Rules of Thumb: An Investigation into the Potential of Contextual Transposition in Social Design

Lead Research Organisation: University of Brighton
Department Name: School of Art, Design and Media


When hitchhiking was sufficiently common as to constitute a recognised mode of transport (albeit a transgressive one), those who stood by road junctions with their thumbs in the air, though they may not have known it, were acting to exploit fissures in the infrastructure (the cars, roads, laybys) and mobile cultures (social norms around travel and spatiality) that constitute the automobility system. In this way they repurposed an aspect of an infrastructure to suit their needs, and capabilities. Through a process of 'Contextual Transposition', this research examines the structural and cultural imperatives of hitching as a mobility practice and, through the development of a design toolkit, uses this knowledge to reveal ways in which other infrastructures may be 'hitched'. In the examples examined here, that of neighbourhood planning and civic action, a whole range of actors may have needs and capabilities that are unfulfilled and untapped, and the proposition being explored here is that a process such as hitching may offer tactics for individuals and organizations to further their objectives in novel ways.

Planned Impact

This research experiment is intended to be a direct exercise in academic research acting to provide means and methods of change and action for individuals and organizations. From an academic perspective the intention is to publish a journal article, to be submitted to the Journal of Material Culture, that uses the initial ethnographic and historical work as its basis. In terms of immediate practical effect, the project is being pursued in collaboration with The Glass House Community Led Design who will bring with them their experience of co-designing and disseminating research with higher education, developed over a number of AHRC-funded projects exploring the impact and reach of community-led, participatory and co-design practice. In particular the involvement of their Outreach and Impact Manager, Louise Dredge, will help to ensure the project takes advantage of their knowledge and experience of creative engagement processes and resource development for communities and co-design participants. Also, the extensive Glass-House social networks will be used to help extend the reach and impact of this project and to disseminate findings to those in practice who may benefit from the learning and prototype produced.


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Description Serendipity led us to hitchhiking and an interest in 'designing' social futures. The concept and method of contextual transposition was, in one sense, an improvised response to the challenge of interdisciplinary research collaboration. However, what started as improvised analytical affinity turned into a highly generative approach when we put our analytical methodological approaches together and joined forces with practitioners at the coalface of 'systemic' contemporary challenges.
The overall reaction to the experience, as captured during the workshop and in subsequent feedback questionnaires, was very positive. Though it was noted that the actual knowledge of hitching itself was not necessarily particularly useful for co-operatives per se, the process of coming together through this had been valuable, that the 'meshing' of the two subjects in this manner had produced new and potentially useful insights. This is a particularly important conclusion because it explains the nature of contextual transposition as a process that is distinct from the use of analogies or metaphors. Analogies and metaphors suggest a structural 'homomorphism' (the preservation of certain structural characteristics) between different domains or contexts (Gentner 1983). But the identified value of the proposed process from the participants indicated a slightly different process: the transposition from one domain to another was not acting as a process for preserving useful structural characteristics, but rather was acting as a springboard for generating new or previously unobserved structures within a new context. An exercise in infrastructuring in itself.
Many of the participants suggested that the resilience cards were the most effective tools for reflection in the process. It was reported that the quotes drawn from the ethnographic research helped to open up conversation in a way that would probably have not been possible if they had simply been talking without such prompts. This observation may indicate the importance of grounding cultural transpositions into specific grounded instances (e.g. stories, pictures or objects) rather than solely using abstractions that are induced from a certain context (like 'time', 'risk' or 'reciprocity'). In parallel, this observation may also suggest that participants engaged with the intrinsic aspects and imperatives of hitchhiking rather than a collection of abstract concepts such as reciprocity, risk or time. In this way this 'sprint' experiment thus suggests that further fruitful study may be made of the way in which high-level abstract concepts may be interpreted and explored within specific contexts and then transposed into new domains as an inventive method for future making.
Exploitation Route A paper is being prepared for the 2015 Design Research Society Conference. This will allow the findings and methodological innovations detailed here to be disseminated further.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport

