Political Design and Social Change

Over Christmas I helped write a funding application to the AHRC Connected Communities and Design Highlight with Janet Batsleer, Nic Whitton and Tony Fry (Griffith University).  The highlight was to explore design thinking in a context of bringing communities together. I’m a bit of a social innovation hobbyist, and as part of that I’m fascinated by design thinking and service design .  I like any framework, methodology or set of practices that are supposedly generalizable tools for getting stuff done, and design is definitely a Swiss-army-knife kind of a social technology. The basic idea is that where design principles were applied to making chairs and other products, now design thinking is used, for example, to improve services working with vulnerable groups (e.g., Participle).  Service designers are the social scientist’s cooler younger brother/ sister, with their funky glasses and better hair to our corduroys and disapproving looks.

The idea for our project emerged out of a discussion with @JayneLawton when she explained that (ex-) homeless people maintain Sackville Gardens in Manchester city centre.  An interesting question from this was how could we make visible and communicate the contribution of these people to the community, especially as someone walking past might just assume if, for example, the gardeners were taking a break that this was just a bunch of homeless guys ruining an urban oasis in a mixed retail and leisure zone.

In discussing the tensions and potentials of this site we quickly came to realise how the philosophy of Jaques Ranciere was incredibly useful in providing an analysis of the exclusion of those present but not part of a community.  Drawing on the concepts of the sans papiers, the distribution of the sensible, and dissensus we were able to conceptualise the sorts of conditions and processes through which the ‘sans receipts’ (those without the money to inhabit urban spaces) could be visible and heard, redefining the rules that govern who is part of a community.

This brought us into the uber-cool (to me anyway) world of political design (see DiSalvo 2010) and design activism (Markussen 2011). Political design draws on art, design, digital technologies and a range of other practices to create installations that provoke discussion and social change. Prominent examples are:

Doug Easterly and Matt Kenyon’s Spore 1.1

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“Spore 1.1 is a self-sustaining ecosystem for a rubber tree plant purchased at Home Depot. In this project, Home Depot is responsible for the plant in two ways: first, an unconditional guarantee to replace any plant they sell, for up to one year; second through an implied cybernetic contract. This second responsibility is the creative content for the work, where the economic health of Home Depot is transitioned through a series of physical computing techniques to a mechanism for controlling the watering of the rubber tree.

An onboard computer uses a Wi-Fi connection to access Home Depot stock quotes once per week, keeping a database of the week’s ending stock values. From the fluctuations in Home Depot stock, programs and circuitry connected to the rubber tree are controlled accordingly. If the company does well by showing stock growth, so does the plant – if the company suffers losses, Spore 1.1 does not get watered. If the plant should parish, due to poor stock performance, it is returned to the Home Depot and replaced with another-at no additional cost.” (Quoted from here)

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Kurgan’s Million Dollar block project (read about it here) creates maps that identifies the amount spent on incarcerating citizens in terms of where – the blocks – prisoners lived.  These data representations make clear that the government spends over a million dollars on imprisoning the residents on some blocks in particular neighbourhoods. This raises the question of how the state invests in communities in particular ways, in terms of prisons and divesting rather than in investing in people.

Natalie Jeremijenko’s NoPark is located in emergency spaces, where spaces are left for emergency vehicles can park in case of fires.  The installation transposes the global emergency of climate change in the local by planting a reed bed that filters break fluid and uric acid that washes off the street to prevent it contaminating the water supply. The mini-parks also provide a space where people can meet and talk.

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The strengths of these sorts of installations is that they communicate complex, structural issues in concrete and tangible ways. There are loads of such examples but one criticism is that these are small-scale, elite and exclusive projects that seek to engage the engaged rather than create meaningful changes to the way the vast majority people experience the world (Markussen 2011).  Jeremijenko’s NoPark arguably could be everywhere but in the main the charge stands. This is important because when we spoke to potential participants as part of the development of the application, some were interested and some were a bit put off by the idea of these, perhaps, gimmicky projects. One woman said, “That’s all well and good but if you ask people what they want in Manchester, they want jobs or skills to get jobs.” If funded, we hope to bring together the provocative and arresting content of political design with the participatory, inclusive and practicable of more mainstream approaches to design.

