Welcome to Aarhus University: the start of a 2 month research stay

I am incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to study in Denmark at the University of Aarhus’ Centre for Participatory IT for two months under supervision of the esteemed Professor Kim Halskov.

After Gary passed away, it has been incredibly difficult to follow the breadcrumbs of all the new exciting design research happening globally. Gary, the HCI guy, had this inexhaustable reservoir of new things to get inspired by. From his millions of connections all across the globe, it always felt like we were on some humanistic interaction design cusp. After he died in 2013 I applied for a scholarship to come and meet Prof Halskov and carry on work within their Participatory Information Technology Research Group based at the Aarhus University IT park.

The Center for Participatory IT is uniquely suited to my work – in South Africa the media studies departments, visual arts departments and computer science departments are seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum. Here, in Aarhus, these fields of inquiry are not only physically co-located, but also epistemologically aligned. From visual culture, to issues around security and privacy, the center is a one-stop tapestry of interconnected research between these domains. The centre places importance on the combination of strong theoretical research through practical experiments:

“The Center for Participatory IT (PIT – pit.au.dk) has strong roots in the Scandinavian tradition for Participatory Design (PD), which combines the areas of technology development and use with a broader interest in participative practices at the workplace. The PD field has since the mid-80’s developed into a distinct research community, demonstrating that the quality of IT could be im­proved by involving future users in the design process. With IT in recent decades diffusing from the workplace to people’s everyday lives, PD practice and research face new challenges due to the nature of new communities of IT use as well as technological developments.

Currently the penetration of IT, including the Internet, into people’s lives is dominated, paradoxi­cally, by lack of choice and transparency. As an extreme case, NSA’s surveillance is a prominent and problematic example of how IT is being developed and used secretly in contrast to participatory IT based on publicly available data for public use. A more mundane example is Facebook, which originally was developed for and by college students. Now it has moved away from being voluntary and on equal terms: As individuals and groups, people get exposed to ads and offers that they have no control over. Who provides these offers and why, is not transparent. PIT wishes to provide alternatives that are transparent and malleable by users together, in inclusive communities, where users are not just passive providers of data. In that sense PIT has an important mission in re-conceptualizing participation, while providing alternative ways of understanding and deploying IT. PIT will accordingly provide novel insights, theories and explore technological alternatives. In this we will study new communities, e.g. artistic and civic ones. PIT will provide models that sup­port more direct participation in the public and society at large.

In order to develop the foundation for understanding alternative forms of thinking and supporting participation through IT, we emphasize the need for the encounter of humanistic and computer science traditions. To pursue this intellectual challenge PIT has brought together a team of researchers who come from aesthetic, cultural, practice-oriented as well as technological research disciplines. Furthermore, all of these have a track record of doing research through a combination of working theoretically, carrying out empirical studies and deploying technological experiments.”

Prof Halskov is the head of the Centre in Advanced Visualization and Interaction (CAVI) and I soon discovered is really into exploring the “guts” of creativity. He does incredibly detailed analysis of micro creative processes by looking at tools, materials and ideation processes. When he saw my extensive video libary from my “jam”/PD workshops, he challenged me to isolate an hour of video that we could “dissect”. His right-hand man, star PhD student, and my guide while in the city, Nicolai Brodersen Hansen, has been invaluable in getting me up to speed with the latest literature and ideas on this side of the world.

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Nicolai is perhaps the friendlist Dane I’ve met thusfar, he’s really dedicated so much time to making me feel at home (and taking me out for beers). It helps that he also happens to have a very impressive publication count, which include many things that I’m very interested in.

I think I’m gonna like it here.

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