CHI 2018: Strategies for Engaging Communities in Creating Physical Civic Technologies

Our second CHI paper this year is also from the Ardler Inventors project, picking up a little further down the line during the second and third stages of the project. The ultimate aim of the project was to explore how we could use hackathon-like events, which we called Inventor Days, to catalyse a community of people from Ardler in Dundee around using technology to support their local area. This built on our findings from previous fieldwork around hackathons.

We discussed the Inventor Days themselves in detail at DIS last year, but this paper takes a higher-level, end-to-end look at the different strategies used across the length of the project to support people in creating their own physical technologies for their local area.

You can find a pre-print online here and the final paper will be open access from the end of April.


We’ve been doing research with neighbourhood-scale technology for nearly 12 years now, working with communities like Wray, Callon & Fishwick and Byker. A key issue that emerged repeatedly through these projects was that, although situated and physical technologies like the Wray Photo Display or Viewpoint were positively received and played useful roles in the local area, these research prototypes often didn’t outlast the project they were associated with.

Instead, our latest work has tried to understand how we can create skills, enthusiasm and relationships that would help a community to identify new uses for technology in their local area, prototype ideas and try them out themselves. This paper describes our experiences of designing and testing a number of strategies:

Inventor Days. These hackathon-like events were the backbone of the project, which aimed to bring together residents from Ardler with members of Dundee’s creative and maker communities. Through a series of three events, residents and makers explored the neighbourhood, developed ideas for their local area and prototyped early versions together. One of the most successful approaches at this stage was re-orienting the events around local knowledge rather than technology, casting attendees from Ardler as the experts.

Inventor Kits. For the next stage, we took ideas generated through the Inventor Days and created kits that could be assembled and modified by community members. This was intended to explore how ideas from one neighbourhood could be replicated and built upon other communities, and how the provision of simple physical prototyping components could support creativity. Something that worked well at this stage was the perception of the kits as a kind of gift, which respected their earlier efforts while allowing them to create a much more finished version.

Community-Led Deployments. Finally, we wanted to understand what challenges participants would face in actually deploying and testing the things they had designed. It was important to both us and the participants that the things that they built actually saw the light of day, even in some temporary form. Alongside the practical difficulties, one of the main things we noticed at this stage was the importance to participants of showing their work to others and gaining feedback in controlled settings, whereas we pushed towards full deployments to test the ideas.

Key Findings

The paper has a lot of practical lessons from each of these stages, some of which I’ve touched on above, but I’ll focus here on some of the higher-level emergent themes in the results that will be most useful to people trying to engage communities in this kind of activity.

Motivations. Going into the project, our framing was largely about solving problems, but community members never responded particularly strongly to this. While most neighbourhoods have their issues, few immediately lend themselves to the type of technologies we were using. Instead, their motivations were about developing skills, expressing themselves and doing things together as a family. As we found during the deployments, the rewards they gained were similarly centred around personal development. This suggests to us that HCI needs to move beyond exclusively framing neighbourhood-level applications of technology in terms of problem-solving.

Ownership and investment. At every stage of the process, we tried to install in a sense of ownership over the prototypes, and it seemed like participants felt real pride in them. But in hindsight, it’s clear that they didn’t have much ownership of the process itself, which was very much driven by us. It’s clear that some degree of bootstrapping is necessary, whether that’s from outside or within the community, but we needed to be more active in ceding increasing control to the community at an earlier stage.

Scaling and maintaining enthusiasm. Finally, our goal was to create something sustainable, and while there are some signs of ongoing activity, this proved to be very difficult. The tight-knit group of core participants was a hugely positive experience for us, but it also made it difficult for new people from the neighbourhood to join in later. As well as thinking about how this core group of participants can be supporting in taking ownership and leading the process, we also need to think about ways to make that process more transparent to others in the neighbourhood and support more lightweight types of participation.

Community Inventor Days in Ardler

A couple of weeks ago I presented our paper Community Inventor Days: Scaffolding Grassroots Innovation with Maker Events at DIS 2017 in Edinburgh. It’s the first publication from our Ardler Inventors project, summing up the series of three hackathon-like events that we ran in Ardler last summer.