This is no mean feat. How do you create something that is political and provocative yet useful, scalable and that can provide jobs?

I have an idea.

Tax is an incredibly important political and social issue.  There are coffee shops that don’t pay (much) tax but for a variety of arbitrary and questionable reasons their tax affairs do not need to be made public in the premises in the same way as health and safety information. Through a membership-scheme businesses could advertise through augmented reality where they pay tax and how they contribute to the community.  As easily as you can find via Google how far the nearest pizza parlour you could find the nearest coffee shop that pays tax. If you are standing outside, the tax and employment status of the business could be represented virtually to remind you.  British lions could roar if the business banks in Switzerland.

There are many issues with such a project. It uses exclusive and expensive technology to supposedly include the poor.  Furthermore, what new information does this provide? People know that some businesses don’t pay tax and might only want a coffee in peace and quiet, even if they were forced to think about it we might prefer to ignore it while we sip and read.

I acknowledge these concerns but think that such projects are still worthwhile.  To refuse them outright ignores how our lives, thinking and society are drip-drip-drip defined by subtle makers and dynamics. Prices and costs are everywhere.  What we think of as ‘public’ space is typically owned by some company or other and our right to remain is conditional, usually on buying something or at least fitting in. Our aesthetic experience is intricately and (new word) entanglingly consumerist. To ignore the potential of new technologies to represent and provoke new realities, at least before they are dominated by capitalist concerns, is I would argue to admit defeat.

James Duggan

Embedded Research for Emerging Researchers

Every PhD is a different shade of excruciating. Mine was no different. My PhD was however, like a growing number of studentships, partly funded by the organisation I was researching, as part of an ESRC Case Studentship. This type of research is called ’embedded research’ and two friends of mine Ruth McGinity (University of Manchester) and Maija Salokangas (Trinity College, Dublin) have started an academic network exploring the various trials, tribulations and ethical harrumphs of doing paid-for research (see here). Ruth and Maija have edited a special issue “‘Embedded research’ as an approach into academia for emerging researchers” that’s just been published in Management in Education.

When I started my PhD, I imagined that if my time wouldn’t be spent playing golf with the DCS and council Chief Exec and words and ideas pondered over and put into practice… then I’d at least be a critical friend to those working in the council. A critical friend is a commonly used definition for understanding an academic-practitioner relationship, where equals come together in a robust relationship of challenge and support to improve practice. I quickly found myself to be less of a friend to the senior managers I was researching than a critical nephew, with the real relationship being between the managers and supervisors. Then once all the managers I worked with moved on and the initiative I was researching died I found myself to be critical orphan. The article is a Dickensian tale of a plucky young street urchin trying his luck, getting help and getting on, and not making a fortune:

Critical friendship and critical orphanship: Embedded research of an English local authority initiative

The article engages with the opportunities and constraints raised by embedded research during times of rapid and extensive organisational change. Embedded research is an increasingly common approach for funding PhD studentships. The rapid and extensive reforms of the English public sector pose significant and underexplored challenges for embedded researchers and research. The author was embedded during his PhD and here he explores different metaphors – ‘critical friend’, ‘critical nephew’ and ‘critical orphan’ – to define the relationship between himself and the organisation in which he was embedded. The methodological and theoretical development of the research is then outlined in terms of the autonomy and access of the ‘critical orphan’ embedded research relationship. The article concludes that although ‘orphanship’ can be a positive development for the research, the lack of contribution to the sponsor organisation may prevent the further development of embedded research relationships in public sector organisations.

There’s lots of great articles by other embedded researchers in the special issue. So take a look.

