onsdag 30 oktober 2013

Science Fiction research workshop

I have recently combined one of my courses with a research project I'm involved in; "Scenarios and Environmental Impacts of the Information Society". In my course Sustainability and Information Technology, we had a panel with invited guests who discussed "Images of the future" and we followed it up with a seminar about the future a couple of days later. The students prepared for the seminar by writing and handing in 200-600 words long texts on the theme: "What is your image(s) of the future?" (in relation to the panel as well as other stuff we had talked about in the course).

We did not use students' submitted hand-ins at the seminar, but instead used the output from the research project. Back in June, I wrote a blog post and super-short summaries of the five scenarios of future ICT societies that we have developed within the project. Me and Elina (course assistant) updated these super-short summaries with the goal of making all five summaries fit on one single page that could be handed out to the students. The students read these short description and chose which of the five scenario they preferred to (start to) work. We then gave them a large sheet of paper (70*100 cm) as well as a variety of practical materials (post-it notes, pens with different colors etc.) to work with. The students were encouraged to move around (inspired by the "open space" format), but they surprisingly often got "stuck" where they sat down. We had to prod them and forced them to take a break in order to get them to move around (it's much easier to move to a different table when you come back from a break).

The actual task consisted of "fleshing out" the scenarios and to think about links, connections and implications of different scenario "design decisions" that had already been made when formulating the scenarios or that the students made then and there. We wanted one post-it note per observation/insight and we asked them to use different colors depending on what their observation primarily concerned; black for ICT/technology, green for environment, blue for economy  and red for people (social relations, values, norms). We also directed them to spend most of the time in "the future where their scenario played out", but to also dedicate a small portion of the paper (say 20%) to "the past future" (i.e. to think some about the time between 2013 and their future society in terms of factors that led up to the scenario in question) and another 20% or so to "the far future" (i.e. what happens afterwards, what are the implications and the consequences of the scenario for the far future).

All in all, we did two seminars with 20-25 students at each seminar. The rests of this blog post will however not primarily treat the results of these seminars, but rather results of organizing "the same" seminar at "Fantastika" - a Science Fiction convention (SF con) that was held in Stockholm 10 days ago. Except for me and Elina, Luciane Borges from the KTH Dept. of Environmental Strategies Research joined us for that particular exercise and this is how it was announced in the program:

"In a three-year long research project at KTH, we will ponder and count on the implications of tomorrow's information society in terms of the sustainability impacts of different futures. We have developed five different scenarios for the future information society and we need your help to flesh them out! We will present our scenarios at his workshop and ask you for feedback as well as references to new (or old) books, stories, movies, TV series etc. Are our scenrious believable and credible? Or silly, or scary, or...?"

There were a number of new limitations that were challenging and the three most important ones were that 1) the workshop was held early in the day (many attendees had not arrived yet) and there was competition from other parallel program activities, 2) because of the stiff competition for attendees attention, we did not dare to claim/ask for two consecutive hours of their time and 3) we thus had to make do with 50 minutes and compress the whole exercise.

Taking into account that we had to do quite a few adjustments both before as well as during the workshop, I think we did a fair job of organizing the workshop and I do believe participants enjoyed participating and contributing. Remember, this is a very different situation compared to organizing course seminars at KTH with a "captive audience" who haven't chosen to be there and who can't leave. Some examples of more or less impromptu changes we had to make are:
- 1) the written/spoken instructions had to be more compressed and self-contained and the pace of the workshop had to be speeded up (i.e. we had to force the participants to move on despite the fact that there were really good discussions going on that we unfortunately had to break up).
- 2) we assumed but didn't have access to a good blackboard/whiteboard (but we solved that with the help of a computer and a projector).
- 3) the room was not big enough and people had to stand instead of sit down (which might have turned out to be for the better).
- 4) only about a dozen persons or so showed up where we had hoped for at least double that amount (but it is doubtful that 25 persons would easily have fit in the room - especially when they started to move around). There were literally hundreds of participants at the convention although not everyone had arrived by Saturday morning.
- 5) we could have announce our workshop differently and much better in the program, emphasizing that it was an activity where you didn't just sit down and listen but were co-creating results. Especially some of the younger participants crave activities like ours - where you don't just sit down and listen to other people talking.

Me, Elina and Luciane sat down for a debriefing immediately after we had held the workshop and we had many ideas and reflections, for example:
- 50 minutes is very little time taking into account that some time has to be spent on instructions and on explaining the goals, the rules, the process etc. In a "lightning workshop" like ours, things have to be simplified, streamlined and speeded up as much as possible, but 50 minutes is still very little time. Perhaps it's too little?
- People who attended the workshop did not know each other. We should have helped facilitate contacts between them. A round of introductions would have been nice, but how do we do that quickly?
- We really really should have handed out contact information if participants wanted to know more about the research project or wanted to get in touch with us afterwards. At a university-level course all the participants know each other (some) and they of course all know the teachers. Here they don't and the format has to be adapted to these new circumstances.
- The scenarios are quite abstract. It's possible (easy?) to get stuck in "high-level" thinking. An idea might be to instantiate them, perhaps to create some kind of Day-in-the-life scenario that makes the scenarios "come true" in day-to-day life.
- It was actually pretty good that people had to stand. It speeds things up and people can also move around within or between groups. It would have been even better had we had a number of tripods for our large sheet of paper (one tripod for each scenario).
- It's easy to get people to talk both in the classroom but especially at a SF con, but it's sometimes harder to get them to write down stuff on post-it notes. Should perhaps the discussions also/instead be recorded?
- We didn't get as many references to literary works (text/moving images) as I would have thought (and hoped for).

