Research

Mission

The Center for Participatory IT (PIT – pit.au.dk) has strong roots in the Scandinavian tradition for Participatory Design (PD), which combines the areas of technology development and use with a broader interest in participative practices at the workplace. The PD field has since the mid-80’s developed into a distinct research community, demonstrating that the quality of IT could be im­proved by involving future users in the design process. With IT in recent decades diffusing from the workplace to people’s everyday lives, PD practice and research face new challenges due to the nature of new communities of IT use as well as technological developments.

Currently the penetration of IT, including the Internet, into people’s lives is dominated, paradoxi­cally, by lack of choice and transparency. As an extreme case, NSA’s surveillance is a prominent and problematic example of how IT is being developed and used secretly in contrast to participatory IT based on publicly available data for public use. A more mundane example is Facebook, which originally was developed for and by college students. Now it has moved away from being voluntary and on equal terms: As individuals and groups, people get exposed to ads and offers that they have no control over. Who provides these offers and why, is not transparent. PIT wishes to provide alternatives that are transparent and malleable by users together, in inclusive communities, where users are not just passive providers of data. In that sense PIT has an important mission in re-conceptualizing participation, while providing alternative ways of understanding and deploying IT. PIT will accordingly provide novel insights, theories and explore technological alternatives. In this we will study new communities, e.g. artistic and civic ones. PIT will provide models that sup­port more direct participation in the public and society at large. Danish IT industry is invited to pick up these alternatives, and not least PIT will build upon and maintain Aarhus University’s esteemed position on the research World-map.

In order to develop the foundation for understanding alternative forms of thinking and supporting participation through IT, we emphasize the need for the encounter of humanistic and computer science traditions. To pursue this intellectual challenge PIT has brought together a team of researchers who come from aesthetic, cultural, practice-oriented as well as technological research disciplines. Furthermore, all of these have a track record of doing research through a combination of working theoretically, carrying out empirical studies and deploying technological experiments.

Goal – research questions  –  themes

PIT will establish a new interdisciplinary research foundation for Participatory IT and aim to position the center internationally as one of the top-five research groups in the field. At the strategic level, the goal will be pursued by advancing four positions of strength at Aarhus University:

  1. The internationally unique interdisciplinary research profile, gathered at IT-City Katrinebjerg;
  2. The integration of theoretical studies and real-world action cases with development of innovative technological alternatives;
  3. Critical investigating of alternative ways of developing and using IT for participation;
  4. A strong commitment to advance the use of IT improving quality of life.

Participation lies at the root of democracy and of orderly, equitable societies. Participatory IT explores how and when to bring the values and practices of participatory processes into the design and use of IT. To pursue these goals PIT addresses a number of core research questions, including:

  1. What counts as participation?
  2. How can participation be understood, addressed and supported through IT at different societal and technological scales?
  3. How does or can IT support or impede participation?
  4. What are the qualities of design processes that enable or constrain participation?
  5. What constitute the (technical and use) qualities of innovative, participatory IT?

PIT addresses its core questions through five current research themes that are our main instruments of theoretical reflection within and across disciplines. Briefly speaking:

  1. Participatory publics is the theme addressing civic, urban and community scale participation, such as smart cities;
  2. Artistic strategies focuses on participation and IT support forcreative practices and cultural production;
  3. Sustainable IT development and appropriation addresses how participation in design can become of value to users and their communities beyond the specific design process, and how the outcomes of the design processes can be better understood and designed to support the continued design in use (appropriation);
  4. Aesthetics of Participation addresses participation as a quality of user experience, specifically seeking to understand experiences where people are interacting together and engage critically through shared interaction;
  5. Participatory Innovation focuses on understanding the moment-to-moment participation in design and innovation processes, and on understanding how IT supported design environments enable or constrain such participation.

