theatre
by retreating to what Spooner suggests is an individual’s experience of a performance. “I just started thinking about what the relationship between reading and performance is. No matter how interactive or immersive a performance might be – even if you’re not sat in a theatre seat watching something, if you’re moving around experiencing something - it’s a myth to believe you’re just part of an audience experiencing this together. You might be in the presence of other people, but you’re still having an incredibly individual experience of that event because of all the things you bring to it as an individual. And that feels to me like the reading experience. What people love about reading is that you get to do a lot of the imaginative work yourself. It’s immersive. It’s private. It’s personal”. The trouble with print publishers There was also a financial incentive driving the direction of the new product the team were to develop for The Noise play. As Spooner recounts, the existing publishing model was not serving Unlimited’s audiences or supporting its writers financially. “We published a couple of shows in traditional script form through publishers. The publishers take all of the rights for no money; you see nothing back from it. So you’ll publish a book and you may get a couple of hundred quid for the rights – which they now own – then a tiny percentage of sales after that. The publishers are not really bothered about promoting you unless you’re one of their big name authors. Then you can buy back copies of your own work from the publishers. And the problem is, no one is reading them. No one is buying them”. Whether poor sales can be solely attributed to the often outmoded and catchall mass-market activities of the publishing sector is a moot point as far as Spooner is concerned. It is his belief that the problems encountered by playwrights are exacerbated by the way their work is presented, and that this too makes the product inaccessible and undesirable. He thinks that “Publishers have a very arcane way of laying out a playscript that is really useful as a set of instructions if you are trying to direct a play, but it doesn’t do any real job as a way of telling the story, so it’s a really
dissatisfying and intrusive way of reading a story”. Spooner is adamant that whilst theatre is a niche activity - most people don’t go to the theatre, and most people who do go to the theatre don’t go to see work that artists like Unlimited are making - he suggests that there are people who like the type of stories they are telling, even if they do not like the medium of theatre. “There’s a huge audience out there to which I’d want to say – ‘look, here’s the thing, if you can’t come to the theatre or if it’s too expensive or you just don’t like it because it’s been shit too many times before – here’s a brilliant story and it’s the type of story you like. Here it is how ‘we’, the artists who wrote it, created it, and performed in it; this is how we wanted it to feel when you experienced it”. To realise this vision, Spooner and the team put their minds to developing a digital application that would deliver a far richer media experience to people reading their latest play, ‘the Noise’. According to Spooner, the intention was to explore how they might bring more of what it feels like to be in the theatre to the experience of reading a play on a tablet. At this point in the process the project took a radical turn, establishing a user group of theatregoers and writers from Leeds as a fourth partner to assist in the design and development of the application. The group were labelled a Community Lab, though some doubted how much influence and power they would actually have on a process that they joined fairly late. One of the community lab members, Paul Dixon, claimed he was unsure about their role in the project. He said: “I think that it was originally mentioned that we would have an input into the design of this new project. But the first session did feel mainly like a focus group being used for research. All the actual design work was being done by other groups, such as Storythings”. There is a tension that lies between delivering a reasonably predefined product and running an open lab process designed to encourage a wider group of stakeholders to shape it. Spooner describes his approach to balancing the two. “I had a clear idea of what I thought it [the
application] could most likely be… but because of the way we make new theatre work and the number of creative people involved in that process, I was always very open to it turning into whatever it became”. This aspiration is much easier in theory than in practice. “I can be very clear about my preferences sometimes,” said Spooner. “I’m not scared of being able to steer things in a way that I’d like it to go. No matter how collaborative the process you always need to have some clear leadership because people need someone who is going to take responsibility – and someone who is going to give a really clear brief – and that is a job I really enjoy.” Sustainability As the dust settles on the R&D funded phase of ‘the Noise’ project, attention inevitably turns to its original ambition. It was always the intention to look at how to make this project sustainable, but much of the energy, time and money was spent on getting the first version of the product out. When asked about what happens next, Spooner concedes, “We’re still very much a beta stage. We’d like to find out what it would cost to do an offline app that you could download rather than something you would have to stream from the Internet. Alongside that, we’re looking at what the business models are, which would include looking at what sort of a website we would need to build to be the shop front, the library for it. There’s a branding process that needs to go into that as well”. He is also keen to work out a way to make sure that the computer code generated by the project remains available to the wider developer community. At the end of the project, Spooner’s vision is as singular and focussed as it was at the outset. “I’d hope that what we were able to do would be to build a place, a brand that people can trust so they can say ‘this is where the stuff I want to do lives in its most accessible form’, which is about us having a library of stuff that we might see a kickback from because that was part of why we wanted to do this in the first place… How can we become more sustainable as an organisation…. How can we as an organisation, as well as the sector as a whole, – see a financial return from the work we are making. The Noise is unfinished business.
