Research beyond borders


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Immersive, inspired and collaborative – a view from India’s unbox festival

Laura Bones from the AHRC writes about the Unbox fesitval

In December 2014 I attended the UnBox festival in Delhi. The UnBox festival is an interdisciplinary festival which brings together professionals from many different sectors, to encourage inspiration and collaboration.

3 X 4 workshop. Photo courtesy of Vivek Muthuramalingam

3 X 4 workshop. Photo courtesy of Vivek Muthuramalingam

In February 2014, the AHRC funded 8 UK researchers to go to the UnBox LABS at the National Institute of Design, in Ahmedabad, along with UK and Indian creative practitioners and researchers. This was an immersive 10 day experience where participants were given the opportunity to network and develop joint project ideas. The AHRC funded 4 follow-on projects from the LABS and it was great to see these showcased at the UnBox festival. The workshops and display boards showed how the projects had developed from those initial ideas at the LABS stage.

One project which proved very popular was ‘3×4’. They demonstrated their immersive telematic environment, which merged two 3×4 metre room installations, one at the Southbank centre in London and one in Khoj International Artists Association, Delhi. This gave participants the opportunity to explore and play across the digital space. It was fun to be able to interact with participants in another country through the merged image and to be able to co-create the background images. The installation was deliberately 3×4 metres in size, as this is the plot size provided in some resettlement colonies in India, and the project team wished to see how participants explored the qualities and values built through self-organised communities that are lost in the resettlement process. They will go on to analyse the footage of the interactions and see how people reacted differently to the space.

3 x 4 unbox workshop. Photo courtesy of Vivek Muthuramalingam

3 x 4 unbox workshop. Photo courtesy of Vivek Muthuramalingam

Overall the festival was a great mix of workshops, talks, performances, visits and conversations. It has a really informal atmosphere which allows people the opportunity to talk and explore. I really enjoyed seeing how the AHRC projects had developed since the LABS stage and I attended some great workshops, ranging from topics such as gender discrimination to the Indian Mars mission. I also got to talk to a diverse range of people, from design consultants to local craftspeople.

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A Lab Built From Values: Reflections on UnBox Labs 2014

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.

unconference_blogA 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.

praveen and tanishka blogThe 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.

building_teams_blogWhat 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.

skill_blogValues 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

Click here to read other blog posts from UnBox 2014


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A conversation about cities is a bit like a conversation about fashion

Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the University of the Arts London, reflects on international collaboration at the UnBox Labs 2014.

As a researcher, fashion designer and city dwelling citizen, I seek each day to navigate a path through our shifting, vibrant, delicate world, to explore ways to interact with others and with nature and to contribute to our shared existence through the things that I make and do. I, as many others, seek to make good things. This means that we need to tread carefully, as what might seem the best next move as an individual, could become the cumulative worst move for everybody, in the words of Gareth Hardin, the tragedy of the commons.

So it is with great delight that I am setting out in a few days time through an AHRC fellowship, to meet 34 other fellows and collaborators from the British Council at UNBOX labs 2014, Ahmadabad, India. We will work together and with some great mentors, from around the world and share insights from our own experiences.

We come together through a shared understanding of some of the challenges and possibilities of our increasingly urbanized world, not simply to look for answers, but to explore the frames of mind that we need to adopt, the boundary crossing relationships that we need to build and the actions that we need to take in sustainable city making.

A conversation about cities is a bit like a conversation about fashion – it evokes strong and mixed feelings about some of the best and worst aspects of our humanity. Each can represent some of the most incredible environments and demonstrations of ingenuity as well as some of the most destructive inequalities between people and lack of regard of nature.

We are rapidly changing location, having already crossed the tipping point of being a predominantly rural based species to one where more of us are living in cities than not and this change in the context of humanity necessitates a deep re-thinking of what we do, how we do it and then a resolve to think and do differently.

In my work, I explore the principles of sustainability as a critical lens through which to expand out the possibilities of what fashion might be when considered as the barometer of time, place and culture. If fashion is to offer relevant manifestations of identity in our times, it needs to deeply explore sustainability and to choose its activities and make its artefacts accordingly. I look forward to sharing with insights from the labs on my return as one of many means to connect one vibrant city with another.


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Multinational and multicultural collaboration

Professor Jon Rogers, Chair of Creative Technology of the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art at the University of Dundee contributes this short blog post about his motivations for working collaboratively and internationally ahead of UnBox 2014.

unbox_nightlifeResearch in The Arts is in an incredibly interesting place. A place that confidently owns its research processes through, and by, practice in a multinational and multicultural world.  Internally we are challenging notions of scholarship to include research knowledge embedded within artefacts, paintings, films,  photographs and performances.  We are able to look beyond the formal traditions of paper-based scholarship in a way that acts as a beacon from the future of what it means to be an academic. In early February a Guardian article argued that were Peter Higgs (#nobelprize  #godparticle)  to attempt to repeat his speculative research in todays ‘publish or perish’ environment then he simply wouldn’t have been able to.  This may very well be true for our colleagues in physics, but I for one was proud to have submitted two object-based REF returns. One, an exhibition that included a life-size laser-etched statue of a urban-grime rapper from Preston; the other an experimental newspaper that physically connected people to the internet through capacitive touch. 

