Over a few years of academic writing, themes start to emerge that may not be related to the thingt one thought one was writing about.
I started with the politics of technology and realised that I had to consider the whole world system, since (the design of) technology is only the outward manifestation of a culture’s values and power structures, even if it further impacts them and those of others’.
I gravitated towards design, because understanding design choices and the arbitrary eventualities they unleash was clearly very important. But improving society requires changing more than design processes. It requires an understanding of how values are formed and materialised and what processes are at our disposal to alter ways of thinking as much as the structures that emanate from them. None of this is static, of course, and that is one reason why familiarity with some global politics and technology development is useful too. For me, the final part of the equation is a meaningful unit of people, things and relations with whom to work and in which to contemplate change. So, even when I am looking at the world at its broadest (such as the impact of climate change on low-lying island states), there is always the local through which to act – working locally is neither working alone, nor in a cluster that is too hard to imagine and connect with.
So, there are themes I return to that are not about human-computer interaction, design or people’s experience of them, but exist across these, as the reason I do my work. The ones listed here may not be the only ones, the right ones or the final ones, but they are an interesting set with which to take stock.
Design is the process of managed transformation, as far as I am concerned. It lies at the heart of any activism that is more than reactive, but seeks decisive and deliberated change.
Not so long ago, I had to define transformation with Ruth and Ben in a working paper about creative practice and transformations to sustainability (2019):
Transformation means not only changing what we do, but who we are and how we do things, alone and together. A vision of ontological change – crudely, where we change what we are to change what we do – appears in different ways across different traditions, e.g. in terms of aes- thetic response (Dewey 19341), affect (Deleuze 20052) and the political economy of enchantment (Bennett 20013). (Light et al 20194).
We borrowed a number of definitions from the sustainability literature:
- Transformation is generally regarded as being more than superficial or incremental. It refers to major shifts: ‘profound and enduring systemic changes that typically involve social, cultural, technological, political, economic and environmental processes’. (NORFACE – Belmont 2017).
- Whilst ‘adaptation’ has a sense of adapting as a passive subject to external change, ‘transformation’ implies taking a role in choosing and developing the planet’s fate, as ‘an active player in the future of the community and world’ (O’Brien and Hochachka 20105).
- Transformation poses particular challenges for policy. ‘On the one hand transformation implies a need for policies that may challenge existing ways of doing things. On the other the abstract nature of concepts like transformation and resilience make it difficult for policy makers to put such concepts into practice.’ (http://www.transformations2017.org/about).
- The STEPS centre (https://steps-centre.org/transformations) made transformations its 2018 theme, collecting resources and asking: ‘What does it take to make sustainability transformations emancipatory, diverse and caring, rather than repressive or controlling?’ (2018).
People keep attributing an interest in creativity to me, but with the complexities of cognitive processes dragged into this field, I stay at one remove by interesting myself in creative practices and how they impact on the world. I understand much of this as collective. In 2008, Rose and I produced an analysis in which I stated:
Within discussions of design, creativity is most often seen as an outcome of a collaborative social process that can be affected by cultural and other organisational factors. Seeing creativity as affected by the social, cultural and organisational context distinguishes it from something that takes place in a person’s head. This means it can be cultivated, but that it is neither an outcome of a specific process nor wholly the result of teaching people particular skills. Designing, then, involves experience of problem-solving, patience with uncertainty, familiarity with the materials and awareness of the likely challenges of the discipline in which the problem is situated. (Light and Luckin 20086)
And I cited various other opinions that supported my own: ‘Designing a house today is different to the experience of designing a house yesterday. The way I am creative today is sufficiently different from the way that I was creative yesterday that it makes little sense to ascribe the occasions to the same cognitive process” (Coyne 19977). Exploring conceptions of creativity in relation to learning, Banaji et al (20068) show both the variety of ways the term ‘creativity’ is used and how poorly distinctions between uses are analysed and policed.
More recently, I’ve come to adopt the term creative practice(s) for all my discussions of this (not surprisingly to emphasize the practice elements). By this I mean, that the doing is important and we gather knowledge and routines around it that help us manage it more as we would choose. It situates the creative work between people, tools, discussions, relations and so on. For instance, in the same piece with Ruth and Ben, our definition was:
The broad term ‘creative practice’ is used here to include all professional and non-professional work which uses personal and/or collective craft skills and ingenuity to make something new, renew or reinterpret some aspect of the world: from writing, art and theatre to designing to repair cafes and data hackathons; from community development to storytelling to participative citizen science and experimentation of many kinds. (Light et al 20194).
Another theme that comes through strongly both in early work, such as my PhD questions and subsequent interest in how people experience technology, and more recently, in looking at choices of more or less sustainable lifestyle, is the fundamental importance of meaning to humans. By this I mean both in the moment and longer term, as a way of making sense of our lives and place in the world.
This is a section from a 2017 paper with Irina and Alison, in which I consider the existential search for meaning that informs aspects of being human.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs underlies much of current design thinking and doing as a theoretical construct, and existential psychologist Frankl’s work (1946/1997) offers a much-needed corrective. Frankl relates how people who survived the camps of Nazi Germany did so because they cared about something so profoundly they had a reason to live. Maslow’s theory posits that self-actualization is impossible without the fulfillment of basic needs. Frankl demonstrates how a tiny minority of people sent to slave camps managed to survive without proper food or shelter over several years of physical and emotional abuse because their life had meaning.
