Using Performance...

Performance is unique in its sustained development of methods that engage people in envisioning and altering their own possible futures. It allows for shifting between abstract and concrete instantiations of desirable social solutions and the functions that support them. Such methods have been shown to transform attitudes and prepare people to deal with change. For instance, Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed has even changed legislation in Brazil, where it is practiced widely.

Working with material offered by participants to explore their interests and priorities, the DemTech team approached the idea of democratic participation with a concern for personal perspectives and the design of methods that avoid dictating outcomes. We looked for ideas from performance development that would avoid suggesting what the future might look/feel like, to instead stress creative approaches to new circumstances.

This use of performance methods is in contrast to much use of drama in design. More often the ideas adopted are from theatre rather than performance art, and work revolves round scenarios, offering a story to accept or reject, develop or critique. The shape of these scenarios determines the thinking that subsequently ensues. By contrast, one of Weaver’s interests as a performance artist has been to develop individuals’ own stories and draw out their desires. Light introduced the concept of ‘seeding’, or finding as small a stimulus as possible that would ensure some relevant creative work could be undertaken, but that the nature of it would be determined by the participant. ‘Seeds’, in contrast to scenarios, allow thoughts to go in all directions. In the work shown here, the seeds are incorporated into techniques that throw the focus upon participation, imaginative re-thinking and making connections. These were framed specifically to support engagement with the decision-making needed in the context of digital networks.

Our Network Challenge

The techniques were shaped to meet the challenge of including a maximum number of people in discussions around digital technology, in particular networks. Digital technology is starting to connect together new aspects of life, from automated monitoring in care homes to voting by text message. "Networks of things" that add intangible layers of information to our environments are being developed. In a democracy, the use of these technologies could be the responsibility of everyone to decide: they have huge implications for the shape of society - the amount of personal data that changes hands, for instance. But the social potential remains hard for people to envisage – even within the computer labs where developments are going on.

In working on this issue, the DemTech team has conceived of seven necessary components to successful participation in decisions of this kind:

Forum – a space to contribute and people to listen

Motivation – the desire to contribute

Articulacy – the vocabulary and fluency to present one’s ideas in a particular domain

Confidence – the assurance to become involved

Knowledge – enough understanding of the topic to have an opinion

Agency – an awareness that change is possible and that oneself is an agent of change

Association – the ability to interpret things together or see links, in particular: old and new, people and things, things and things, etc.

Transformation – the act of combining to make new ideas, concepts and associations.

We believe that building confidence and skill in these areas will widen the franchise of designing the future and that the techniques derived from performance will help.

We have explored several methods derived from performance and based in learning-by-doing as a way of turning people speedily from spectators in the development of tools of the future to actors and designers. By tackling our seven components in a series of exercises that are based on how new technologies are anyway absorbed into use, we were able to test what is effective in motivating people to become directive about the characteristics they want – and do not want – in future technology. And using workshops with community groups, we have extracted the key techniques for engaging people in complex design choices, showing how a cross-fertilisation between scientific concepts and artistic methods produces a greater transformation than either might alone.

We invite you to explore how we are tackling one of the biggest transitions facing the world – from pre-network to network – in a way that seeks to allow the maximum number of people to contribute and thereby reduce the dangers of implementing expensive systems that either fail or impose, intrude and offend.