On “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory”

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

When I was floundering about in graduate school, I read “Aramis or the love of technology” cover to cover. At the time, I was obsessed by the then state-of-the-art ASRS automated materials storage system that had just been installed at the heart of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC. Now, of course you can find automated, miniature sorting and retrieval systems at public libraries, and Amazon’s warehousing and delivery systems are Things of public legend:

My first steps into ANT were to ponder mediation, affordances, and the classic Engstrom activity theory model with Mary Bryson.

That led me to think  about the assemblage of scholars, librarians, research knowledge artefacts, research libraries, giant climate-controlled storage environments, retrieval robots, computer networks, and the software that connects them. I even delved into the military-industrial history of the development of automated storage by the RAND corporation in the glorious, Modern 50s.

Which brings me to “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory“. The book presents Latour’s explanation of the basic premises and implications of Actor-Network Theory. Its object is social science in general, and sociology in particular. Latour presents a methodology of activity-network theory.  It is a history of ANT and a history of the Science Wars from the 1990s. Strangely, reading Latour brought be back to sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in 1996 as an English undergraduate, listening to an “As it Happens” interview about the Sokal Affair and those long-ago attacks on postmodernism.

I am struck by the sorts questions that Latour offers as a heuristic for courageous analysts to follow:

  1. What controversies? What actants? Where do they lead?
  2. “Where are the structural effects actually being produced” (p.174)
  3. “in which movie theatre, in which exhibit gallery is […The Big Picture…] shown? Through which optics is it projected? To which audience is it addressed? (p.187)
  4. “In which room? In which panorama? Through which medium? With which stage manager? How much?” (p.189)
  5. “How is the local itself being generated?” (p.192)
  6. “Where are the other vehicles that transport individuality, subjectivity, personhood, and interiority?” (p.206)
  7. What form “allows something else to be transported from on site to another?” (p.222)
  8. What happens upstream and downstream of the situation where subject and object arise? (p.237)

I doubt many people outside of academia will want to read this book but it offers a masterclass in how to question the most basic assumptions that most people take for granted, particularly society, culture, nature, science and politics.

Students of higher education will enjoy how Latour uses the example of a university professor lecturing in a lecture hall to explore how cognitive abilities assemble and are shaped by the scripts, forms, capabilities, and materials.

Despondent graduate students wrestling with theses can take solace from Latour’s perspective on academic writing. In a nutshell, write the 40,000 words and move on to the next challenge. One text does not a career make. Academics can also learn a lot from Latour about writing. Even though his text is complex, Latour is also entertaining, self-aware and humorous.

Thoughtful designers may want to consider Latour’s analysis of the relation between local, global and context in connection with the recent practical scholarship on context for post-thing design. For example, part of me wants to reconsider Andrew Hinton’s “Understanding Context“, Resmini and Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture” and Thomas Wendt’s “Design for Dasein” with Latour in mind. If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social in the context of design before designing solutions or platforms. Furthermore, reading Latour made me wonder what ANT might offer design for social innovation. social innovation should embrace concepts like cosmopolitan-localism and rely on “sociologists of the social”, as Ezio Manzini suggests.

If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social present the context of design before designing solutions or platforms?

On “Design, When Everybody Designs” and “Making Futures”

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

This fall, I have read Ezio Manzini’s “Design, When Everybody Designs” (2015) and Ehn, Nillsson, and Topgaard’s collection.  “Making Futures: Marginal Notes on Innovation, Design, and Democracy” (2014).

Manzini is a leading design researcher and theorist, particularly in the field of design for social innovation. Manzini applies many of the sociological theories about risk and the life course  that I had read with Lesley Andres at UBC  in 2003. Manzini’s answer to the risk, uncertainty individuals and communities face is designed collaborative organizations and encounters.

This most useful section of the book, I think is the chapter dedicated to “Collaborative Encounters”, which draws on Martin Buber and theories of participation and social ties to demonstrate how to map services. The last section of this book work through the practical steps of representing collaborative designs and creating the conditions for social innovations to flourish.

Another theme of the book is the relationship between professional design and co-design with publics. Unlike Dan Hill and Thomas Wendt and other design theorists, Manzini seems less critical of design thinking and more conciliatory in his view on the relationship between expert design and diffuse design.