James Duggan

Prof @ruthlupton’s Professorial Lecture – Poverty, Inequality and Education: A Manchester Perspective

Prof Ruth Lupton (University of Manchester) gave her inaugural professorial lecture ‘Poverty, Inequality and Education: A Manchester Perspective’ at the launch of the Manchester Institute of Education, on Monday 20th January. The departure point for the lecture was Stephen Ball’s (2013) observation that educational policy has become divorced from society’s growing structural inequality. With the de-unionisation, liberalisation and hollowing out of the labour market increasing numbers of adults, parents and future employees (children and young people) have to cope with there being fewer rungs on the ladder and bigger gaps between them, while enduring the uncertainty and precarity (Standing 2011) of low-pay, no-pay, low-pay cycles of underemployment, zero-hour contracts and agency work.

Despite these changes to society educational policy has remained the same with three tired approaches for conceptualising education: education for economic growth, social mobility, and economic equality. With different emphasises these undergird the unassailable link between education and future economic contribution and affluence. Thus although the link between education and the economy tends to instrumentalise education and reduce it to credentialism, any advocate of change must provide a substantive response to claims that they are defeatist or ‘the enemy of promise’ and indeed be aware that education is serious stuff especially for marginalised children with the most to gain from a great education.

Ruth noted that the relentless focus on standards has improved standards, including for those on Free School Meals, yet children from more privileged backgrounds have maintained their advantages on key criteria such as in the English Baccalaureate and facilitating subjects.  Private tutors and UCAS coaching are part of a ratcheting up of the effort and resources required to compete/ participate in the education system.  As some children become the equivalent of thoroughbred race horses those without the financial, social and cultural capital realise that they aren’t in a position to compete and disengage. National policy makers love aspiration, the higher the aspirations the higher the individual rises, however,

The problem is that low or limited aspirations may, at least in part, reflect knowledge of the state of the job market and the nature of the competition for those jobs/good jobs that are available. In other words, aspirations are sometimes structured, at least in part, by material conditions rather than simply reflecting individual attitudes/states of mind, or a sense of individual or collective defeatism. Those who believe, perhaps because of knowledge of the labour market or the experience of family members, that they are likely to be destined for bad jobs or unemployment are liable to perceive limited incentives to invest in learning and achievement. (Keep 2012: 16/17)

If society is not to be made fairer educational policy is, channelling Lawrence of Arabia, saying, “The trick, little Jimmy, is not minding that it’s unequal.”  Indeed, following on from this, arguments are being presented that the trick for policy is not minding those overly affected by inequality. Crawford et al (2011) in a literature review for BIS argue that where money is limited it might be best to leave the hardest to reach, the hindmost as they are sometimes called, to the devil,

Policies aimed at improving social mobility are often targeted on the most disadvantaged individuals and specifically the least skilled. Perhaps counter- intuitively, this may not be the most efficient way of improving mobility. Evidence on skill complementarity suggests that investing in individuals with only very low levels of skill will be costly, and that achieving gains in their cognitive skills in particular will be difficult. For the individual however some of these investments may still mean an increase in wage.6 Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that the UK labour market is “hollowing out”, i.e. that there are fewer jobs in the middle, though the picture does look somewhat different if one considers jobs by skill level rather than income level and this evidence is still contentious. This feature of the labour market does, however, have potentially important implications for how we might intervene to improve social mobility. It suggests that it will be harder and more costly to help those at the bottom to move up a bit than it will be to help those somewhat above the bottom to move higher. It is therefore worth considering interventions that are not exclusively targeted at the bottom of the skill/deprivation distribution.

As John Marsh (2011) has argued that we can’t educate our way out of inequality and what is needed is a profound rethinking of education, where education is about learning not earning and creating the scope for a much broader and enriching curriculum.  Yet disconnecting education from the economy and future working would require an almost unimaginable sea-change in attitudes and would result in an unwarranted separation.