Interdisciplinarity ­– talent development – international competitiveness

One of the very important qualities revitalizing participation is interdisciplinary encounter across research fields. We have spent the first year of PIT establishing interdisciplinary collaboration, and by identifying the partly overlapping conceptualization of participation across disciplines confirmed that our cases constitute productive encounters for interdisciplinary research.

In the first year PIT has emphasized talent development: The majority of funding of PIT until now has been spent on PhD students and postdocs. Talent recruitment in IT research is very competitive, and while we have already succeeded in hiring highly competent people, we have chosen to postpone some grants in order to attract the best international applicants. PIT has been instrumental in 6 PhD classes and schools for the past year, as well as a PhD lunch series open for both PIT PhD students and PhD scholars from neighboring fields. 19 AU PhD students have been affiliated with PIT in the past year in addition to a couple of international, visiting PhD students. As can be seen in the 2012 status report, the PhD classes and schools included even more international PhD students. Our agenda is to create an international, interdisciplinary master degree, to attract young international students to our environment and screen them as regards future PhD potentials.

The unique combination of historical roots, interdisciplinary perspectives, and technological concern has made PIT attractive to a number of prominent international researchers, both those who were identified in the original proposal as well as new partners. In the past year we have had more than 25 visitors, and, in addition, in August 2013 PIT hosted the two-week SummerPIT where 20 senior researchers and five PhD students from across the world joined us for a two-week event leading to fruitful discussions and strengthening of collaboration (see www.pit.au.dk).

Methods

Methodologically PIT does research in an iterative research process, which combines theory development, empirical studies, and analysis of design and use with explorative technology development. The themes function through seminars, talks, literature reading and discussions. Based on literature in the field, we work to develop and utilize an intermediate level of strong concepts that tie together theory and empirical findings within the themes.

To address the unfolding practices of use and the real potentials and problems of IT in use, PIT deploys action cases.  The cases are core materials for our joint research. They are understood as practice-based research, including research through design, informed by qualita­tive analyses of the particular participatory practices.  We have initiated four cases in the past year. All cases combine theoretical hypothesis or questions rooted in the PIT core disciplines with empirical studies of current practices of participation in the case setting. From there, design processes are carried out exploring various elements of participation. This leads to technological challenges, designs and alternatives as well as experience gathering regarding possible use and hence new forms of collaboration, ultimately challenging or confirming the theoretical hypotheses.

Success criteria, benefits and risks

The most significant achievement, by far, is that PIT in the first year has already managed to set a research agenda that is relevant across fields and traditions. The first research results are out, and there is a internationally consistent positive feedback and recognition of what we do. The next step is to transform the state-of-the-art positions into fewer programmatic ones. SummerPIT 2013 has been instrumental in accelerating this process. We need to develop a theoretical platform, which enables us to identify design methods, processes and technological alternatives with truly new participatory qualities.

In addition to conventional measures of research success, in particular publications and citations, where PIT is already doing well, the international success criteria, accordingly, is to turn PIT at Aarhus University into an international research hub that revitalizes research into participation. This will strongly position Aarhus University in relation to Horizon 2020 from where PIT stands a significant chance of getting funding. Moreover we will pursue possibilities of ERC senior grants, Marie Curie Fellowships, and similar prestigious sources of grants. Through PIT we will educate a number of junior and senior researchers who will be ready to make a next move in their career, at AU or abroad, and PIT will influence AU educations in the various field of IT.

The risks as we see them, are whether it is possible to maintain focus and relevance of activities, while expanding the number of participants and participating groups; and whether, ultimately, participation can be revitalized, research-wise, so that joint interdisciplinary positions actually stand sufficiently strong. Our weekly management meeting as well as advisory board meeting have been put in place to carefully address those risks.