My favourite concept in Mazini’s book is “cosmopolitan localism“, which he borrows sustainable development. Since I read “Design, When Everybody Designs”, I’ve been working through Bruno Latour’s “Introduction to Actor-Network Theory”, which will merit a future post of its own. But for now I note that Mazini is relying on many studies that would fall into the category of “the sociology of the social”, and I wonder what the notion of design for social innovation might look like through the lens of Actor-Network Theory, which resists the global-local binary and questions the existence of macro social theories and models.

Watch Manzini introduce “Design, When Everybody Designs earlier this year at the University of Malmo:

Read Cameron Tonkinwise’s review of “Design, When Everybody Designs”


 

“Making Futures” is a wide-ranging poly vocal collection of case studies of participatory design work undertaken by design researchers and a multiplicity of partner community groups, governments, and private sector players in Malmö, Sweden.

Two concepts that sticks with me from “Making Futures”. infrastructuring suggests designers (or other change agents) need to foster long-term working relationships with partner community organizations rather than adopting a project orientation. The other concept is  friendly hacking, which seems to also be circulating in the design for policy literature.

“Making Furtures” is much more academic than “Design, When Everybody Designs” and my favourite chapters were  Erling Björgvinsson’s study of the complexity of collaborations for grassroots journalism and Per Linde and Karen Book’s case study of  place-making by youth groups

A key consideration in both books is the issue of scale and the question of how to create the conditions for collaborative innovations to flourish in neighbourhoods, cities, regions and across countries.. “Making Futures” tackles the political and power dimensions of collaboration between academics, government, community organizations and private sector organizations head on. Both books also consider how assemblages of people working together can collaborate to design and create scapes, places and interventions in the places which people inhabit.

Both books offer designers interested in collaborating with clients,and partners to bring social and community-based social innovations to life plenty of ideas for addressing complex challenges and enabling communities to flourish. For those who are tired of reading  service design method cookbooks, either book will infuse your practice with a hearty dose of theory and critical perspective.

If you have been reading either book, let me know what you find most useful or interesting in them.

 

Reading up on service design research

Reading time: 2 – 3 minutes

For fun on holiday, I started reading recently-published service design dissertations that are openly available on the internet. I owe Johan Blomkvist a debt of gratitude for the picture he published on Twitter that got me started:

Here is the list the studies I am exploring, including  some suggestions from Fabian Segelström , in alphabetical order:

Blomkvist, J. (2014). Representing Future Situations of Service: Prototyping in Service Design Linköping Studies in Arts and Science, Dissertation No.618. Linköping, Sweden: Linköping University Electronic Press.

Lee, J.J. (2012). Against Method: The portability of method in Human-Centered Design. PhD Dissertation. Helsinki, Finland: Aalto University.

Secomandi, F. (2012). Interface Matters: Postphenomenological perspectives on service design. PhD thesis. Delft, Netherlands. Delft University of Technology.

Segelström, F. (2013). Stakeholder Engagement for Service Design: How service designers identify and communicate insights. PhD thesis. Linköping, Sweden: Linköping University Electronic Press.

Vaajakallio, K. (2012). Design Games as a tool, a mindset, and a structure. PhD Dissertation. Helsinki, Finland: Aalto University.

Wetter-Edman, K. (2014). Design for Service: A framework for articulating designers’ contribution as interpreter of users’ experience. PhD thesis. Gothenburg, Sweden: ArtMonitor University of Gothenburg.

So far I have read Blomkvist, whose kappa on methodology was extremely helpful, and Segelström, whose studies on design ethnography  and participant observation of service design practice  helped me better distinguish anthropological and design ethnography  and offer a very useful process description for how service design consultancies work in practice. I will share more thoughts in the coming weeks..

Thanks to Jeff Sussna for pushing me to compile this list. If you know of any other cutting edge researchers in the field, please let me know.

On The Experience Economy

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

What does street theatre look like in your workplace? (Photo: July Pasterello)
What does street theatre look like in your workplace? (Photo: July Pasterello)

I decided to read Pine and Gilmore’s The Experience Economy (1999/2011) because it was frequently cited in Peter Benz’s recent collection on Experience Design.

Here,  Joseph  Pine introducing the concept of economic progression, which is at the heart of the The Experience Economy:

This theory makes for an entertaining business anecdote — the other famous one in the book is the fact that people are very happy to pay €17 for an expresso to sit amidst  St. Mark’s Square in Venice —  but I question the underlying model of economic development. (Thank you, Mary Bryson and Erica McWilliam for helping me to learning to question taken for granted concepts like development.) Only towards the end of the text do Pine and Gilmore point to business models that are social- or value-driven rather than simply capitalist in focus.