The paper is open access and available from the ACM Digital Library.

Since I completely failed to blog about the second and third events, I’m going to summarise the paper a little here…

Ardler Inventor Days

Way back in August last year, I wrote about the first Inventor Day, where we brought together people from Ardler in Dundee with makers from Dundee and further afield. The idea was that by forging relationships, creating skills ands generating enthusiasm, we could enable communities to build their own civic technologies. By the end of that first event, we’d made a lot of progress towards bringing everybody together as a group and had a good idea of the type of things we might want to make over the next two events.

The other events focused more on prototyping and making, first by introducing a wide range of hardware prototyping platforms (Arduino kits, Raspberry Pis and plenty of glue guns), and then by moving the third event to Dundee Makerspace for physical prototyping using the laser cutter. We also wanted to introduce the makerspace as a facility that the group could continue to access, where they might find support and equipment that the project had provided.

In the paper, we focus largely on the journeys of two key participants from Ardler who attended all three events, who we’ll call Steve and Rebecca. Steve came along with his son and daughter and worked with a few different people to drive forward his idea for a digital noticeboard. But even better was what happened in between the events: more than anyone else, Steve was continuing to explore electronics (including dismantling a plug-in air freshener to scavenge a PIR sensor), as well as seeking out opinions on their ideas. Rebecca was similarly focused on realising her idea for a musical game that would help to keep children away from a busy road. She started off exploring electronics and getting stuck into Arduino programming, but decided it wasn’t something she enjoyed and wished she’d experimented instead with some of the conductive inks we’d brought along. At the third event, she was more in her element, able to draw on her interest in craft when it came to building the physical device.

What Happened Next?

The main goal of this project was to try build relationships and enthusiasm that would outlast the project itself, so it’s important not just to look at the events, but also what happened afterwards. We held quite a few small “aftercare” events after the main ones, including inviting everyone to our studio and a showcase event in the community. At each of these, we were struck by how much they felt like a group of friends coming back together.

We also saw continuing activity clearly linked to the Inventor Days. Steve had really gotten hooked on electronics and had worked on a number of projects with his children, including Arduino-powered Halloween decorations. Rebecca had started a science club at the local primary school, which had originally emerged out of conversations with the school about the events.

We’ve seen less ongoing engagement with the makers, and I think that’s partly because we’d needed to bring many of them in from other cities, but also because we didn’t fully identify or communicate what the value of the events was for makers. It was pretty clear people from Ardler got a lot out of it, and I think the makers did too, but was it enough to keep them engaged in the community?

What Did We Learn?

Something that emerged in various was across the project was the value of situating making in the familiar. Most people are not intrinsically motivated by technology or the act of making itself, but we found we could involve people in these kind of activities if it was motivated around things they cared about: improving their community, or having a fun Saturday with their kids. This also emerged in the sorts of roles people were playing in groups: they brought their own knowledge and skills that could be drawn upon.

The second major finding relates back to the project’s goals of sustainability and legacy. While it’s true that our intervention as researchers was essential in facilitating the events, we did establish the feasibility of short-burst interventions for bootstrapping this kind of activity in the community. I think this is significant, because it brings what we did into the realms of possibility for a lot of community organisations and local authorities, who don’t have the capacity to do the kind of deeply engaged multi-year community technology projects we’ve done in the past. Running two or three events to jump-start the sort of enthusiasm we saw in Ardler, on the other hand, is well within their reach.

We’ve kept in touch with Ardler since the end of the project, and hopefully we can work with them again in the future. But in the meantime, we’re excited to sit back and see what our participants get up to on their own!

Ardler Inventor Day #1: Getting To Know You

When you’re doing research with communities, the first event is always the most nerve-wracking. You’ve made all the contacts, been to the community festival, dished out a small forest’s worth of flyers and posters, bought plenty of biscuits.

But will anyone actually turn up?

Repurposing Hackathons for Everyone

The Ardler Inventor Days are being run as part of the EPSRC Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement project. The idea is to investigate whether hackathons—intensive bursts of creative tinkering with technology—could be used to support communities in developing unique technologies to serve their local needs. Working with Dundee’s Ardler community over a series of three events, we’ll be trying to bring people from Ardler together with researchers and makers to share knowledge and imagine new ideas.

