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The Times They are A-Changin: Design Research for a World in Flux

I’m a victim of my father’s music tastes—my penchant for Bob Dylan is, for better or worse, ‘baked in’. One facet of this attribute is the constant temptation to use Dylan’s enduringly relevant lyrics (incidentally a sign of any good songwriter—something I attempted to be once upon a time, but, as my ’69 monthly listeners’ on Spotify indicates, I never really nailed) as metaphors for contemporary issues. In this episode of ‘Dylan lyrics as stretched metaphors’, The Times They are A-Changin and Design Research.

Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam
Admit that the waters around you have grown

The world changes. And, it changes fast. This is the foundational driver for my futures-focused research exploring the societal impact resulting from the adoption of new technologies—the impact of technology on society is so fast, we must intentionally look to the future if we are to create a better world. But, this year, worries about the future have been eclipsed by the real-present-and-current impact of the global pandemic. That said, whether we’re considering a novel corona virus, cutting edge AI, or the climate catastrophe, what Bob Dylan was getting at seems very relevant. The waters around us—whether they be Design Research, a virus, or the climate crisis—have grown, and thus, it’s time to gather round and figure out what to do about it.

And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’

In January I took up a research-focused academic post as part of the Beyond Imagination project, and its focus was exploring technology’s impact on the future of work, workers, and workplaces. I planned to do this by deploying the Speculative Design and Design Fiction methods that I’ve helped develop. But then the world changed so fast. In Dylan’s terms, I had to accept it that I was ‘drenched to the bone’. While the human cost of covid is monumental, this tiny side impact was that my future-focused technology research seemed somewhat irrelevant all of sudden.

Ploughing ahead with the aspirational, contingent, and speculative approaches I had planned to use would have been ridiculous given the realities of the here-and-now were so palpably relevant. Covid-riddled 2020 is the world’s biggest and best-ever test bed for technology’s impact on the workplace. And, not just the workplace, every aspect of life. How do you have a social life with no physical contact? When can we visit Barnard Castle? Why are video-call meetings so tiring? What is a University where the students can’t attend lectures? What do online conferences look like? How do you run an inclusive exploratory workshop remotely? The list of very real issues which had to be attended to immediately was extensive. But by exploring these issues we are acknowledging, yes Bob, our time is worth savin’.

(By the way, whilst the Speculative Design stuff was somewhat eclipsed by covid, we have been applying a Design Research lens to innovative ways of working. Currently I’m experimenting with the incredibly innovative remote space Gather Town as a hybrid digital space for remote work, socialising, and workshops—as part of a current conference we’re opening our doors temporarily at 18.00 AEST on the 14th August, come and say hi!)

Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stonex
For the times they are a-changin’

Bob tells us it’s time to start swimmin’, else we shall sink. Specific and relevant advice on how to avoid sinking is a little thin on the ground here, but I can forgive this as when the lyrics were penned in the 60s Dylan was probably concerned with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and the Cuban Missile crisis. But let’s consider how we might swim through some of our challenges—data, AI, the surveillance economy, the climate crisis, over population and mass-migration, etc—and what does Design Research have to do with it?

In November I am launching the Design Research Works, a 4-year fellowship aiming to explore and establish the next generation of Design Research. I want to do this by putting together an unprecedented body of evidence showing the value of Design Research. Yes, that’s a bold aim—but being bold is the point of a Future Leaders Fellowship. I also hope that my objectives are realistic, worthy, and not too immodest. Through the fellowship I want to empower and embolden the Design Research movement; to help the world benefit from Design Research in all its guises; to maximise the potential of Design Research to do good in the world. The underlying beauty and power of Design is equal in magnitude to the wonder of philosophy, mathematics, and art—and I want to show why it should be recognised, taught, and utilised in this way.

This turbulent year has shown, more than ever, the unique and valuable role that Design Research can play in moving towards a sustainable, prosperous and resilient future. We live in a world which, as ever, depends on our social structures and human-to-human communication… but, all of that is entangled with our digital and technological infrastructures. It’s a socio-technological world, which, as one would expect, presents appropriately complicated part-social and part-technological challenges and opportunities. But, lo-and-behold, it’s precisely those kinds of interdisciplinary issues that Design Research is so very adept at exploring and making sense of! So, Design Research is more relevant now than it has ever been. It also happens to be better understood, more widely accepted, and better funded than it ever has been as well. We are very well placed.

This is all very self-congratulatory and positive, but, there are things we can do much better, and helping to drive those changes is a key part of my fellowship.

I’m attending the Design Research Society (DRS) Conference this week, and, while there is a vast array of wonderful work being presented by the fantastic delegates (the presentations are currently private, but my own presentation on Legible AI is free to view and the conference proceedings are available here), I’m reminded again of an enduring problem with the Design Research field. Since I began attending international Design Research conferences in 2014, I’ve observed a huge number our conversations end up being about the distinctions between Design practice, Design education, Research through Design, and Research into these various aspects of Design. Moreover, because the interplay of these factors aren’t widely understood, or at least aren’t acknowledged openly, then the whole lot gets somewhat conflated – helping nobody! Further muddying the water are the multiple-but-contrasting perspectives of Design Research which further temper and confuse matters. All of this is a massive distraction and prevent the Design Research movement from achieving its full potential. It also makes the field rather inaccessible to the uninitiated. The fix, I think, is simple. We must accept ‘the thing we call Design Research’ is actually a spectrum of related issues, debates, and ideas. Next, we must commit to, inasmuch as it’s possible, clarifying where our work and research sits on that spectrum.

It is clear that all the aforementioned aspects of Design Research are relevant and important. It is clear that they sometimes (but not always) need to interact with each other. In many ways Design Research is defined by this plurality of perspectives which are constantly added to, evolved, and augmented—that’s a good thing that we should proactively put to use and celebrate. And, that is it. (The plurality of perspectives, and ‘horses for courses’ nature of Design Research was a point highlighted in a number of interviews with leading Design Researchers I and Paul Coulton conducted earlier this year in a commissioned report on the state of UK Design Research). Christopher Frayling’s widely-shared pamphlet nailed this issue some time ago, so, why we’re still having the conversations nearly 30 years on baffles me! Let us, as a community, move forward, and advance beyond the conflated confusions of these conference conversations, and, in doing so free up space to focus our attention on the outcomes and potentials of Design Research as a whole. Let’s get on and work, and show off the unique power of Design Research, rather than squabbling over territories which ultimately aren’t important.

Don’t get me wrong, I think understanding how the different aspects of Design Research interplay with one another is a great topic. It’s important to get that right, and given Design Research’s constant evolution, it is crucial. We should totally have a Special Interest Group about it, a journal special issue, a book, and so forth. Moreover, given the field is really quite young, it makes sense that the odour of these fundamental ingredients lingers in the air. But it’s time to move forward, and, rather than being distracted by the specific ingredients, we should be sharing and learning the details of what recipes we can prepare with them.

Now, I don’t want the ‘mothers and fathers’ of Design Research, whose giant shoulders I am standing on (and, oftentimes who I share an office with!) to take this sentiment too literally, but, as ever, Dylan’s poetry sums it up better than I can, and I think it conveys the jist:

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

I’m excited to be part of this varied and dynamic community (both the Imagination team and the wider Design Research field), and I’m both honoured and privileged to get the opportunity and funding to tackle these issues over the next four years. There will be arguments, bumps, and growing pains along the way… but, for Design Research, the times they are changing.

Joe