Pine and Gilmore’s text has lots to offer service and experience designers who are developing service- and experience-based business models. In fact, in the later parts of the book, the authors present the idea of transformation-focused business. Orginally written at the turn of the 21st century, this book resonates with transformative learning theory, which was at the peak of its popularity around the same time.

Pine and Gilmore have a penchant for models built around 2×2 matrices,  and they devote an early chapter to aspects of effective experience. Personally, I prefer Grimaldi’s adaptation of Desmet and Hekkert’s experience design framework because it is more flexible . Overall this book now seems a bit dated, having been surpassed by social innovation and the Internet of Things. What is lacking for me is serious critique. I found myself pining  for Ian Bogost’s amazing essay “Welcome to Dataland” as I read Pine and Gilmore’s retelling of the history of Disney experience design.

The chapter I like the most is entitled “Performing to Form”, which makes the argument that workers can draw on four classic forms of theatre to craft and hone authentic workplace performances:

  1. Improv Theatre
  2. Platform Theatre
  3. Matching Theatre
  4. Street Theatre

Pine and Gilmore spend a lot of time looking at improv and street theatre. There is no question that improv remains a popular method for business to respond to dynamic and emergent conditions. I’ve toyed with reading some of the more recent popular titles like Yes, And.. or Do Improvise, but would rather play with it as an experimental method to prototype service experiences. The most fascinating sections  of the chapter were Pine and Gilmore’s analysis of street theatre, drawing extensively on Sallly Harrison-Pepper’s study of street performers in Washington Square,  Drawing a Circle in the Square. The point they make is that regardless of where you work and what you do, we can all strive to  cultivate performances adaptable yet thoroughly rehearsed.

What do street theatre or improv look like in you workplace?

The Design Journal Special Issue on Service Design

Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes

Daniela Sangorgi and Sabine Junginger have edited a special issue of The Design Journal on Emerging Issues in Service Design.

Taken as a whole, this special issue contributes valuable and critical perspectives to the service design community.

Through conceptual and empirical studies of particular service design initiatives, the authors explore a range of important questions that service designers worldwide are facing:

  • How can an anthropological view of service practices usefully inform conceptions of co-design and co-production? (Blomberg and Darrah, 2015)
  • How do “organizational design legacies” frame and impact the kinds of change outcomes that service design can and cannot produce? (Junginger, 2015)
  • How might service design unpack place-making to understand community? (Predville, 2015)
  • What conditions and relations impact the success of experience-based co-design in the public sector? (Donetto et. al, 2015)
  • How do “fragile relations” amongst partners in cross-organization and cross-sectoral service network impact service design initiatives? (Hyvärinen, Lee, and Mattelmäki, 2015)
  • How can local service design initiatives scale across large geographical areas (Morelli 2015)

What stood out for me as I was reading these papers was the need for service designers to address power relation amongst partners and stakeholders at the outset of any service design initiatives. I was reminded of Wenger-Trayner et. al‘s call for system convenors to carefully design early interactions amongst  networks of collaborators and to openly address power differentials. The papers that stood out most to me were Blomberg and Darrah’s exploration of what anthropology can offer service design, Junginger’s analysis of how existing organizational design practices (however tacit) shape and in some cases thwart service design initiatives, and Moretti’s case studies on how service design initiatives can scale.

Hyvärinen, Lee, and Mattelmäki’s exploration of “fragile relations” offers useful ideas for public sector partnerships with private sector organizations. What sticks with me is the idea that the bureaucracy of the public sector inhibits progress in complex service design initiatives and colours other participants perceptions of whether an initiative might succeed.

Morelli (2015) makes the point that the measure of a service design network at scale is not the number of users who engage with a platform but rather  the number of “circles” or communities it spawns. This insight is relevant in social learning circles as a way to figure out how best to measure an initiative’s impact at scale.

What this special issue reveals for me is the complexity of service design. Lauren Currie, Wim Rampen, Fabien Segelstrom and others on Twitter are absolute correct when they playfully commented recently that there is more to Service Design than workshops, touchpoints,  or digital or even design. Indeed, I am left pondering how service design is also a field at the front end of systems and organizational change that extends learning and development beyond the scope of the individual or an organization, to systems concepts like communities and regions.