The question is what to do about this? Ruth offered a few insights in what this might look like in Manchester.  Learning from but not copying Finland was one idea. Another was for Manchester to argue under the localism act that they need local control over the education system to reduce the fragmentation caused by national policy and create integrated structures and approaches to the region’s common problems and future vision.

All that is to be figured out, what is clearer is what academics might do. Ruth cited Lorna Unwin’s professorial lecture that researchers have been rendered passive by focusing too much on policy critique. What we need to do if focus now on the research and development of developing the alternative, which means working with practitioners and the general getting dirty of hands.

James Duggan

Never let statistics spoil a good story: teachers and pupils at risk

(Please see a slightly different version of this in the The Conversation  available here)

The mainstream discourse around child abuse and protection is vigorously policed; anyone who deviates from the correct message can suffer. Thus it seems prudent to mention my many years as a child protection social worker, my abhorrence of abuse, my agreement that abusers should face disciplinary or legal consequences, and my default doubts about sexual relationships between people of very different ages. This being said, it is still possible to query many dominant assumptions and practices around the issue of abuse and protection in general, and to problematise many aspects of a news story initiated by the BBC yesterday (I6th January).

The report, that between 2008 and 2013, ‘at least 959’ (and possibly more) teachers were investigated for allegedly having inappropriate relationships with pupils, with around 250 actually prosecuted, was picked up and run in shortened or elaborated forms by many newspapers, broadcasters, and websites. Beyond a few additional quotes and comments from concerned parties (teaching unions and child protection agencies) there appeared to be nothing in the report that was not included in a BBC Radio1 Stories: Tempted by Teacher documentary, broadcast with musical interludes, in August 2013. It featured emotional testimony from a woman damaged by a seriously abusive sexual relationship with a teacher. The only new information was the figures derived from the Freedom of Information requests. The story, and the way it was formulaically retold, illustrates many of the difficulties attached to trying to understand or seriously discuss emotive issues like this. In a brief note only a few points can be raised.

The ‘statistics’ supporting the story were imprecise in many ways, some acknowledged. Not all local authorities responded to the freedom of information request; academies and private schools were not included; the precise nature of the misdemeanour prompting the investigations was unclear; and whether prosecutions produced guilty or not-guilty verdicts was unknown. Yet such flimsy information, presented as ‘hard’ numbers, was sufficient to carry the weight of headlines and news items. The existence of a number seemed to justify the sudden interest, with little reflection on its status or context. A comment from a NSPCC representative, that ‘in the context of eight million pupils and 400,000 teachers the number of teacher-pupil relationships is tiny’ was a welcome surprise, even though tempered by the obligatory ‘but one is one too many’. It seems foolish to waste energy on analysing such ‘data’, but even if nearly 2000 teachers had been accused over 5 years (double the number claimed) the annual incidence rate looks to be 0.001%. This begs the question of how low the figure needed to be for it not to have justified the news item.

That such ‘information’ can prompt a flood of breathless reporting demonstrates the power of the emotive public narrative to which the stories conformed. Serious analysis was unnecessary; all that was needed was to pile-in reference to sex, abuse, children, and adults. The simplistic script into which these constituents fit snugly is commonly understood now: all children are potential victims, permanently at risk, and all adults (‘other’ adults) are dangerous. This discourse is sustained by relatively few really horrible incidents, but its impact on school and other in loco parentis settings is extremely damaging. Relationships between teachers and young people have been rendered toxic, as (given the harm caused by any allegation) each party is now apparently dangerous to the other. In response these relationships have been sterilised and shorn of valuable elements of human development, like touch and normal friendliness. A common response to the danger in intergenerational interaction is to do everything in public, with witnesses, under surveillance. In reality this offers no real defence against abuse, no protection for teachers, and is fundamentally damaging to human trust and social wellbeing. It cannot be sensible to require good people, with no abusive interest or intent, to think and act as if they and their colleagues are abusers with something to hide.