Description The research provided an opportunity for the housing co-op members involved to meet each other, network and discuss issues related to such organizations.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title Contextual Transposition 
Description The intention was to elaborate a process whereby knowledge, strategies, tactics and the everyday practices that make hitching 'a practice' could be mobilised, and applied as a mechanism for developing knowledge and insights in other contexts. The intuition was that there was value in moving a practice into a different 'register' of infrastructuring, because this opens up important social issues for creative in(ter)vention and augments existing cultural, participatory and 'infrastructuring' design methods (e.g. Greenbaum and Kyng 1991, Casakin 2002, Randall et al. 2007, Ehn 2008, Blaikie 2009, Sanders and Stappers 2014). Thought experiments explored how one might, for example, 'hitch' a better ride in healthcare, education or housing systems. Hitching practices within automobility systems include 'knowing the territory' of motorway, road networks, and service stations and 'reading drivers' to understand their constraints, but also their (potentially exploitative) expectations (see Section 4 below for more). Hitching practices are themselves 'on the move', with practices such as 'slugging', the act of informal car-pooling, being incorporated from other configurations of mobility such as public transport (BBC 2006). These dynamic practices shape the automobility system from within by finding cracks and holds for alternative routes and means of travel. Contextual transposition of these practices might offer patients, students or tenants new forms of knowledge and control of their systems, and it brings practitioners, designers and social scientists together in an endeavour of defining and 'designing' 'better' social futures. Of course, the history of design is full of transpositions and abstractions, to the extent that they can be claimed to be a fundamental design principle. 'Cultural transposition', defined as the projection or mapping of ideas and knowledge from one situation to another, can be associated with cognitive process such as associative (e.g. Koestler, 1964), analogical (e.g. Leclercq and Heylighen, 2002; Casakin and Goldschmidt, 1999) or metaphorical reasoning (e.g Casakin, 2002). Indeed in psychology and design research all these practices have been widely studied as essential processes that underlie creative and design thinking (e.g. Gadwal and Linsey, 2010). In these studies, the emphasis is placed on the use of this type of reasoning as a tool for generating solutions to problems by preserving certain structural imperatives from one domain to another (Gentner and Markman, 1997; Gentner, 1983). The idea of contextual transposition in this study takes a slightly different perspective, however. Here the focus is on the potential for generating new insights or knowledge by overlaying two different domains together as opposed to attempting to generate solutions that adopt or adapt certain principles from one domain to another. 'Contextual transposition', as it is understood here, thus depends upon diverse traditions concerned with the relationship between social research, design and social, technical, and organizational innovation. These include participatory and collaborative design (Greenbaum and Kyng, 1991), ethnomethodology (Randall, Harper & Rouncefield, 2007), mobile and inventive methods (Fincham, McGuinness & Murray, 2009: Büscher, Urry & Witchger, 2011; Lury and Wakeford, 2012), generative, critical and speculative design research (Sanders and Stappers, 2014: Michael et al. 2015), research co-creation (Chapman & Sawchuk 2012) and engaged science and technology studies (STS) (Sismondo, 2008). The intention was not to conceptualize contextual transposition as a form of 'contextual design', which collects data about users' intents and desires for design (Beyer and Holtzblatt, 1998, 2014). Rather the approach is collaborative and practice focused. It builds out from co-creation of qualitative social research, which generates rich descriptions of contextures of practice (in this case hitchhiking). Theoretical and practice-based design approaches and collaborative design activities with practice experts (hitchhikers and housing cooperative members in our case) accompany qualitative research with the aim being to support practitioners in the transposition of practices from one context to another. Transposition thus involves the collaborative, situated 'design' of practices, especially practices of infrastructuring (Star and Ruhleder, 1997; Ehn, 2008). Such a methodology allows researcher and practitioner collectives to explore and 'design' social futures; social in the sense of being, in important respects, 'in' the social and material practices of infrastructuring that hold socio-technical systems like automobility, healthcare, education, housing together. Contextual Transposition is therefore a way of experimenting with defining and 'designing' social processes in 'better' ways by revealing unexpected openings that can be made use of. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact None as yet 
Description Rules of Thumb: The Glass-House Collaboration 
Organisation Glass-House Community Led Design
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The research team worked with Louise Dredge, Outreach and Impact manager, in the development and implementation of the project.
Collaborator Contribution Through Louise Dredge, Outreach and Impact Manager, The Glass-House Community Led Design provided premises for meetings in the development of the project. Louise also provided design work, and collaborated in the implementation of the final phase of the project, whereby a day and a half workshop was held at the University of Brighton
Impact This collaboration resulted in the holding of a one and a half day workshop at the University of Brighton whereby participants from housing co-operatives tested the Hitching Kit game/exercise developed through the project. The collaboration was interdisciplinary involving social science; design; and a design history/cultural history.
Start Year 2015
Description Rules of Thumb Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The workshop, which represented the final phase of the project, was attended by nine members of housing co-operatives: Rosa Bridge(Brighton); Susses Co-housing (Brighton); Brandrams Wharf (London); Sandford's Housing Co-op (London). The workshop involved discussion of issues concerned with the setting-up and maintenance of such co-ops. Following the workshop those involved from the co-ops reported that it was very useful in thinking such issues through and resolved to remain in contact.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015