If buildings can learn (cf. Stuart Brand) and organizations can learn, then how can service networks and other assemblages learn as well?

Enough philosophizing. Get you hands on the special issue and share your observations and insights.

On Frame Innovation

Reading time: 2 – 3 minutes

Framed (Photo: Darrel Burkett)
Framed (Photo: Darrel Birkett)

Kees Dorst’s Frame Innovation (2015) centres around a methodology and model for framing problems.

The most compelling part of this book were the varied case studies, which grounded the methods and principles underlying the model in concrete examples. Also, Dorst bases his method and model in empirical studies of expert designers and how they address problem situations.

Frame Innovation will interest service designers working in the public sector or with government because many of the problems that Dorst explores in frame innovation address problem situations in public spaces or in local government interactions with the public. For example, one example that surfaces multiple times in the text is the case of King’s Cross in Sydney, Australia, and how, through the project, the participants were able to reframe the situation from an entertainment district as a centre of crime to an entertainment district AS a music festival.

Watch Dorst explain this example in more detail:

Dorst shies away from prescribing processes. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to a critique of rationality particularly in relation to problem-solving methodologies, and  like Thomas Wendt and Dan Hill challenges rational-technical design thinking. The brainiac that I am, I loved Dorst’s detours into philosophy and into the difference between beginners and experts.

My takeaways from reading this book will be the nine-step model Dorst proposes, the particular propositional approach he suggest for describing paradoxes at the heart of complex design situations and potential frames. I am reminded of transformative learning theory (Mezirow et. al). If one successfully innovates the frame through which we or others experience a situation, how we see the situation may be radically transformed.

Note: Thanks to Thomas Wendt for recommending this book on Twitter.

 

On Gray’s The Connected Company

Reading time: 2 – 2 minutes

Dave Gray‘s The Connected Company (2012) is an easy read for anyone who wants to explore networked, social business models and work.

What I appreciated most was Gray’s ability to make important, complex, academic concepts like service-dominant logic, platforms, and networks accessible for a broad business audience. For anyone wrestling with the challenge of explaining to clients what it means to put service and social learning at the heart of a business venture or coaching others to design service-based business models, Grey offers valuable examples and explanations.

The Connected Company cites and interprets examples from many leading service-based enterprises like Nordstrom, Zappos, Amazon, and GE. It draws on popular business thinkers and concepts from the Harvard Business Review and leading design ideas like Stuart Brand’s theory of shearing layers.

The idea that seems to be sticking with me is the notion that connected companies finds ways to “absorb variety”, to enable customers, users and internal teams to pursue multiple aims, goals and intentions simultaneously. I am oversimplifying, and probably misrepresenting the idea, but designing to “absorb variety” and learn from variety is at the heart of the educational challenge that universities like the one I work at face and at the heart of what it means to learn, too (cf. Ference Marton).

Those of you who work on learning and development within organizations will enjoy Gray’s ideas on individual and organizational learning. There was plenty of resonance between Gray’s ideas and Wenger-Traynor et. al’s concept of navigating boundaries in a landscape of practice and addressing boundaries between a multiplicity of practice communities.

If you are looking for models of self-governing, user- and customer-centric business, then you will like Grey’s work.

On Learning in Landscapes of Practice

Reading time: 2 – 3 minutes

I just finished my first read through Etienne Wenger-Trayner, Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Steven Hutchinson, Chris Kubiak, and Beverley Wenger-Trayner’s new edited collection, Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, identities, and practice-based learning (2014).

I’ve long been a fan of Etienne Wenger-Trayner’s theoretical and anthropological work on learning. I owe my colleague Barbara Berry a debt of gratitude for telling me about this book and for pointing me to Wenger-Trayner’s recent lecture on the content of this book.

This book is essential reading for anyone who espouses “social learning” in the industry learning and development community. Unlike many current popular approaches, Wenger-Trayner et al. offer ideas that are practical and, at the same time, based thoughtful, seminal scholarship on learning.

Wenger-Trayner et al. offer those of us who work with organizations comprised of diverse groups a whole new vocabulary and approach for facilitating change and enabling people to work at, across, and through boundaries in the organizational and societal contexts.

Professional coaches will find value the ideas on identity in social landscape

People in the higher education sector should pay attention to this text because in several places it at addresses classic challenges that universities face like students’ transition into and through higher education, and, more importantly, the tricky relationship between academic learning and work. This book would be useful for student services specialists, academic developers,  and university administrators alike.