Elina and Luciane had to leave, but the observations above together with later conversations of mine with convention attendees initiated a chain of thoughts. Single loop learning ("the repeated attempt to solve the same problem [...] without ever questioning the goal", c.f. Argyris & Schön (1978), "Organizational learning") would give us insights about how to do "the same" workshop but better at the next SF convention. But beyond streamlining the 50-minute workshop, perhaps it would be possible to prepare some self-explanatory instructions (one sheet of paper with scenarios on one side and instructions on the other side) with the possibility of reaching a major part of the 400-500 participants - instead of just a handful?

If we decide that a major part of doing a workshop at a SF convention is to get feedback and suggestions as to what short stories and books we should read and what movies and TV series we should watch, why not allow people to continue to submit suggestions also after the workshop or indeed after the weekend-long convention? Why not set up a simple web form where you can drop a suggestion, a reference and/or a link? But then why settle for a lonely web form where you can drop suggestions - shouldn't that form instead be part of a (small) website that would contain information about the whole research project? With (or without) a small website, it would also be possible to reach out not just to the people who attended this particular SF convention, but also to the largest distribution list for Swedish Science Fiction fans and ask them for literary and other references. But why settle for that when we could use a Science Fiction convention and/or the distribution list to recruit SF "trendspotters" that we could tie to our project and that could help us out both right now as well as 6 or 12 months down the road?

The end of the line of these thoughts is; why wait for the next convention? The SF con attendees had so much to talk about and so many insights, so why not use the distribution list to reach this audience and recruit people for a whole-day workshop at KTH that does not have to compete with a a large number of parallel activities? That could turn out to be the really really interesting workshop where we could dive into, and work through the different scenarios over the course of a day instead of hurrying through it all in an hour. Perhaps we should do a scenarios workshop at the upcoming ICT4S conference next summer? Perhaps we should even get these two disparate groups (researchers and SF fans) together at such an workshop? I do believe that with some screening on behalf of the SF fans ("limited number of spots"), it could be an event that would very much be appreciated by both of these two groups!

Some other concluding thoughts of mine that I don't want to loose are:
- When we do a workshop, is our primary purpose to get our scenarios "out there"in front of an audience in order to get feedback and evaluate/develop the scenarios further? Or should we assume that these scenarios are "finished" (for now). 
- If they are finished ("frozen"), we might instead want to customize the workshop and vary the instructions; media technology students could primarily be directed to think about the technology/ICT implications of the scenarios, urban planning students could primarily be directed to think about the urban/spatial implications and SF fans could primarily be directed to think about the underlying ideas and to provied references that relate to these scenarios. 
- It would then also be possible to find courses and do workshops with other groups of students (or professionals); economy students, environmental [something] students, social science (anthropology) students and so on. Perhaps it would even be possible to coordinate different university courses and form groups consisting of students with different disciplinary backgrounds, e.g. on media technology student, one urban studies student, one economy student and so on?

It seems probable that we we will organize "the same" workshop at another KTH course (urban planning) in November. This blog post is in fact my contribution to the discussion at an upcoming meeting two weeks from now. Some specific observations from Fantastika that I don't want to loose are:
- Two scenarios (Life online and ICT in the real world) are perhaps not so different from each other. They could describe the same scenario but at different points in time (near/far future). 
- Two scenarios (Life online and Gated communities) are perhaps not so much about the future as about the very near future or even the present! They didn't feel "futuristic" enough to some participants. Should these scenarios be pushed further in order to become more "futuristic"?
- The SF fans really liked to think about the Gated communities scenario while that same scenario was a hard sell to our media technology students.
- At the SF con, there was marked disagreement about the desirability (or not) of the Life online scenario. It didn't go all the way to a tussle, but people were sort of upset at each other (someone was charged with being a "luddite" - surely an insult at an SF convention!?). The students never came close to that kind of disagreements. I believe that the students in general had less strong opinions about the future.
- It doesn't come naturally for people to take notes, I especially had to hound one of my groups at the SF con who had a vivid discussion but didn't take any of it down on paper. This could probably be fixed more smoothly (less hounding) had we had more time. The same is true for the students but to a lesser extent (they tend to be better at following the instructions and do what you tell them (not the least since they will be graded at some point in time!)).
- It should be noted that we have not yet looked at the concrete output of the three seminars; we haven't looked at the dozen large sheets of papers that are covered with post-it notes nor have we analyzed the students' 50+ hand-ins about their "images of the future". I very much look forward to doing that - but when? There is always so much to do...

Additional comments (Nov 14): We had a meeting today and decided to:
- Do a workshop for SF fans sometimes in the spring (I won't be able to participate as I will be abroad at that time).
- Submit a workshop proposal for the upcoming (Aug 2014) ICT4S conference
- We might also submit a workshop proposal on this topic (or some other topic) to the upcoming NordiCHI conference in Finland next year (workshop proposal deadline is in May 2014).

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