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Reflecting on ‘Imagination now & next’ at the Festival of Futures

Report by Nigel Thompson, 8 March 2024

Date Published: 09 May 2024

After the challenges of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the unknown effects of conflicts, the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts felt like an oasis of hope in an uncertain world.

Professor Nick Dunn’s opening words set the tone for an event which demonstrated how creative collaborative partnerships have been formed. “Design research has power: it can profoundly benefit people, places and the planet. But in order to do that, we need design research to question the sort of business-as-usual approaches and create new ways of doing things, demonstrating not simply just what could be plausible in the future but why it might be necessary.”

As Executive Director of ImaginationLancaster and Chair of Urban Design Professor Dunn’s team have experienced at first hand how ingenuity and foresight have brought benefits for people living close to the Lancaster campus.

Lancaster City Council covers the city, coast and countryside in which Lancaster University is a major employer and economic driver.

Working with the local authority has helped dismiss any claims that the campus at Bailrigg is a world away from the issues facing people living in Bowerham or Bare, according to the council’s Chief Executive Mark Davies.

He told delegates of his surprise that colleagues at other councils didn’t enjoy the same kind of relationship: “I’m thinking surely that must happen in your area? But it doesn’t. There’s still this sense of town and gown that pervades where you’ve got two organisms who just come together to shake hands occasionally and have a nice municipal dinner or whatever.”

In Lancaster’s case work on an ambitious Council Plan has been possible thanks to the research and engagement that’s happened through the Beyond Imagination programme. Knowing the authority has the backing of the university, along with common interests, has led to the secondment of staff and other forms of collaboration.

According to Mr Davies, as the council has lost 40 pence in the pound over the last decade, thinking differently has been at the centre of working out how to do more with less.

Sustainable Futures

And the theme of helping communities continued in the Sustainable Futures session which allowed those who’ve worked with ImaginationLancaster an opportunity to set out the difference collaboration has made.

A former bank in Blackburn town centre is home to The Making Rooms, a community interest company where new technology and established trades come together to enable people of all ages to learn sustainable skills.

For Thomas McPherson-Pope, the Director of Making Rooms, the chance to collaborate with Dr Michael Stead from Lancaster University’s School of Design and Imagination Design Research laboratory was too good to miss.

Alongside Making Rooms’ social engagement programmes, adult numeracy sessions and youth “maker spaces”, working with a lecturer in Sustainable Design Futures has allowed both parties to learn from each other.

Inspired by its TV namesake, The Repair Shop 2049 was created to give a new lease of life to redundant tech. Funded through the University’s ESRC/EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account, The Repair Shop 2049 has been researching how communities can better repair smart devices and challenge planned obsolescence of products and services. To do so, the team have worked with The Making Rooms, Blackburn’s community maker space, to engage directly with consumers, technologists and policy makers to identify new approaches to “make do and mend” for our everyday tech.

Senior Research Associate Violet Owen, explained how the EPSRC Fixing the Future project builds upon The Repair Shop 2049 work. Led by Dr Michael Stead, the team have been examining how Right to Repair legislation both helps and hinders local communities in managing the repair and reuse of smart tech waste and how stakeholders actively need to come together to engender new tech repair infrastructures.

Based upon insights generated, the team have developed Repair Land, an interactive game which enables players to create their own ‘repair adventure’ whilst also having to negotiate the frustrations and barriers that transpire when trying to repair their smart tech. With a prototype now available, the hope is such a development will help spark more debate and increase awareness about how we manage our technological waste.

Reusing materials of a different kind is the subject focused on by Dr Ana Costa, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Lancaster University. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council the main aim of Dr Costa’s work is to promote material passports as a way of preventing or minimising waste.

Her argument is that if we re-use the materials that we have already in existence we are maximising the embodied carbon that exists already on those materials.  This also enables a reduction in overall waste.

Aligned with this idea is the notion of promoting construction instead of demolition. The theory is if we de-construct buildings in order to re-use them, then we will be able to make use of the materials.

Here’s a startling statistic that was shared with delegates: if we are to achieve net zero by 2050 around 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already built. Dr Costa pointed out that in that case we need to make the most of the buildings that are already in existence.

She also said that if we do build new buildings developers should try to re-use some of those materials that already exist. By documenting that information by knowing exactly what materials are being used in new buildings we can then ensure the future re-use of those materials.

Sustainable Futures panellists: Tom MacPherson, Violet Owen, Dr Ana Costa, Georgia Whitehouse. Chaired by Prof. Richard Brook.

Sustainable Futures panellists L – R: Tom MacPherson, Violet Owen, Dr Ana Costa, Georgia Whitehouse and Responder: Prof. Richard Brook.