The chapters in this book on systems convening will interest experience designers and design researchers who practice strategic design or systems design with large groups  and use methods like design charettes or other community engagement approaches. I wonder whether the framework of ideas that Wenger-Trayner et al. present around identity, multimembership and boundaries might also extend current perspectives on product and service experience design by adding a sociocultural dimension to the list of factors to consider when designing an experience or interaction. Also the landscape framework may offer systems and service designers new ways of thinking about ecosystem mapping as considering multimembership and circulating regimes of competence might reveal new value flows and relationships.

Service Innovation Handbook (Kimbell, 2015)

Reading time: 2 – 2 minutes

Lucy Kimbell’s Service Innovation Handbook offers different value than most popular texts on service design. Like classics in the field like This is Service Design Thinking or Experience Design,  Kimbell grounds the book in rich case studies and particular how-to methods, including templates and worked examples. But what differentiates Kimbell’s text is that she prefaces the case studies and methods sections with solid, rich evidence-based introductions to the theory and research underlying service innovation. In particular, Kimbell doesn’t shy away from addressing service-dominant logic, boundary objects, or progressive approaches to outcomes and assessment. 

 Another useful feature of the book is that it focuses on the very front end of service innovation. It shares some similarity to Terry Pinheiro’s The Service Startup:Design Gets Lean, but Kimbell’s methods are more thoughtfully interconnected and less complex. Like the dSchool’s Make Space, Kimbell’s methods include how-to equipment, but she also included a work example for a sample case that threads throughout the text.  

Kimbell’s blend of theory, cases, and methods is a key strength and reminds me of Sam Ladner’s Practical Ethnography or Andrew Hinton’s Understanding Context.

But a copy for your methods shelf and one to share with design clients who want to go all in.

What is your favourite handbook on service innovation or design? What is your prefered blend between theory, cases, and methods?

On Experience Design: Concepts and Case Studies

Reading time: 2 – 4 minutes

In the wake of reading Thomas Wendt’s post-phenomenological exploration of experience design, I picked up Peter Benz’s edited collection Experience Design: Concepts and Case Studies.

The collection offers a wide-ranging set of essays, research articles, and case studies. What I enjoyed most about the collection was the range of contexts it explores: everyday micro-interactions with commonplace objects like a tea kettle (Grimaldi), urban public spaces (Rajendran, Walker and Parnell), eating situations (Sommer et al.), and festivals (Strandvad and Pederson). Most of the studies were short enough to be read in a brief sitting, so after the deep dives that Thomas Wendt and Andrew Hinton’s Understanding Context offered me, this collection offered a fast-paced, high-level survey.

I’ve already started experimenting with one of frameworks presented and extended in the book: Grimaldi’s adaptation of Desmet and Hekkert’s “Framework of Product Experience”, which proposes that experience can vary on four dimensions:

  • aesthetic experience
  • cognitive experience
  • emotional experience
  • narrative experience

I’m starting to experiment with using these dimensions as a point of departure in conversations about designing learning experiences.  The categories are intuitive, and, in retrospect, I realize that aesthetic experience includes interactions with objects, things and other material elements in the learning setting.

Rajendran et al.’s chapter on how people experience urban public settings prompted me to wonder about how learning might be orchestrated in new and novel ways in the very constrained setting of large, front-facing lecture halls. Might there be creative, inexpensive ways of creating spaces within the room? Many years ago, I interviewed SFU mathmatics education professor Peter Liljedahl and he shared an anecdote about how he uses construction tape to direct student flows. This chapter also probes why people value particular spaces.

The final chapter that has stuck with me is Tara Mullaney’s case study of her design education intervention to disrupt design students’ tendency to adopt a problem-solving mindset rather than to search for transformative solutions to existing experiences. Working in the context of transforming the interaction between a bank and it customers, Mullaney had student do a one day design sprint to externalize an initial complete design and then mid-project had the group collectively ideate alternative concepts to interweave a personal finance and banking concern.  I appreciated how this chapter questioned the dominant logic of observational and user research. It made me wonder how collective brainstorming across disciplinary and educational knowledge domains (e.g.workplace business practice + higher education) might produce learning experience designs that transform learning experiences.

There is a lot of rich material in this collection and I anticipate returning to the first section on phenomenology and other theoretical perspectives over time.

What are you reading on experience design and how has it shaped your practice?