Jon Rogers: Everything should feel like a play Paul Egglestone
Jon Rogers joined Unlimited’s project as a research partner. Rogers originally met Spooner at the NASA Space Apps Challenge event hosted by the British Meteorological (MET) office in Exeter two years previously. There, the pair were challenged with the task of humanising otherwise cold and inaccessible space data. Rogers recalls the run up to the workshop: he expected to find MET office ‘geeks and nerds’ programming and writing code, but was met by a man in an obviously handmade orange space suit claiming to be an astronaut and telling people he was expecting to get into space later that afternoon. The man in the suit was Jon Spooner, who is described by Rogers as ‘more real than real life’ and ‘positively disruptive’. The mesh of egos that followed resulted in the application to the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, with Spooner keen to develop a new platform for publishing playscripts and Rogers wanting to rethink ‘hackathons’ (sometimes referred to as ‘hackdays’, ‘codefests’ or ‘hackfests’, these are events typically lasting several days in which a number of people get together to engage in collaborative computer programming. In this context the word ‘hack’, and the activities people are involved in during these events, has nothing to do with the alternative meaning of the word referring to computer crime) in a more peoplecentred way. The word ‘Lab’ struck a chord with the pair; both were keen to develop the concept of a ‘Community Lab’ as a place where people could go to take part in ‘experiments’ where the results of their activities would feed back into the community. Jon wanted to help set up, deliver and evaluate a series of interconnected Community Labs that were able to harness and harvest the creative talent of the theatre-goers in Leeds to input into the building of a digital publishing platform for the Noise show. In short, the role of the people in the labs was to turn an original playscript into a digital playscript that had a radical new form. The lab itself was set up to amplify the voices of people around Leeds who were interested in reading or ‘digital’.
There are some emerging trends in design driven in part, but not exclusively, by the academic community. These trends focus on including people in the process of identifying and contributing to the creation and development of new products and services. This ongoing democratisation of the process is embodied in academic methods of participatory design and more recent iterations of co-design. Instead of harvesting insights from people’s behaviours or employing extractive methods used in focus groups, designers at least try to include people in the whole process so they are located within it from the beginning. Rogers acknowledges that this proposition works better in theory than practice. When pushed on what advantages the Community Lab offers over traditional design ethnography as a means of collecting insights, or whether there is a genuine difference between the methods used in a Community lab and the process of participatory design, Rogers is clear. “The Community Lab is iterative and there’s an information and activity flow in both directions throughout the process. A focus group has a hierarchy led by a bunch of people who are testing a proposition for a product with a group of people who they believe are relevant to that idea or product. A focus group kicks the tyres on an argument or product – and the information is one way. In a Community Lab there’s some kicking in both directions”. It all sounds as democratic as it is likely to get considering the origins of the funding for an R&D project. Inevitably people granted cash for their endeavours have won it on the basis of their proposition, and as they are accountable to the funding agency for how they spend (public) money, they need to frame some parameters that help them deliver on the promises they made to the funders. The taxpayer would expect no less. That does not mean there is not room to improve existing processes to further the aspirations of those committed to including a wider range of voices in the design process. Whilst the inaugural Community Lab may have resembled a focus group, subsequent workshops employed a range of methods and channels of
communication that attempted to do that. Each Community Lab session gave all participants the opportunity to create a new set of directions for the project as people responded to prototypes that were demonstrated during the labs. There is evidence from participants who say they see their ideas reflected in this approach. Jon is convinced there is no magic involved in the success of the Community Lab. He is adamant that people enjoy doing, and more pertinently in this case, making things together and the elements of socialisation around making things breeds a mutual respect and better understanding of what it means to have shared aims. They also love being involved in the whole process. Beginning, middle and end. Modesty probably prevents Rogers from acknowledging the depth of experience he draws on to fulfil his personal role in making