Future Environments

As well as how we live, what about the impact we have on the areas in which we live? Our Future Environments are vital in helping our health as well as that of the planet.

Take how dark our skies are.

Being able to appreciate the natural sky at night might be good to experience but for wildlife it’s a vital part of their life cycle.

By working with local authorities Lorayne Wall, Planning Officer for Friends of the Lake District, explained how a Technical Advice Note will help to inform planners as well as applicants about lighting schemes. With significant areas of lighting outside the planning process, the charity wanted to highlight hotspots of light pollution. The aim would be to reduce light pollution in areas where it’s already a problem and prevent it from becoming one elsewhere.

Communicating the value of dark skies, not just for developers, is the aim of Dr Rupert Griffiths, Research Associate, ImaginationLancaster. His Sensing the Luminous Night project focussed on the RSPB’s Leighton Moss Nature Reserve.

The purpose of this was to capture observations of natural and artificial light at night over time and then develop captivating ways of communicating these observations. By re-imagining what true darkness feels like may also encourage more action to reduce excessive artificial light at night.

Technology ranging from cameras to sensors was used to monitor light pollution. Who has access to the data that results from exercises like this was the subject of another discussion.

Dr Naomi Jacobs is a Lecturer in Design Policy and Futures Thinking. As an interdisciplinary academic, her work considers design, computer science, social science and fan and audience studies and she is interested in the ethical nature of monitoring devices.

Funded by PETRAS, the UK national hub for cybersecurity, it questioned the security and privacy of data gathering devices along with how the use of this technology is governed and the impact it has when deployed in public spaces.

A toolkit known as TrustLens has been developed to lead the curious to information on the data which is being collected, who has access to it and who owns it.

Dr Rupert Griffiths, Lancaster University.

Dr Rupert Griffiths, Lancaster University.

Digital Futures

So where are data and our digital lives heading?

Dr Dan Richards, a Lecturer in Data Prototyping and Visualisation at Lancaster University, led a discussion on Digital Futures which heard how a £4m investment by the ESRC was helping consider this.

The fast-changing world of broadcasting is just one area under investigation. Dr Rhianne Jones, Research Lead for Responsible Innovation, BBC Research & Development is responsible for the design and development of innovative technologies that align with the public service remit goals and the BBC’s editorial values.

Ensuring digital technologies contribute to a more equitable society is one area of concern, as is promoting a more sustainable digital future where enhanced wellbeing is also  key.

Our handy driving licence and familiar passport may be about to change and looking at how this might be created in an effective way is the concern of Kim Snooks, a Senior Research Associate, Design for Digital Good and PhD student.

As a member of the ESRC Digital Good Network she has a keen interest in digitised forms of documents. Issues such as usability, transparency and accountability need to be considered, she says, yet definitive frameworks have yet to be decided.

And while digital is becoming a factor in later life, when is the right time to begin learning more about technological advances in this area?

Dr Joe Lindley, Senior Research Fellow, Lancaster University took on the challenge of sharing information on how to use and consider generative AI and to create relevant terminology and vocabulary. Ryelands Primary School in Lancaster agreed to collaborate on a series of six lessons which saw Year 4 pupils (aged 8-9) taught details of the developing technology through hands on engagement.

“They’d never encountered this technology before: they were making some pretty whacky stuff, purple SpongeBob type things. By the end of the project they had become pretty adept/prompt engineers. They could, with thought, figure out what they wanted, fine-tune it and end up with the results that they wanted,” said Dr Lindley.

Assistant Headteacher, David Grist, said pupils were really driven by their desire to become better designers and be able to manipulate the language, the prompts and everything else that they needed to achieve their ends.

“They are going to grow up in this world where obviously technology’s moving at a very fast pace. It’s armed them with the knowledge that not all images that they see are real – they can be made, they can be constructed,” said David.

For an event that considered Imagination now & next, topics were as wide-ranging as they were thought-provoking.

For Professor Nick Dunn, Executive Director of ImaginationLancaster, the hope is this event illustrated the kind of breadth and depth of the work carried out at the centre as well as showing what design research can do.

“There’s been a real authenticity to the way our partners, collaborators, and indeed the academics talk about what they do. I think that really encapsulates what LICA does and what ImaginationLancaster’s ethos is. We do things. We don’t observe them from an ivory tower, we get our hands dirty with the difficult stuff in life, to explore not just what we can do but why we should do it.” said Professor Dunn.


Digital Futures panellists L – R: David Grist from Ryelands Primary School, Dr Joe Lindley and Responder: Dr Dan Richards 

Thank you to Nigel Thompson for his insightful event summary .

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