1. No such thing as a digital affordance 

The Creative Exchange PhD program has been struggling with the meaning of the phrase ‘Digital Public Space’, which all of the researchers on the program are meant in some way to address. The phrase was originally coined at the BBC as it tried to work out it’s own digital strategy and the CX inherited it. It seems to somehow suck everyone into demotic vortex.  One reason for this is the word ‘space’, which alongside its physical meaning is used metaphorically so widely that instantly sows confusion (head space / cyberspace / phase space / problem space / design space… ). You could just loose the word space and then the phrase become much more like digital civics, which I find a little more transparent.

The Research Through Design conference we thought a lot about how researchers’ individual practices can be used to effect change in the world while also generating research knowledge. I found the opportunity to consider foundational issues very helpful, and it made me realise that regardless of whether your practice is about knitting, lego, drones or workshops, from a design perspective you can define a set of affordances that characterise how people will interact with your work.

This brings me to the word ‘digital’. The word digital is absolutely content-free in regard of specifying anything about how people interact with your work, and therefore, at extremely tenuous in terms of its design consequences.

So when the CX program endeavours to collect together research using ‘digital’ as a parameter it struggles to find any way to get purchase on anyone’s particular practice. Nearly any innovation is going to have some digital aspect to it, simply in virtue of the fact that it’s an innovation in a profoundly digitised society.

For example, Chris Csikszentmihalyi’s RootIO, which I though was a fantastic project, is all about FM radio. But it makes perfect sense that it has a web interface, and various other digital aspects, just because that’s a logical way to build it. In fact, in many ways it’s a stop gap solution until Uganda has Internet infrastructure. In many ways it recreates the hyperlocal media that’s been made possible by the web. Calling this project digital or analogue is an arbitrary label. Digital isn’t a helpful design category.

2. Not about the app store 

Nick Grant repurposed a number of apps to make his Young Digital Citizenship project. As he pointed out in his presentation, developing a native phone app is very expensive and uncertain process, which makes it a bad fit for research. More than that, nearly all the functionality that comes from a native app can be achieved in HTML5, which means the main reason for building an app is for the business model that the app store provides. In most research contexts this isn’t going to be relevant. Nick’s approach to using what already exists is a great way to get around the expense of development, which I think in general turns out to be an albatross.

3. Not about the artefact

There was a lot of discussion about whether Research Through Desing requires building an artefact – can you build a system instead? Or software? I think this was mostly triggered by the conference organisers asking speakers to show tangible objects, which are more compelling in the context of a conference. I don’t think this was a philosophical statement, just a practical one. Overall, I felt the project of defining ‘research through design’ by categories of practice or output is a bit futile. To me it seems that ‘research through design’ is research carried out by people who think of themselves as designers, or who have attached themselves to design culture, and there probably isn’t a lot more to usefully say about it, except perhaps to point out empirically it’s success or otherwise.





I recently listened to a lecture by Gillian Tett from the FT, a lot of which focused on trust. One of the startling things she pointed out was that while trust in politics, media and banking has gone down, trust in tech companies and our social peers has gone up.

Trust online is an interesting question. We’re comfortable with shopping via the web, but as we come to other kinds of transactions we’re still a little uncertain.

I’ve rented out a room in my flat via Airbnb for about 6 months. Lots of people have asked  if I’ve had weirdos stay (no), and what stops people stealing my stuff while I’m out. My mum asked if I was worried about the Brighton Strangler coming to stay, which Google tells me is a reference to a film released in 1945  (IMDb). The film is set in East London, which might explain the reference, but as yet he hasn’t come round.

It does make sense that letting people who are basically strangers live in your home might turn out to be a problem, but so far it hasn’t been at all. There is a backstop in case of a disaster, Airbnb realise they have to sort you out if it goes wrong and have good insurance. But this only works if violations of trust aren’t common place.

I like to think the main reason it works is because most people are basically good. But the Airbnb community does a lot to enforce good behavior, including very thorough and practically mandatory reviews by both guests and hosts. It also lets you link Facebook and Twitter to your profile – I can see the number of Facebook friends a guest has, which lends a level of assurance that it’s not a false identity. They can see mine too.

While we’ve still got the wild west of anonymous YouTube comments and the like, on Airbnb and other similar sites (Task Rabbit is one I’m interested in), it seems that people can be relied upon to behave with nearly as much responsibility as they do in the real world.

Whatever the case, compared with other sectors tech companies are seen as trustworthy – and I guess trust in Airbnb and trust in the people using it are completely intertwined. The chart below comes from the Edelman trust survey.

As well as trusting tech companies, we also seem to trust what we hear from our peers. Perhaps we are moving towards a less hierarchical approach to who we trust.