Professor Jon Rogers, Chair of Creative Technology of the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art at the University of Dundee reflects on academic discovery at UnBox 2014.
Take seventeen academic researchers and eighteen creative practitioners, from two continents. Place them in a lab with no equipment, no processes and no defined aims, for two weeks in North West India and see what emerges. Sounds a bit like a proposal for a new reality show called something along the lines of “I’m A Researcher, Get Me Out Of Here!”? Welcome to Unbox Labs 2014, where I joined for an incredible week of undirected discovery on the theme of Future Cities.
The brilliance of what the Unbox Labs set out to do and what it achieved was remarkable. It did this through an open and emergent, live, process that enabled voices from across a diverse group participants to be heard and for unexpected activity to take place. It put people together that would never have happened without the existence of this pop-up lab based at the heart of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.
In this follow up post as my experience of mentor, I wanted to provide some reflections on what made it work quite so well and some of the things I took away that I hope will be relevant to our research communities in the UK and India.
A Vision For The Unknown: The Unbox Team.
The Unbox Team is without a doubt a powerful force for collaboration and original thinking at the interface between creative practice and the cultural economy. As a research asset and model for best practice I recommend that we understand more about how they work and how we could apply their thinking in new projects. Their vision for understanding that collaboration for exploring unknown territories is something we should learn more about. I have no doubt that if Unbox were not involved, we would have had a very different and inferior event and experience.
The right hosts: NID, Praveen and Tanishka
Situating the lab in the super connected, design led, institution of NID enabled a safe place to take risks and push barriers of thinking. The support of two senior and highly supportive members of staff, Praveen Nahar and Tanishka Kachru (and their wonderful studnets), enabled several projects to happen that simply wouldn’t have been possible without their drive. Loraine Gammon working with the Ahmedabad prison is an example of this in practice. Given that NID is a unique institution (we don’t have anything quite like it within the UK), it would be worth exploring and understanding how we can deepen our relationship with NID. And also if we were to take this process to different countries, we should look at what other international locations would work in a similar way. In particular NID’s connection within the city to the makers, NGOs, industry, government, and community groups, enabled projects to quickly locate with people and places within the city.
What processes are needed? Open Vs Closed facilitation.
It is fair to say that there was some anxiety from the lab participants on the processes that the Lab went through. The highly open, emergent and unstructured process was difficult for some of the participants. However, is the future not highly unstructured and open, and that in order to navigate this we require disruptive challenging processes that enable unexpected collaborations to emerge. I think that as a research community we need to evolve our processes for collaboration beyond sandpit-style funding-focussed facilitation into something more sophisticated that embraces the uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with open discovery.
Values over goals
To continue a bit more, if I may, with the theme of open exploration, the Unbox Labs approach based on values meant that people were able to collaborate based on a shared ethos than on a direct end goal. This approach feels highly appropriate in early stage collaborations in highly contrasting experiences and environments. It would be a useful exercise to think about how we can enable lab participants to better articulate their values and to know how to use their values as a process of guiding activity. This might be something we do prior to a lab, as a form of pre-heating a value-based culture of discovery.
As an art, design and humanities research community we need to find new ways to grow our research in relation to international understanding. The global world we live in requires us to nurture and develop highly sophisticated internationally connected researchers that are able to respond to multi-national and highly diverse challenges. Art, Design and the Humanities have the capacity to lead human-facing research that will unlock opportunities and discovery that can respond to these challenges. To do this with thirty-five diverse thinkers for two weeks in India exploring the future of the city was an exciting step towards a future of research that I for one am looking forward to. Next up, Unbox Festival in November!
Professor Jon Rogers, University of Dundee