It was during London Design Festival, where my two REF returns were taking shape in the embodiment of knowledge through practice, that Justin Marshal (Falmouth University) and I met with a visiting group of designers and cultural leaders from India who were on a British Council funded exploration of UK design.  Babitha George, from the creative agency Quicksand and Aanchal Sodhani were two of the members of the group who were looking for people to connect with for the Unbox Festival in 2013.

I’d met Justin at the exhibition at 100% and I had loved the Bespoke project and we’d definitely would be interested in supporting something in India. If the dates for NID could be worked out in a way that you can coincide it with UNBOX, it would be great to have Jon here and discuss plans. Keep us informed!” 

unbox_viewpointAnd who wouldn’t want to work with people who send such inviting emails!   What followed was a wonderful inspiring week-long project based on the Bespoke Project, where Justin and I, along with two Bespoke colleagues Paul Egglestone and David Frohlich, delivered a series of workshops connecting Insight Journalism to social design challenges in Delhi. And what a festival. The blurring of local and global practices, with academic and industry approaches, was refreshing, inspiring and intellectually robust. Talks by John Thackara were mingled with workshops on the future of the museum; craft workshops with branding by smell; classical Indian music with German techno.  I’ve not been treated so well as a participant on every possible scale of measuring an event. I left inspired and with a refreshed belief that the very best research takes place outwith our cherished publications.   It is with delight that I have been invited back as a mentor for this year’s Unbox Festival Labs – a two week event that hopes to:

 “…catalyze cross-disciplinary projects built on collaborations and dialogue, through an immersive, hands-on lab experience over 10 days, around the broad theme of ‘Future Cities’.

unbox_stageThe Lab is being hosted by the world-renowned National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad where I am currently running a research workshop on physical data India. While here I’m  scoping people and places that our Lab participants might connect to when they arrive on Monday.

And don’t worry if you’ve missed out on the Unbox Lab Fellowships, Unbox Festival will be returning in October 2014 and let’s chat over a chai and see what the future looks like for UK research connecting with the very best of India.


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Call for Applications: UnBox LABS 2014

AHRC/British Council/UnBox/SIN: UK-India Joint Funding Initiative

The UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council is delighted to announce a call for applications to attend the UnBox LABS in India in February 2014.

The UnBox LABS 2014 is an exciting project that brings together creative practitioners, artists and researchers from the UK & India for a 10-day lab experience that explores the theme of ‘FUTURE CITIES’. The project is a collaboration between UnBox, British Council, the AHRC, Science & Innovation Network, supported by the REACT Creative Economy Hub and the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India.

8 successful AHRC applicants will be selected to attend, together with Indian researchers and UK and Indian creative practitioners. The LABS will be guided by principles of design led thinking, co-creation and action research and allow participants to self-select their fellow team members, exploring ideas and developing responses to the challenges of our city futures.

Find out more about this call on the AHRC website.


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UnBox – last minute applications to India opportunity welcome!

Are you interested in film? narrative? digital media? law? Due to unforeseen circumstances, we are looking for an additional person to travel to India to be part of the ‘Unbox’ initiative previously announced. They would be working on the ‘UnVeil’ opportunity, looking at creative ways to convey parliamentary information to a public audience.

Applicants should be fit for travel in early 2013, hold a current passport, and foresee no difficulties in applying for an Indian visa. Applicants must be able to commit to travel to India for the fellowship and the Festival (early January 2013 to February 10th 2013). Although the scheme states it is expected you will go for five weeks – given the timescale we are open to considering shorter durations.

Deadline is 4pm on Tuesday 18th December, but please contact Katie Lambert asap if you think you are interested. k.lambert@ahrc.ac.uk or 01793 416049. Have a look at the scheme page for more detail.


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UnBOX Research Fellowships – a UK-India Joint Funding Initiative

Hot of the press!

AHRC have this morning announced a call for short term researcher fellowships in India.

This opportunity is part of a collaboration between the AHRC, British Council, UnBox festival and the UK’s Science and Innovation Network. It will enable successful applicants to spend up to five weeks in India in early January 2013 working on relevant research challenges. 

Applications are invited from researchers interested in undertaking a short-term fellowship with one of a variety of hosts in India in the run up to the 2013 UnBox Festival (6-10 Feb 2013) in Delhi. 

 The UnBox Festival builds momentum around design thinking and interdisciplinary collaborations to drive sustainable innovation for businesses, society and culture in India.

Successful applicants will form part of small teams working on research relevant challenges at each host for 3-4 weeks leading up to the festival. They will also attend the festival itself, where they will have the chance to bid for further AHRC small-scale funding to continue collaborations. 

Further details about this exciting opportunity are available on the AHRC’s website, here.