The Noise work. An accomplished product designer in his own right, Rogers has been able to test some of his theories practically on innovative community projects like ‘Bespoke’ using community journalism as design ethnography. Further refinement of the process occurred during the Interactive Newsprint project, working with communities in Preston to develop a new platform for news and information using conductive ink and paper that connected to the internet. The Noise workshops introduced the need to balance the voices of four partners – Unlimited, Storythings, the Community Lab and his own input as design partner with no one making a decision in isolation. Design by committee generally tends to be viewed fairly negatively, but in this case all parties accepted the need for regular consultation. In practice, the overall objectives were agreed by partners at the time of writing the original funding bid and the activities that followed were geared towards its delivery. Jon recounts the decision making process in the run up to a lab as “Us and Uniform working with Jon Spooner to make sure the labs were going to be in the right style and have the right production values. We’d set that against a brief that Storythings provided which went something
like, ‘in order for us to make something, we would like this out of the labs’. Then Jon (Spooner) and I would design that process and deliver a lab”. None of the parties were wedded to the format of the lab. If things were not thought to be working they were quickly replaced – another example of the need for someone with the depth and breadth of experience required to respond to shifting requirements. Rogers has also been impressed by the production values theatre companies can bring to research projects. He quotes Spooner’s mantra, doled out to the Noise project partners at almost every project meeting. “Everything should feel like a play. It’s not just the performance. There’s always an arrival. There’s a drink at the bar. Someone takes you through to your seat with a torch. The lights are dimmed, then to signal that it’s about to begin, the lights will go up and down, the curtains will open and the play begins. Beyond the ethical practices a researcher has, Spooner has a commitment as a producer wanting all the participants in the project to have an amazing time – and that changed a lot for me as a researcher”. Despite Spooner’s enthusiasm and commitment, unsurprisingly there were people who dropped out of the Community Lab early on. Rogers suggested they could do more to engage this small but important group, a group who would like to have been more involved in writing playscripts or coding for the platform. He also feels some of the blame lays at the feet of the funding bodies, who still fail to recognise or reward communities for their participation. He said. There was funding for three partners on this project. The fourth partner that was not funded was the Community Lab. This means there’s still a huge issue with hierarchy. Three people are paid to be there and one isn’t. And with the best intentions of us wanting to make it work, you’re always going in with that in mind. This came out of ‘Participants United’ (an Arts and Humanities research Council project exploring the imbalance of power between researchers, commercial organisations and communities) and it came out of ‘Bespoke’. The problem is, how we make our funders recognise – and pay – our communities as partners? In this case, we
would’ve applied for a four way partnership, with our community as the fourth partner’. That there should be funding for communities to pair up with research projects seems blatantly obvious. It is common practice in commercial settings and widely recognised by the pharmaceutical industry. Arts and cultural funding bodies, to their detriment, conveniently ignore it. Participants are increasingly annoyed that taxes and lottery money is doled out to administrators but never used to recompense those who are currently expected to donate their time and energy to deliver successful projects. As the continuing marketisation of the arts continues, that call looks set to be ignored for some time to come. At the time of writing, Unlimited’s residency at the West Yorkshire Playhouse continues, removing the old research ‘hit and run’ cycle and offering a modicum of permanency beyond the project funding. The Community Lab is credited as a partner on the Noise project. If the new platform they have helped to develop is financially successful, they will become part of its living legacy of commissioning and paying for new work and further contributing to the library of playscripts to be hosted on the platform. Asked for a final thought on how arts organisations might continue to engage with people in future, Rogers is predictably provocative and profoundly practical. He wants to transform our theatres, galleries and museums, those traditional silos for showcasing work. He would like to make them into places that re-enable, through the cultural arts, production in our cities, towns and villages. He would like us to be making things again, and the Community Lab is only the beginning.
