In conversation with...:co-designing with more-than-human communities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Edinburgh College of Art

Abstract

The aim of this project is to explore how an expanded account of community - one which recognises the active participation of non-humans - might contribute to our understandings of how research can be co-designed and co-produced.

It arises from a concern that 'community' has too often been thought of as only including the human, thus leaving out the wide range of interactions with non-humans that sustain and enhance our communities. Likewise, 'research' itself appears most often as an activity that is quintessentially human. However, our research practices have always been entangled with the lives, qualities and capacities of non-human actors. From the birds who demonstrated the vacuum in Robert Boyle's air pump, the dogs who demonstrated the effects of insulin and the genetically modified OncoMouse, much research has relied extensively on the contributions of non-humans. Our interest in this project, then, is to explore how both research and community might be rethought within a 'more-than-human' framework. Literature on the coproduction of research with communities emphasises the benefits of attempting to integrate a wide range of perspectives and experiences, arguing that this makes stronger research that is of more benefit to those the research affects.

However, while there is some evidence that, in the context of climate change and biodiversity loss, proponents of participatory research have begun to recognise a need to extend the paradigm beyond the human communities it has focused on, this has not yet occurred. As a result, this project will initiate an exploration into the possibilities of co-designing research with more-than-human communities. We will do this through staging four 'conversations' with non-human actors and the humans who work with them. We are interested in exploring issues to do with power, voice and agency and so will seek to test the boundaries of 'polite conversation' by working with dogs, bees, trees and water. Reflections on these workshops will be available from our website and we will produce an analysis of the opportunities and challenges of such an approach. We will also produce a peer-reviewed article that will extend the literature on co-production and co-design in this new direction.

Planned Impact

This project takes place in a context of mass species extinction, extensive habit loss, climate change, and resource depletion. At its heart is the conviction that, while dominant research paradigms have undoubtedly given rise to remarkable improvements in a range of areas, they have nonetheless failed to address how our changing societies might remain within sustainable limits. One concrete example of the effects of failing to consider more-than-human communities within research is the drastic decline of vultures in East Asia, where over 99% of the population have died from acute reactions to diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle. Over and above the consequences for the vultures themselves, the increasing amounts of carrion available, (which was previously eaten by the vultures), has led to an exploding feral dog population, which in turn has led to tens of thousands of rabies cases in humans, as well as increases in other diseases. There have also been cultural losses for Zoroastrian communities who have had to find alternative funeral methods. This cascade of effects, which has very real consequences for humans, is partly due to inadequate research methods around drug testing that do not take broader contexts into account.

What this suggests is that the impacts of transforming research practices so that they operate within a paradigm of more-than-human communities are potentially immense. However, shifting conventional research paradigms, many of which remain embedded within Enlightenment philosophies of self-aware humans in a machine-like world, is not a task to be taken at all lightly. Thus while we would like to situate our project within this broader context, we have more modest hopes for our work in this project.

Specific beneficiaries of the research will include the organisations and arts practitioners involved. They are particularly interested in reflecting on how this approach might develop their work in new ways. Their accounts of the benefits of this research will then be disseminated through their wider networks including the British Beekeepers Association and the National Association for Areas of Natural Outstanding Beauty. More widely the novel application of the coproduction paradigm promises to be useful for many working on the intertwining of human and nonhuman communities. For example, these approaches could feed into long standing and acrimonious debates within conservation movements which can pitch local human communities and nonhuman interests in direct opposition to each other. Given the wide range of interests in issues to do with dogs and service work, bees and their current decline, trees and risks to current national forests, and increased risks of flooding and rising sea levels we believe our research will be of further interest to a broad community and so will seek to disseminate the results of our project through a variety of means including through our website but also at events such as the Bristol Festival for Nature, who we are in discussions with at the moment.

Publications

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Title Domestic canine interfaces 
Description This is a set of dog-friendly controls designed according to dogs' usability sensory, cognitive and physical requirements, which was developed for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2014 on HEFCE funds. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact The charity Dogs for Good (formerly Dogs for the Disabled) wants to trial these and integrate them in their training protocols and we have just received funds from HEFCE to develop an impact case on this. 
 
