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!