Making Noise Rachael Abbey
I saw a call out for community members via the Unlimited website as I was looking at what programs and events were being run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. When I first fully understood what the aim for the piece was, I was doubtful that it would happen. The group was really eclectic so I knew there wouldnâ€™t be a lack of opinion, but to give a script a theatrical feel seemed a bit out there. I was eager to see how the project turned out, and how it tried to include live elements. The Noise project team made a huge effort with the Community Lab, and it was evident from the outset. Each task was appropriately delivered and the details in the styling of the workshop let you know that they really cared for their work. In the first workshop we were given the first third of the script, to give us an idea of the show and the plot and characters involved, which immediately enabled us to get to grips with what kind of performance we were creating this for. The room was divided into areas for each research activity, keeping us moving and engaged with each section. In later workshops, playing with the format of the script and looking into pacing issues, they created fake, paper tablets operated by staff from Storythings in order to get rudimentary prototypes that the community could use. In the first session, several ideas were thrown about, and those that were most popular or that were felt to be most necessary were then taken on by the team and presented to the community at the next session. These ideas were often presented in a very basic format so that the community could get a sense of what was trying to be achieved. Whichever got the best response from the community after a lengthy discussion was developed into the app. We often discussed the various different elements in detail so that we could articulate as a group exactly what needed to be done to make it the most appropriate. One of my favourite ideas that wasnâ€™t developed any further was the text format being set up like a texting screen on a phone. Personally, I found it much easier to read that way and I thought that it
kept the characters very separate so that you knew who was saying what. However the others felt that as soon as there were more than 3 people in a scene it got complicated, which is why the app uses the prose format. When we were in the sessions, I think we felt like a community to some extent, but as soon as we disbanded for the month or two till the next sessions, it became difficult to keep up the momentum of a community. The use of social media to try and continue the community discussion was a good idea in theory, however, as we were using a platform especially for the project rather than something we would use regularly anyway, it meant that many people wouldn’t go onto it enough and conversations were limited. However, as soon as the group came back together, there were no issues about working as a community. There were a couple of people that I got to know during the labs, as they were the ones who came to most of the sessions too. Going for drinks after the sessions also helped the group bond a bit more and allowed us to talk about things other than the project! I loved seeing the progress of the app, coming in and trying new things, then reporting back to the team. The last few sessions were the most rewarding, as we could really see how our input had affected the app. I think it’s hard to keep tracks of what were an individual’s ideas and what came out as a process of discussion. I think a lot of us had very similar idea and in the discussion process the ideas all merged into one and it became a community thought rather than an individual.
Who owns this stuff? Reflections on a Lab. Paul Egglestone
There’s palpable excitement as the Community Lab gather in a small gallery space to get a first glimpse of the fruits of their collective labour. Bottles and glasses scatter across the table between dips and tortilla chips. The gentle hum of conversation occasionally gives way to laughter and cheery hellos as stragglers move through the adjacent coffee shop to join the group. There are introductions, and it soon becomes apparent that not everybody knows each other. There have been two groups taking part in the Community Labs and this is the first time they have been brought together. There is talk of producing the book that you are reading this account in. There is talk of a London launch for the new platform. The offer of free tickets for the opening performance of The Noise was received with audible enthusiasm. Then, choreographed like the dénouement of any play, the curtain lifts on the main event. As with almost any technology ‘reveal’, there are the usual explanations of what features are still to be added. There are also the customary demonstrations of proposed development routes, which demand a little imagination to ‘magic’ the concept prototypes into life. There is a look of satisfaction on almost every face in the room as they see the results of the workshops where they tried to visualise what this evening might look like. It now looks like a successful collaboration between the audience, a theatre company and technologists who together have produced new work, a new way of presenting it and an inclusive process to enable this: the creation of a Community Lab. As the formal proceedings draw to a close, there is opportunity for people to speak openly about the process without the presence of the people who had driven it by virtue of having won the money to deliver a project. Beyond the earshot of the project team, those remaining in the gallery space talk about the Community Lab. They recount their initial meetings. They express their feelings about how well they have been treated by the project team. They wonder about how they were – or have become – a ‘community’ in any real sense of the word. And they ask directly who owns what they have collectively produced.
There was no animosity behind the question, or any sense that anyone really cared about making money out of the project. They did express a desire for recognition for each person in the room who had contributed to the finished project. They believed the lab process had been successful in enabling each of them to input their ideas, and see those ideas nurtured in different ways as the project progressed. Clearly, if the project had failed to produce a product of any merit this conversation would probably never have taken place. The rumblings of disquiet permeate into the next room where the project team were developing a response to the potentially troublesome issue of ownership. Quickly, they reassemble in the gallery space. In a manner that seems to typify the entire approach to Uneditions, Jon Spooner announces that the community would share ownership of the platform. He acknowledges that the egalitarian endeavours of the lab made it almost impossible to segregate their collective activity, so the Community Lab and all its participants would share intellectual property ownership of the new platform and benefit from a slice of any revenues it generates. And in a manner that also seems to typify Uneditions, representatives of the Community Lab suggest that any money they made be used to commission work from new writers specifically for the platform. It would be easy to criticise the project team for not putting IP agreements in place before members of the Community Lab started to input into the development process. It would be justifiable to dismiss the project teamâ€™s creation of a Community Lab as anything other than exploitive, had the project ended without agreements in place. Now the focus must shift towards how best to support the Community Lab in its evolving role as a partner in a commercial product and a commissioner of new art works. This collective activity is the sense in which this group of participants â€“ lab members, theatre company and platform developers - are a community.