Hackathons are usually the domain of techies and programmers, but we want to find out if we can take the basic idea out into communities, tweak it a little bit, and use it as a way to unlock creativity and build relationships that will last much longer than our research project.

As it happened, the turnout for the first Ardler Inventor Day last weekend was about what we’d hoped. About eight people joined us in the Ardler Complex: young and old, father and son, mother and daughter, even three generations from one family! Along with Loraine and me from the university, and three or four friends from the maker community, it made for a group that was a little more intimate than your typical hackathon, but that we thought was the perfect scale for a meaningful community event.

I don’t think anyone knew quite what to expect (including us), but after an ice breaker to get people’s creative juices flowing—teams were challenged to build the tallest Marshmallow supporting structure they could using just spaghetti, tape and string (hint: triangles are your friend, but build the base nice and wide)—and some demos of creative technologies from our makers, we were ready to go.

Designing with Communities

The other big unknown about this first event was: will anything useful come out of it?

It’s hard to know how people would respond to the event we’d put together and how successful we’d be in getting people’s creative juices flowing. At most hackathons, everybody there knows roughly what to expect, and they’ve probably been to hackathons before. But outside of that community, most people aren’t used to being creative on demand.

After guided tours round the community, it was clear we needn’t have worried. From traffic problems and safe routes to school, to the things that were lost when the estate was rebuilt, through to Ardler’s famous Santa’s grotto and local legends about witches and crocodiles, the things that were emerging were a mix of the issues faced by communities up and down the country with things that had a unique Ardler flavour.

Add a lot of craft materials and a bucket full of Lego, and things began to move along on their own accord. There was a lot of richness in the things that were coming out of the workshop and we’re already excited about picking these ideas back up at the next Inventor Day… and trying hard to remember we’re not supposed to be coming up with things ourselves!

The second Ardler Inventor Day is less than two weeks away, on August 27th at the Ardler Complex. Next time, we’ll be developing some of the ideas further and beginning to play around with some technology. If you live in Ardler, if you’re involved in the Ardler community somehow, or if you’re a maker or creative from anywhere in Dundee, get in touch if you’d like to join us for the next event, and see what can create together!

Launching: Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement

Hacking Logo SmallIn November, we kicked off Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement, a project funded by EPSRC to explore how hackathons can be used to design civic technologies with communities. Over the course of the project, we’ll be running a series of hackathons with the Ardler community in Dundee to identify and attempt to address some local issues with civic technologies. As the project gets under way, I wanted to explain a bit about the motivations for doing it.

Leaving the Wild

My research has always been about long-term engagement with people to develop technologies that support their local community. In Wray, we worked with a rural community over four or five years to iteratively develop digital noticeboards, while Bespoke used citizen journalism to inspire the design of unique technologies in an area of Preston. The goal is to build cool stuff that responds to particular local needs, and which hopefully has some real and sustainable effect on the community.

But as these projects drew to a close, a recurring theme began to emerge: handing over the technology to the community at the end was pretty difficult. In Wray, we’d always said they could keep the displays at the end, but we hadn’t counted on hardware failures immediately afterwards. Bespoke had likewise planned to hand things over when we finished, but ultimately failed to do so. I wrote a paper about it—Leaving the Wild—suggesting some steps we could take to minimise the difficulties.

Top Down vs Grassroots

ViewpointMore recently, my research has drifted towards civic engagement and activism, aiming to get people more involved in how their communities are run. On Bespoke, we developed Viewpoint, a device that collected feedback from the community by posting questions in public spaces like shops and community centres.

However, while we talked about empowering the community, looking back with a critical eye it’s clear that both the device itself (designed by us) and the questions being asked (by the council and housing organisations), we all operating in a top-down kind of way. I look back and wonder if we could have done more to give citizens a voice, rather than making them passive respondents. PosterVote was partly a response to this, but ultimately it’s usage is still restricted by the form of the device that we designed.

Towards Sustainable Local Innovation

Together, these two problems lead towards an obvious solution: can communities be supporting in building their own stuff?