While a life’s meaning is personal, the need for meaning and its abundance or absence is broadly cultural. The Great Wars marked major periods of social upheaval for Europe, impacting worldwide. The shake-up as Britain and Germany went to war in 1914 gave people cause to question life and its value, often in very material ways. For instance, the single battle of the Somme took the lives of nearly 1.3M men and hastened the arrival of a new social order in Britain, in which women voted, the empire disintegrated and public loyalty to the Crown was no longer unquestioning. During this period, a crisis in meaning accompanied redefinition of everyday life and values. …
For many, gainful labour and/or nurturing family offers fulfillment and disruption to these may be the most shocking event a life has to weather. Finding new forms of fulfillment as things change is therefore a priority. For various reasons, this priority is best not viewed as a one-time solvable problem; it is a continually updating, idiosyncratic process in interaction with the people around us, our broader ecology of fellow beings and the things we use and are immersed in. Fulfillment is also not something to pursue directly, but comes from making effort, showing care and being able to contribute.
I don’t think I can do better to put meaning into context just now, so these words (Light, Powell et al 2017) stand.
The mystery category in all my work is the strong sense of place and neighbourhood. I do not notice it particularly, but that is partly because I am such a spatial thinker. What I do notice is its absence. When claims are not situated in space (and time), then they are, in Haraway’s words ‘from nowhere’ (1988). That is an important contrast with the implicit assumption in much design work that an absence of context leads to work that is relevant everywhere.
I use neighbourhoods as my thinking scale for rethinking. Partly, this works to disambiguate ‘place’, which I noted a few years ago, can have a number of meanings:
- Place as spot – the immediate point, what is in view, how it varies between day and night.
- Place as site for encounter (or study interview) – what the environment provides for being here in more than passing, such as noise level, seats, shelter, etc.
- Place as community – how social patterns map to geographic boundaries, with overlapping territories.
- Place as town or village – with name and civic history.
- Place as source of pride – the emotional phantasm that maps to civic or other boundaries in people’s minds.
- Place as absences, gaps and bits missing – the hidden, lost or unavailable parts that make it more than it is.
- Place as being of this town – seeing changes and contributing to them, history, hopes and ambivalence.
- Place as joy, threat or risk of exposure – the visceral comfort or discomfort of being here. (Light, Howland et al 2017).
As I noted, the list, itself, may be a useful addition to understandings of location and the layers of design possible and necessary for augmenting a town and its sociality.
In 2011, I wrote a hard-wrangled but entirely overlooked article on interdependence and one aspect I notice, when I look back now, is how it ignored other literatures on interdependence forming in feminist technoscience and STS, such as Puig de la Bellacasa’s work, and systems thinking, such as Katerina and Theo on complexity and design (2009). To be fair, much of this was still being produced when I wrote “Digital interdependence and how to design for it” (Light 2011), but it is still poorly situated in conceptual terms, even if the points were valid for the study it supported.
What it did do was focus me on the relations between matters, people and things – and the literatures that support our understanding of the interconnected nature of, well, nature. In this category, I wrap in sociality and relationality and my subsequent work on relational assets, which is actually quite useful, since the assets accumulate in places, not with individuals, though there are clearly individuals better able to make use of them.
Here is a snippet of the original piece:
Interdependence is a desired state in which links with others are recognised, acknowledged, developed and delighted in. Applied here, interdependence involves an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of life: social, cultural, and environmental factors in all their richness. To work toward interdependence in this developmental sense is to recognise the impact of and collectively seek to interpret causal chains, which as individuals and societies we frequently ignore, not least because the impact of these chains is difficult to anticipate, attribute, or control. And it is to celebrate the interaction of social, cultural, and environmental factors for constituting us and making life meaningful.
If interconnectedness is a fact, then interdependence is a goal. My reason for talking about these relations now is political; we are facing an environmental crisis precipitated by climate change and exacerbated by profligate use of resources. Humans could use a groundswell of joined-up thinking.
My point at the time was that ‘computers, in particular those that are networked, have the potential to make global relations more apparent to us’. … ‘What happens to interaction design if we keep social and causal links in the foreground and look beyond user experience? […It means] ‘taking a whole-cost view of our work. And it means designing with networks to stress our interdependence and drive recognition of it.’ (ibid).
- 1.E. I, Dewey J. Art as Experience. The Journal of Philosophy. Published online May 10, 1934:275. doi:10.2307/2016688
- 2.Thacker E. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze. Daniel W. Smith, trans. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A., 2003. 264 pp. Trade. ISBN: 0-8166-4341-5. Leonardo. Published online October 2004:417-418. doi:10.1162/leon.2004.37.5.417
- 3.Bennett J. The Enchantment of Modern Life. Published online December 31, 2001. doi:10.1515/9781400884537
- 4.Light A, Wolstenholme R, Twist B. Light, A., Wolstenholme, R., Twist, B. (2019) Creative practice and transfor-mations to sustainability – insights from research. Published online March 2019.
- 5.O’Brien K, Hochachka G. Integral adaptation to climate change. 2010;5:89-102.
- 6.Light A, Luckin R. Designing for social justice: people, technology, learning. Published online 2008.
- 7.Coyne R. Creativity as commonplace. Design Studies. Published online April 1997:135-141. doi:10.1016/s0142-694x(97)85456-7
- 8.Banaji S, Burn A, Buckingham D. Rhetorics of Creativity: A Review of the Literature. Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media, Institute of Education …; 2006.