How to co-design our digital future Insights
How to co-design our digital future Cast your participants to ensure diversity
Use a sound designer to make the space work
Use Insight Journalism to accountably evaluate
Use the second lab to prototype experiences
Openly share your IP with the community lab
Locate your lab in an exciting and enjoyable space
Make a den for people to escape to
Use the first lab to share experiences and arrive at a common challenge
Use the third lab to iterate the prototypes
Include your community lab when you present to the world
By exploring co-design through the lens of theatre weâ€™ve identified a set of insights that underpinned our co-design process. We hope that you will be able to weave these into your own co-creating processes within your community.
Cast your participants to ensure diversity
Locate your lab in an exciting and enjoyable space
Use a sound designer to make the space work
Make a den for people to escape to
Use Insight Journalism to accountably evaluate
Use the first lab to share experiences and arrive at a common challenge
Use the second lab to prototype experiences
Use the third lab to iterate the prototypes
Openly share your IP with the community lab
Include your community lab when you present to the world
The Future Jon Spooner
As I write this, it is March 2014 and we have published our first story - a version of Unlimited’s most recent show, The Noise, that also includes writers commentary, production photographs, cast and crew biographies and other “Bonus Features” that we and the Community Lab wanted to include in the app. In the next few months we’ll be publishing and testing versions of shows by a few other companies before opening the platform up to anyone who wants to use it. By that stage we’re hoping to have developed a much prettier site that can catalogue our growing library of stories and added a payment option with a range of business models (free, fixed price, pay what you choose) with any payments received going entirely to the artists. And by making the code for the platform freely available on GitHub, if there’s a function you want to add, you can! At Unlimited we’re not only interested in developing creative processes for collaboration, but also the social and political processes that allow us to work together most productively. Over the last 17 years of working together Clare, Chris and I (who co-founded the company) have created many different stories, telling them in many different ways and in many different places. What all of those stories share in common is that they are co-authored and co-written, often in conversation with our audiences. So a collaborative approach to the process of (co) designing this new platform made perfect sense to us. And I’m positive that the end result is better for it - more relevant and more useful to the people who will use it. More beautiful too. It’s been a real pleasure making Uneditions with everyone who’s travelled with us to this point and, if you haven’t worked in this way before, I’d recommend it. Not only are we excited by what we’ve made and the potential it has in the next stages of development, we massively enjoyed the process of making it. We hope you enjoy your experience of it.
The Community Lab Rachael Abbey, Vicky Ackroyd, Liz Cable, Brian Cantwell, Polly Checkland Hardin, Jonquil Claughan, Penny Cunningham, Paul Dixon, Rhiannon Ellis, Emma Finnerty, Zoe Gumbs, Vanessa Guy, Joanne Hartley, Chris Huggins, Rachel Kaye, James Mckay, Christine Moore, Jamie Neil, Peter Panteli, Paul Phillips, Sally Ramsden, Andrew Strachan. Unlimited Theatre unlimited.org.uk @untheatre Creative Director: Jon Spooner Co-Director: Clare Duffy Co-Director: Chris Thorpe Producer: Ric Watts Associate Producer: Joanne Wain Design Team: David Edwards, Gareth Fry, Rhys Jarman, Pete Malkin, Katharine Williams Executive Director: Mark Hollander Administrator: Alison McIntyre Bookkeeper: Alex Smith Product Research Studio, University of Dundee productresearch.dundee.ac.uk Research partner: University of Dundee Workshop Co-Design: Uniform Insight Journalism: Media Innovation Studio Storythings storythings.com @storythings Matt Locke Silvia Novak Kim Plowright Design: Dean Vipond Prototype Development: Nicky Thompson Platform Development: Chris Thorpe App Development: Stuart Langridge at Click App Development: Erroll Roberts at Click App Development: Fergus Morrow at Click Head of Delivery: Hollie Wilmott at Click
Published on Jun 16, 2014
The story of how Unlimited Theatre, Storythings and Professor Jon Rogers led a process to co-design a new digital reading experience with a...