Research plan

PIT will consist of three stages, of which we are about halfway through the first (for more detailed plan and Gantt diagram see Figure 1). We have developed a management model with weekly meetings of PIT management (Kim and Susanne), monthly meetings with everybody responsible for themes, cases, etc. and semi-annual retreats for all participants to ensure the compliance with our project plan. The stages are:

  1. Collecting and confronting ideas of participation. In this stage the main focus is on international state of the art: Which traditions of participatory IT exists, and how are they founded theoretically and empirically? How may we revisit the roots of participatory design and other approaches? The activity happens through debating and exploring these issues within and across thematic levels and cases. In this stage we have developed the format of our weekly talks, internal retreats and the SummerPIT. Four cases have been started, and PhD students hired. The first postdocs and long-term visitors are active, and the first research results are published.
  2. Revitalizing and re-conceptualizing participation by identifying and research possible new forms of IT supported participation. The focus of this stage is new conceptions, new qualities, and new designs as seeds of new participatory practices. In this stage cases and themes continue and are reconsidered. Each case will go through mini versions of this progression, however, at least one case will start later based on the accumulated understanding existing at their starting time. Strategic alliances are formed, Horizon 2020 options explored, new prominent long-term visitors are expected, and we further emphasize the quality of publications and publication outlets. Plans for a new international interdisciplinary master degree will be made.
  3. Synthesizing the theoretical basis, strong concepts, technological constraints and possibilities, and design processes for new participatory qualities. In this stage PIT has become an international hub of research, and the outcome of PIT will lead to new projects providing the future funding for PIT continuation. Researchers who are currently (more) junior will be ready to lead their own research groups and/or take up permanent positions at AU or elsewhere. The first version of the international interdisciplinary education will be running with 3-6 students.

Status 2013

In the first stage: Collecting and confronting approaches to participation, the main focus is on international state of the art: Which traditions of participatory IT exists and how are they founded theoretically and empirically? How may we revisit the roots of participatory design and other approaches? We have identified how participation is defined, and how conducted in experimental design cases, with a particular focus on interpretation, planning, and decision-making in the design process, based on a critical review of 102 full research papers from the Participatory Design Conference proceedings over the years.

We have developed the format of our weekly talks, internal retreats and the SummerPIT. Four cases have been started, and PhD students and postdocs hired. The first long-term visitors are active, and the first research results are published, both in technical, conceptual and methodological areas.

By the end of 2012 we concluded that PIT was already publishing at the best international venues, a fact that continues to hold. We already have a substantial list of publications for 2012 and 2013, ranging from publications in top-level international journals (4) and top-level conferences (18) to workshop papers relating to PIT themes.

We are competing and collaborating with the best international collaborators and centers, and we have had more than 25 international visitors for the past year in addition to 20 senior researchers visiting during SummerPIT in August 2013. For the fall 2013 (Sept. –Dec.) we have two visiting professors from Virginia Tech: Professor Steve Harrison and Professor Deborah Tatar, in addition to Professor Liam Bannon, who has an on-going affiliation with PIT. PIT has become part of IMMEDIATIONS, supported by a 7-year Network Grant from the Canadian SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and comprising a number of international partners in Europe (e.g. Zürich University), Australia (e.g. The University of New South Wales, Sydney) and North America (e.g. Concordia University, Montreal). PIT is associated partner in the European Urban Media Network for Connecting Cities (CCN), a 3-year grant from EU CULT (European Culture Programme). The partners are Art & Technology organizations from 14 European cities, including Berlin, Liverpool, Madrid, Istanbul, Linz, Riga and Helsinki, many of which are previous, current or coming European Capitals of Culture.

The overall format of PIT (the themes, the cases, the weekly talks and the SummerPIT) works well in supporting this kind of collaboration, and has proved productive for enrolling new researchers, be they junior or senior.

The PIT funding has been supplemented with 10 smaller research grants in 2012 and 2013. The grant-holders spread across the two departments. In 2013 we have applied for several EU grants and we will also work to get Danish funding. Table 1 shows some of the submitted proposal awaiting final decision.

PIT has been involved in arranging 15 international workshops and conferences, ranging from smaller workshops and symposia to two large international conferences, CHI 2013 and ECSCW 2013.