Near, Now

Near Now logo

I recently attended the Start Week for the Arts Council / Innovate UK funded Arts and Technology Pilot. Near Now, part of Broadway Cinemas in Nottingham – are one of three centres running the pilot – alongside Madlab in Manchester and Makerversity in London.

I applied – it’s no secret – on the closing date after seeing it on Twitter. My application was motivated not so much by a great desire to make a difference through any creative insight or technical skill – but a wish to step out, briefly, and develop my present job at at a think tank. My team and I are tasked with speaking to Government about the role manufacturing, design and innovation has to play in (almost) every area of public policy. There are so many good organisations doing great work in this area – we are only one of them – but policy work is often formed from a reactive agenda; and visible quantity, rather than quality, or of any real fidelity to an overarching goal. This is only sharper now given funding cuts in 2010; and a Comprehensive Spending Review thought to hit the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills particularly hard.

Being from a history background, my natural inclination is to look back into the not so distant past of iterations of government rhetoric of research, design and innovation policy. This is a helpful device in policy – and of course, many people working in representative politics, policy or the Westminster bubble at large – also have a background in social or economic history.

However, history of design is a little bit different. Also a product of many iterations and schools of thought, I argue that history of design is a discipline that has the discipline to gain massive traction in thinking about the objects, environments and systems which inform our day to day lives and mediate our relationships with other humans. Whilst Bruno Latour is incredibly helpful in thinking how objects make people behave a certain way (a hotel key with an oversized fob means that it is too big a pain to forget to return it on departure, for example); Keller Easterling and her fellow infrastructure minds make us think more critically about systems at large – with growing interest in this area being hugely welcome. Complex, messy and always political, the Government’s recent decision to formally appoint an Infrastructure Commission (originally a Labour policy, with Labour Peer Lord Adonis retaining his role as Chair) ‘to take the politics out of infrastructure’ is naïve. What Cameron really means is that the Commission will play a role in keeping at least some continuity with contractors between electoral terms.

As a historian, I would always argue that to understand the future, one needs to understand the past – planned systems which failed due to an unforeseen aspect of design failure, or oversight in user needs. This is especially pertinent to a forthcoming 5-year project focusing on the History of the Welfare State to be run by the Royal College of Art. The All Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group will act as research partner alongside the Science Museum, English Heritage, and others. Only by grasping the political debates, rhetoric, and delivery mechanisms of the time will be able to predict what the future of these things might look and feel like. What will, or should we expect as citizens from this kind of interaction with the state?

To my involvement with Near Now, then – and why I think I was accepted onto the programme.

I am not a naturally creative person. I am not, for shame, a woman in STEM. I have a degree in English Literature, and am fundamentally drawn to stories and feelings. There’s little I won’t do to get out of fixing my bike when it breaks.

Having worked to support an MP for five years in a challenging legislative climate for social and housing policy, I do, however, have a degree of insight into how policy decisions affect people with very little in the first place (people who are not vulnerable per se – but as a result of previous policy decisions before that). Through since working in policy and campaigning, I have since acquired some familiarity in thinking about strategy, and with it the ability to point out obvious pitfalls in master plans that might need a little more finesse.

I see so much wrong with current mechanisms and ways of making people feel well, and secure enough, to be healthy, productive citizens. Our systems, and what they incentivise, were designed 70 years ago. Equally I struggle to shake off my discomfort at performance frameworks that seek to measure comparative social (even economic) wealth of people – how we are judged and measured – all of our pounds of flesh. I am concerned – really worried, in fact – about a Government focus on innovation that suffers from intellectual blind spots, and without much grounding in political history or thought – let alone design. For every GoodGym, there is a legacy of policy systems which have made us expect, and in turn accept, loneliness in old age; or a work-life balance (and badly designed cities and buildings) which make us need to pay to use gyms in the first place. Social innovation has lead to interesting work – and offers great insight into the depth and creativity of efforts happening already, although not necessarily by that name – but more often than not, its ambition is stunted by the need to deliver quick results, worthy of investment or the next funding boost.

Working with others on the pilot has already lead to much fruitful conversation. Occupying the thoughtful but technically challenged camp, Carina Namih and I share the same slight anxiety around what our work might look like. Given the speed and gravity of advances in the social uses of health tech, we might already be at the point where speculative design has little left to offer. I and others like her now have the opportunity to work with designers and technologists skilled in expressing these abstract concerns or thoughts into something others can engage with. My hope is that I will be able to think about how this kind of prototyping, or physical/digital expression of an idea, could be used in devising future policy, or thinking about commissioning future services in a more creative way. Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad, for example, is a Near Now fellow and is due to start an additional residency at the V&A focusing on alternative means of community consultation.

Using designers, artists and technologists in a way which focuses on the small interventions, systemic problems and mind bogglingly complex interactions between objects, each other, and our society needs brave and creative leadership. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we all come up with.