Friday, October 08, 2010

Towards a Fieldstudio

My five-year design research fellowship at Said Business School, University of Oxford, ended last week. Although my relationship with the school and the university continues, including teaching on the MBA and MSc Major Programme Management, this change has given me a chance to think about several things including
- how academic research (with varying degrees of what people refer to as rigour and relevance) intersects with professional and social worlds, and
- how design worlds (practices associated mostly with the art school tradition, rather than engineering) engage with social and cultural theories, and
- how managers, entrepreneurs and designers go about what they do and to what effect.

I started at Said with a background as a practitioner in interaction design and design management, and occasional player within contemporary art, already in dialogue with social science researchers in particular those associated with Science and Technology Studies (STS). My reason for moving to the school was to have access to scholarly communities for whom art and design practices were other, but who had (I hoped) some interesting knowledge about the contexts in which design takes place in organizations of different kinds and within social worlds more broadly.

One of the ways I explored these intersections was my five years of developing a curriculum for and teaching a MBA elective in design leadership with a focus on hands-on encounters with design practices, collaborations with designers, engagement with theories of design and design management, underpinned by a particular focus on designing for service. Another was contributing to and learning from academic conferences within distinct traditions, from design (eg Design Research Society and European Academy of Design), management and organization fields (eg European Academy of Management) and within the social sciences (eg European Social Studies of Science and Technology). Practitioner focussed conferences such as the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) and Service Design Network (SDN) were particularly stimulating contexts in which I heard about a range of ways that designers and social scientists are engaging with contemporary organizations and issues and making sense of their work. Some of my contributions are available here (to be reworked soon. I hope.)

My various encounters with strands of social science and cultural research, mostly within organization and management studies, as well as reading in theories and histories of design has left me with a sense that designers need to read more and scrutinize the claims we make and hear. Similarly I became persuaded that the institutional practices and temporalities of academia were not an effective way for interesting and useful ideas to reach non-academics who might be able to digest them and weave them into their practices as managers or designers or activists. At a time when climate change and questions of global social justice are becoming even more pressing, this is not good enough. And responses such as discussions of Mode 2 knowledge, on the one hand, or multidisciplinary collaboration on the other, do not yet connect up with some of the individual or organizational actors who might be able to use some of the important ideas developed in universities and reach audiences and publics who can do things with them and to them.

So I have begun thinking about how to bring these contexts together and what this might look like, without appealing to some notion of a bland interdisciplinarity, but rather understanding that knowledge is created, translated and changed in practice as a kind of social accomplishment that is iterative, ongoing and partial. The knowledge of the academy, or rather academies, is knowledge that has to be worked through in the context of workplaces, homes and within the public sphere and also at the level of identities and desires. This creates the opportunity for something I am tentatively calling a fieldstudio. Combining the playful, messy, iterative inquiries of the art or design studio with the unboundedness of the field and the attentiveness of the ethnographer, the fieldstudio is a way of trying out change-making that takes research and action equally seriously.

Somewhere between a consultancy, a knowledge-transfer hub (in the vernacular of the research funders), or a think-and-make-tank, the fieldstudio inquires into things that matter and makes some matter more than others. It is necessarily collaborative and relational in its productions and enactments. It may be sometimes confidential but in other senses is always public. It understands that research is creative and creativity requires research. It is starting around now. Get in touch if you would like to be involved.

Image: Street at Jaywick, Essex, site of a film being made by Somewhere


EODF said...

it would interesting to hear more about why you are leaving academia. What are the main challenges you think in terms of creating relevant teaaching & research ?


Jax said...

This sounds very interesting. I am currently enrolled in a research masters program and am interested in exploring the use of co-design for experience design within commercial contexts. It has been challenging for me to find commercial research partners in Australia where I currently live. After hitting some speed bumps I am open to find a related research focus based on what partners I can find to collaborate with. After getting an EU passport I am looking to relocate to the UK early next year. I am hoping to get involved with some commercial orgs or consultancies over there who are using co-design to inform service design and experience design.

I would be interested to talk to you. Twitter: @jacwex or check out my blog at
Hoping to hear from you at some stage!