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Preview of the Living Lab for (digital) life

The workshop that Drew Mackie and I ran last week, exploring how to help people adopt digital technology, is part of a suite of games and other methods we are developing, with Sangeet Bhullar, under the title of Living Lab. I wrote then that I would explain further – so here goes.

The Lab idea follows on, in part, from work we did for Nominet Trust on the usefulness of technology at different time of life: firstly for young people, and then for later life. We now have a proposal in with their funding challenge on technology during life transitions.

I’m naturally delighted that we are through to the second round. As well as filling in the appropriate forms we were asked to provide a short video, which is here. I confess I left it rather to the last minute – but the Trust were very helpful in saying they wanted enthusiasm rather than high production values, so I hope it does the job. Drew provided the illustrations.

Below is the backup document that we also submitted. This further diagram from Drew makes the connections between the different elements in the Lab, showing how the three basic activities of Games, Storytelling and Network Mapping can combine to:

  • Define connections between individuals, groups and agencies.
  • Locate assets that might be shared
  • Develop the personas that are typical of the community of users, and the digital literacies they need
  • Define the tech selections and workflows that would benefit the personas
  • Assess the implications for strategy

Element of Living Lab
Here’s the document supporting our proposal.

The Living Lab is a space to explore, online and face-to-face, how we can use personal technology to make the most of life, at whatever age. Our two explorations for Nominet Trust showed the importance of digital technology for young and older people, particularly at times of change.

We distilled common principles for policy and investment from a wealth of examples, heaps of research, and scores of innovative projects. But general principles are of little practical use in finding what might work for an individual, their friend, children, or elderly parents.

The reason is that everyone’s needs, skills, circumstances and preferences are different, so one digital size doesn’t fit all. Outside organisational systems, all technology adoption is personal. If people can’t understand and choose, they can’t enjoy the benefits.

And being smart with computers doesn’t mean you necessarily have the digital literacies needed for meaningful and safe online participation for young and old online, or can advise and support people on smartphones and tablets.

This raises a number of challenges:

  • How can organisations, that are aiming to help, understand diverse personal needs, match those with rapidly changing technology, and scale up support?
  • How do we ensure that all those involved in providing support to others also have the necessary digital literacies to inspire and engage young and old to develop their own knowledge, understanding and personal learning journeys (online and offline)?
  • What might these look like and what are the digital literacies needed by all involved in the process, to create a supportive ecosystem, able to respond to individual and diverse needs and interests? How best should this be delivered?

The Living Lab provides a way for individuals, groups and organisations to explore these issues, learn about possibilities, and plan ways forward.

Over the past 30 years, working in community engagement and social technology, Drew Mackie and David Wilcox have found three approaches that work well. Firstly, games enable people to play through possibilities. Secondly, stories make the use of technology human. Thirdly, networks enable learning together.

The Lab will add another dimension by combining these three elements with the essential ingredient of digital literacy.

In the last 20 years, Sangeet Bhullar’s work has focused on supporting adults and young people to develop a critical and meaningful understanding of online spaces, services and communities (referred to here as digital literacy), as well as the necessary digital competencies needed to benefit from these online communities and services, and use them safely.

Together we are creating a suite of workshop games about choosing and using technology, developed from experience over the past 15 years. These are linked with group storytelling techniques designed to bring to life a range fictitious characters and their experiences. We will use some elements of the game as well as stand-alone exercises to help explore and develop the baseline and other digital competencies needed for positive and safe online experiences.

We have developed the fictitious town of Slipham, populated with some engaging characters and supportive organisations, to provide the context for the games, stories and the way networks and digital literacies can develop.

Slipham also provides a set of networks through which the various connective needs of individuals, community groups, enterprises and agencies can be explored. Existing assets (skills, equipment, premises, organisational structures, etc) are also modelled.

All games materials will be available online for download, with Creative Commons licenses, and each element will link to further resources online. Together they will create:

  • A DIY system that can be used face-to-face and online by anyone without our support.
  • An open process of gathering stories, situations, and methods to foster a network of people interested in further development.
  • An open source framework within which others can add or develop solutions.
  • A space to explore the digital literacies needed for effective online use, and the implications of the move towards personal, mobile, “appified” technology solutions.

We already have a range of workshop materials that can be developed for DIY use. We have started to build a site where workshop cards provide a design framework to link through to more resources onsite and elsewhere.

Here’s some of the work that we have done that underpins our approach.

Guides examples:

Games examples:


The idea of Living Labs

  • Wikipedia
  • Open Living Labs network
  • The Digital Practitioner – Digital Leader Programme Collaborative Blog – a collaborative blog developed for a ‘Digital Leader’ programme to support Community Digital Inclusion workers and volunteers develop their own knowledge, skills and digital literacy so that they could, in turn, provide better support to their organisations, peers and service users in their use of online technologies.

Update April 10 2014: we have now learned that we were unsuccessful in the bid to Nominet Trust, who said “although we were incredibly inspired by your proposal, we are simply unable to fund all of the high quality applications we receive.” However, we do have a number of projects through which we are starting to build elements of the Lab, and will be seeking investment elsewhere.

A suitable role for social reporters – tellers of naïve stories

The big thing in marketing, politics, knowledge management – and of course social networking – is conversations and stories rather than boring old documents and data. Well, of course we need those too – but the way to communicate is to tell a story. That’s good isn’t it? Well, not necessarily.
Today at an RSA event the French writer and researcher Christian Salmon gave us the core narrative of his book: Storytelling – Bewitching the Modern Mind. With a few stories thrown in.
Christian main point was that over the past 20 years politicians and corporations have become adept at developing sound bite stories, and offering us images, that increasingly frame the way we see and talk about the world. Spin is inviting us to become part of their story. As Christian’s publishers put:

Ever since its emergence, humanity has cultivated the art of telling stories, an art that is everywhere at the heart of the social bond. But since the 1990s, first in the US and then in Europe, this art has been colonized by the domain of public relations and triumphant capitalism, and relabelled with the anodyne name of “storytelling.” This has become a weapon in the hands of marketing, management and political gurus, so as to better format the minds of consumers and citizens. Behind the advertising campaigns, but also in the shadows of victorious electoral campaigns from Bush to Sarkozy and Obama hide sophisticated “storytelling management” or “digital storytelling” technicians.

There’s a good summary here from Christian of how George Bush and the Pentagon operated, complete with Hollywood designed settings. One powerful story used to justify war with the Taliban – repeated by a number of politicians says Christian – was that they threated to pull out women’s finger nails if they had used nail varnish. It was, he maintains, promoted on both sides of the Atlantic by political advisers … but his research showed only an account in a 1996 Amnesty report of a single instance that was not fully substantiated. It was what people might wish to believe, particularly when told by Laura Bush. (That’s not to dismiss other Taliban codes)
Towards the end of Christian’s presentation, very ably translated by Michael Wells, Christian referred to a request from Gogol, when exiled in Rome, for friends back home in Russia to send him everyday stories of peasants and bureaucrats, civil servants and money lenders … “give me your naive stories of the world” he begged.
That’s a nice line, I thought. Maybe one role for social reporters is to tell – and help others tell – naïve and honest stories in what has been called dismissively, by the spinners, “the reality-based community”.
After the lecture I asked Christian about the potential for naïve storytelling, and also picked up another point he made about the way that social networks encourage storytelling … but may lend their own distortions. I’m not sure we connected completely, despite Michael’s best efforts, and Christian’s willingness to pick up on the idea. It needs a longer discussion. Meanwhile I have a fascinating book to read about the inherent dangers of storytelling, with an inscription encouraging social reporters in the art of naïve storytelling.