Ardler Inventor Day #1: Getting To Know You

IMG_9490When 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.

IMG_3825Hackathons 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.

IMG_9564I 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.

IMG_9567After 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!

Ardler Fun Day

3d print 3In June, we attended the Ardler Community Fun Day. It was so exciting to see the variety of things on show from Ardler Village and meet some of the community who might take part in our future ‘Ardler Inventor Days’ (hackathons). We chatted to a range of people from those who have lived in the community for over 40 years, some who are interested in using their skills such as embroidery or cross stitching and others who are interested in playing with new technology. Our stand, showed off a taster of the technology we could use for the ‘Ardler Inventor Days’.

We had a model of Ardler Village with 3D printed houses that lit up with LEDs, a 3D printer printing houses from Ardler and some musical embroidery for people to try out. These were all made using technology we can use for the ‘Ardler Inventor Days’.

Sign up for the ‘Ardler Inventor Days’ here 


Launching: Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement

In 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 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

More 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 here, as well as on Twitter.