Title In Conversation with... Water 
Description A film of the fourth workshop for the More-than-Human Participatory Research (MPR) project which took place in and around Torridge River. Find out more at http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com. Video by Marietta Galazka 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact Public awarness 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXWxS-SmPfs
 
Title In conversation with... BEES 
Description A film of the second workshop for the More-than-Human Participatory Research (MPR) project which took place in Pershore. Find out more at http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com Video by Marietta Galazka 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact Public awareness 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUBN_usf_HM
 
Title In conversation with... TREES 
Description A film of the third workshop for the More-than-Human Participatory Research (MPR) project which took place in the Forest of Dean. Find out more at http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com Video by Marietta Galazka 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact Public awarness 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGKh836eVm8
 
Title MPR - In conversation with... DOGS 
Description A film of the first workshop for the More-than-Human Participatory Research (MPR) project which took place in Milton Keynes. Find out more at http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com Video by Marietta Galazka 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact Public awareness 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dp1AnFlYH4
 
Description This project demonstrated the potential for bringing together two different areas of academic research - more-than-human research and participatory research. We develop approaches for workshopping the use of participatory methods with non-humans and for using these events to draw out deeper discussion of the issues involved. We found that there are indeed significant benefits in bringing the extensive experience from participatory research around including non-traditional research partners into conversation with more-than-human approaches. Previous work around challenging knowledge making practices, assumptions of competence to participate and asking who is not in the room, all appear to offer important avenues for rethinking how research with done with/on non-humans.
Exploitation Route At the moment the project is in a speculative stage, asking about the possibilities of the 'what if' rather than undertaking fullscale codesign projects with more-than-human communities. However we have developed approaches that can be put to use by others, and importantly have posed questions which have brought out a more complicated understanding of coproduction.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Creative Economy,Energy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com/
 
Description At each of our workshops, practitioners were closely involved. Most widespread was a sense that being involved open up new questions for them and new ways of looking at their work. Most importantly work done with Dogs for the Disabled around designing technology with dogs as users, has been further developed and exhibited, with test devices installed at the OU. Work from the project was also developed further into a large bid application by one of the Co-I's Owain Jones "Towards hydrocitizenship. Connecting communities with and through responses to interdependent, multiple water issues" AH/L008165/1.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Energy,Environment,Healthcare
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description Radio interview on Paperweight Radio 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact A radio interview as part of an episode on animals, which discussed the In conversation with project and the possibility of doing participatory research with nonhumans.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description In conversation with bees 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact This was an invited only workshop that brought together academic researchers, postgraduates and professionals from Evesham Beekeeps and the Vale Heritage Trust to explore participatory action research with bees. Impacts were increased knowledge and change in opinions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com/conversations-with-insects.html
 
Description In conversation with dogs 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was an invited only workshop that brought together academic researchers, postgraduates and professionals from Dogs for the Disabled to explore participatory design with dogs. Impacts were increased knowledge and change in opinions. There were also further activities where prototypes were developed from the design activities and exhibited.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com/conversations-with-animals.html
 
Description In conversation with trees 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact This was an invited only workshop that brought together academic researchers and professionals from the Wye Valley AONB to explore community participatory arts with trees. Impacts were increased knowledge and change in opinions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com/conversations-with-plants.html
 
Description In conversation with water 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact This was an invited only workshop that brought together academic researchers, artists and professionals from North Devon Biosphere Reserve and Devon Wildlife Trust. Impacts were increased knowledge and change in opinions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.morethanhumanresearch.com/conversations-with-the-elements.html
 
Description Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We presented to the public a range of prototypes to support the work of assistance dogs developed by the OU's Animal-Computer Interaction Lab. The public could interact with our exhibit, learn about our work and try using the prototypes. This was a typical Royal Society Exhibit, whose purpose was to share science with the general public; our exhibit was one in five selected for special media cover and one in three selected for a press conference. We received a good deal of media (press and radio) coverage and were invited to give presentations at other public events
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://sse.royalsociety.org/2014/technology-for-dogs/