This is easier said than done, of course. Developing skills and creating a culture of applying these skills to local issues is a big task, and one we don’t intend to solve in its entirety. Rather, this project aims to examine just one piece of the puzzle. We’ll be looking at whether hackathons—intensive bursts of activity around the creation of new technologies—can be used to bring together community members and makers to discuss local issues and propose solutions, while creating enthusiasm around technology and the possibilities it presents. We’ll also be exploring how we can document and share these processes and the things we develop, so that other communities—ones who don’t have a research project working with them—can replicate and take inspiration from the same ideas.

The bulk of the project will take place later in the year, but in the meantime we’ll be attending other people’s hackathons around Scotland and UK to figure out how hackathons are already been appropriated for other purposes. You can keep up with us on the project website, as well as on Twitter.

Four Makerspaces and a Shed

Over the past three months, I’ve been doing site visits to maker and hacker spaces across Scotland. For the first phase of In the Making, we’re surveying existing facilities in the UK to identify what opportunities and challenges they might present to disabled users.

Two Types of Space

MakLab © STV Photos

MakLab © STV Photos

It quickly became clear that makerspaces fell into two categories. There are large and (reasonably) well-resourced commercial spaces that act as service providers, aiming to make digital fabrication tools available to a wide range of people. Then there are smaller, less well-resourced community spaces started by groups of enthusiasts who primarily want a space to meet like-minded makers. But there’s also a gradient between the two categories, and it’s clear that some of the smaller spaces have the ambitions to grow and reach a wider audience.

What we haven’t found is many examples of makerspaces being used by disabled people, which was perhaps to be expected. There are some examples of DIY assistive technologies being built, most notably in the form of 3D printed prosthetics, but we’re interested in what usage might exist beyond assistive technologies. What we did find is a lot of examples of spaces large and small reaching out to wider audiences, including people with disabilities, through public events, mobile facilities and partnerships with various organisations. But resourcing these outreach activities was a struggle, especially for the smaller spaces.

I was particularly drawn to the therapeutic aspects of craft and making. This was evident in collaborations between makerspaces, arts organisations and disabilities charities, where the act of making is found to be much more important than what is made. But it was also evident in the community spirit of the smaller makerspaces, where the value of having the space and collocating otherwise solitary activities far outstripped the value of the activities themselves. Happily, my final visit underlined this spectacularly.

Westhill Men’s Shed

A Men's Shed in Mosman © Mosman Council

A Men’s Shed in Mosman © Mosman Council

Westhill Men’s Shed is part of an international network of sheds where men, mostly retired, come to work on projects in the workshop, but they also come to chat, play cards, drink tea, take cookery lessons and use ICT facilities. Underpinning all of this is a focus on mental health and emotional wellbeing—although this is not foregrounded due to the stigmas attached, particularly in the eyes of older men.

When I visited on a Friday lunchtime, the Shed was far busier than any makerspace I visited with somewhere between 12 and 20 members present. The wellbeing outcomes that they have seen are astounding. An analysis by the Scottish Men’s Shed Association has shown a tenfold return on investment, as members are happier and healthier, requiring and finding themselves requiring less medication. Individual stories are no less remarkable—men who have retired or lost their wives, given a lifeline and a new sense of purpose. Just as impressively, the Shed has become self-sufficient by selling the things they make and upcycling donated tools.

Beyond the amazing qualities of the Men’s Shed, what struck me most was the similarity to many of the makerspaces that I’d visited, particularly the smaller ones. The tools—and the attendees—might be a bit more old-school, but in both cases, the existence of the workshop itself was incidental—what was important was that it brought people together. I thought it was interesting that by targeting a particular community with shared experiences and issues, rather than a particular set of fabrication technologies, Men’s Sheds had been able to propagate across Scotland much faster than makerspaces. I think makerspaces could probably learn a lot from what they’ve achieved.

Next Up

With the first stage of the project complete, we’ll be applying what we’ve learned to a series of workshops with disabled people in Salford through the second half of the year. A launch event for the programme will be hosted in the BBC’s MediaCityUK building at the end of July.