Although media discussion of the ‘story’ included mention of misguided or false allegations which damage teachers’ careers irreparably, the real fuzziness of the category of ‘being investigated’ remains unacknowledged. In interviews with former teachers for my book in 2010 with Pat Sikes (Researching Sex and Lies in the Classroom: Allegations of Sexual Misconduct in Schools, London, Routledge), I encountered a music specialist who was reported to school managers for having insisted teenage pupils loosen their ties before singing, and for allegedly dropping paper so as to view female pupil’s legs while retrieving it. Sadly, it is currently heresy to suggest that some teenagers may sometimes exaggerate. The investigation and suspension took months, ended with his name being cleared, but prompted early retirement. Another respondent, a male primary teacher, completed a prison sentence before being exonerated at the Court of Appeal. His alleged misdemeanours were solely in the eye of the beholder (I have read the full transcript); some parents had taken against him and had badgered their children for negative reports. A similar story of teacher Neil Carr was recently reported from Greater Manchester (read here). Common to many such stories is the anxiety and ineffectiveness of school managers in responding to reports and allegations, preferring to push them onward and upward for fear of personal and professional damage. Yet all those I came into contact with eventually had their name cleared although not in time to save their careers, accompanying depression, suicidal thoughts, and often family breakdown.

However, in the present situation, fear, panic, and muddled thinking is the norm and almost to be expected. Risk is commonly misunderstood. This is not helped by pot-boiling creation of ‘news’, or by the vigorous defence by some organisations of the contemporary fear-and-control based discourse, in which they have significant capital invested.

Heather Piper

Words and Meaning in Peacetime and War

We’re all busy writing funding applications here at ESRI so not much time to write blog posts. Such is the life of the jobbing academic. So I’ve just got time for a quick post.

While reading about the mind-bendingly accomplished Rory Stewart MP (read here), I was interested in what he said about the language of post-war reconstruction:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

 In my research I’m fascinated in how buzzwords such as culture change, leadership and collaboration are deployed in public sector policy and practice in similar ways to mask things that we don’t really know what to do. Like Stewart, I’m always more interested in ‘how it’s done’.

When the bids are in we’ll be back with something a little more substantial.

James Duggan

20 Years of School Libraries in Chile

2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of a school libraries programme in Chile. When the programme was introduced, just four years after the restoration of democracy, school libraries were in a “precarious and neglected” state. Where they existed, they were, “dark, uncomfortable, very poorly equipped areas”, essentially archives which did not allow teachers or students direct access to resources.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Twenty years on, and 95% of schools now have a Learning Resource Centre (Centro de Recursos para el Aprendizaje or CRA). In comparison, in 2010, only 81% of UK primary schools had a school library. I’ve been following the progress of this programme for the last ten years, since I was involved in its evaluation in 2004. There have been substantial improvements to school library accommodation and resources in Chile, via a programme to provide both curricular resources and recreational materials, as well as improving access to the internet and other technologies. Equally important have been the focus on training for library staff through both face-to-face and distance training opportunities, and on developing programmes of information skills teaching for students.

School libraries have now been incorporated into the legislative framework through Chile’s Educational Quality Agency and the system has become sufficiently well-established to allow greater responsibility to be devolved to regions. These achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that, despite being home to renown literary figures such as Gabriel Mistral and Pablo Neruda, Chile is not a strongly bibliophilic country. According to one survey, 45% of Chilean adults read no books at all and many students will have few, if any, books at home.

Chile’s education system has been widely criticised for it inequality in recent years, but its school libraries programme is one of the areas of which it can be proud. It has been supported by successive governments and is clearly valued by students. The programme’s aims go far beyond the mere provision of learning resources; it encourages independent and active learning, and supports curriculum planning, as well as building on Chile’s strong oral tradition to foster a love of reading and storytelling.

All in all, it’s a remarkable achievement in twenty years. It’s work which has required considerable vision, commitment and persistence! There are still improvements to be made of course, but for their achievements to date, the work of the Bibliotecas Escolares CRA team deserves recognition far beyond Chile.

Sarah McNicol