Digital Placemaking Category
Electric inclusivity: Conversations, Stories, Invitations.
I began my inclusion fellowship in Digital Placemaking investigate how digital placemaking can support social and climate justice informed futures. When we are building new worlds the risk is bringing our colonialism with us into digital and hybrid space and replicating the inequities we perpetuate in the physical. You may be well-meaning, but if you are designing a space without including those you hope will use it - as long as we remain the mythical, patronised, exoticised ‘user’ - then your marvellous idea won’t work.
If we take pervasive media as “Digital Media delivered into the fabric of real life and based on the situational context at the moment of delivery” (Theatre Sandbox, 2020) then the current issues emerging around access and ethics relation are key in considering the digital media we create. The situational context has to include the systemic situation: that is the intersecting (Crenshaw, 1989) impacts of oppression and power in the environment and the individual engaging with the media. If this doesn’t happen, then the “real lift” designers suppose will always be fantasy and media designed for fantasy has a short life span when it meets “real life”.
“Digital Placemaking aims to enhance and deepen the relationship between people and places.” (Bristol + Bath Creative R + D, 2019) and the Bristol + Bath Pathfinder I am undertaking a research fellowship with is investigating this through emerging pervasive media technologies like Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, hologram, 5G, motion-capture, robotics, spacial and location-based audio. These medias give options for accessible, inclusive hybrid digital/physical spaces but there are productive and problematic aspects of these technologies and how they are created that I am exploring here. As we think of potential developments in the future of field, it's the histories and politics, both positive and problematic, the digital divide and access that I want us to carry forward into what we build next.
I came to this research embedded in my practice as a psychotherapeutic counsellor and writer. I hold little faith in many of the structures and industries we have built around us, but I do hold faith in story. Story changes us, we can all think of a story that impacted us and many we still carry. “Story engenders empathy. It is the best tool we have for understanding what it must feel like to be someone else. Systems change frequently involves collaboration across difference, bringing together actors with very different positions to re-envision the goals of a system and to change it. The empathetic quality of story is vital here” writes Ella Saltmarshe in Stanford Social Innovation Review, (Saltmarshe, 2018)
Intersecting this is, Eugene Ellis's work on tolerance of awareness of privilege, (Ellis, 2017). I studied with Tada Hozumi in their class Authentic Allyship (Hozumi, 2017), where they correlate capacity to consider white privilege (and white fragility occurring where this capacity isn't present) and attachment patterns. Building on my teacher Marian Dunlea’s work on titrating the challenge offered, (Dunlea, 2019) thereby not shutting the informant down in activation and overwhelm. It’s a methodology that elicits story and reflection on the story, triangulating it with ethnographic data from the person/organisation’s practices.
I explored these questions through my podcast, Electric Inclusivity, which explores how inclusive digital placemaking is developed through a framework of assessing appetite and aptitude in people in positions of power and how conversations can develop this appetite. I'm approaching inclusion in digital placemaking from the position of scaling and policy; in terms of inclusion, we can support people with marginalised or oppressed identities to access digital or technological capital, institutions and development spaces. But my interest here is investigating how we bring inclusive digital place making to policy within organisations and how we make it safer for change-makers to have inclusion conversations. My methodology assesses the appetite for inclusive digital placemaking in individuals and organisations and how best to develop that appetite to enable producers to work most effectively with them going forward. How to develop and grow that appetite and to meet it in a way that it can be received.
For me, digital spaces have allowed me to access an inaccessibly built world.
As a disabled woman and wheelchair user, I live between the digital, technological and what many non-disabled people call the ‘real world’, (by which they mean offline). For me, digital spaces have allowed me to access an inaccessibly built world. Technology - my ultra light-weight Argon 3 wheelchair made with hydraformed castor-link tubes - allows me to move independently and freely. The concepts of VR and XR are familiar because crossing boundaries, disrupting the limits of spaces, is a recognised part of disability culture. Living through an avatar in a world you designed without barriers is a common experience for disabled folx.
However, my concern here was who was doing the designing. As a psychotherapeutic counsellor, with a focus on complex trauma and working with clients with multiple marginalised, minoritised or oppressed identities, I was concerned about the some of the playful and artistic digital placemaking interventions I had seen. They didn’t seem to be coming from a trauma-informed place. Or to realise that having street furniture talk to you, or seeing a person step out of an artwork in front of you, albeit through the lens of a smartphone screen, could be profoundly triggering. This destabilisation is often dismissed as ‘we can’t make it suitable for everyone’, but 13.9 million disabled people in the UK (Scope, 2020) and at any one time about 220,000 people are being treated for schizophrenia in the UK by the NHS (UK Mobility, 2020). What designers seemed to be missing was co-creating with the communities they purported to want to ‘help’ and an understanding that folx who struggle with reality and other-than-reality are often likely to feel kinship with and be drawn to these paradigm shifting digital art and placemaking installations, but unaware that they’ve been designed without an eye to how they may impact neurodiverse folx. In fact, how they might impact anyone other than those who designed them and those they tested on. Think, the iPhone that didn’t open for black work in facial recognition. Or the automatic hand soap dispensers that only recognise white or light skin.
Many of the place making designs are playful and predicated on an assumption that engaging in public space is beneficial. But it’s not safe for all of us.
3 Asks Leaders Make of Marginalised Employees and Colleagues
- “But how can we get the users to engage?”
- “How can we increase uptake?”
- “We need you to engage your networks, can you get us something we can show the board/press by next week/month/quarter?”
These are the most common asks I hear while the leaders stare at faces around the table that look like their own and don’t have the answers either. Then, of course, they’ll move to pressuring the few marginalised folx on the fringes of the organisation to ‘engage their networks’ and basically pony up some bodies that they can convert to metrics to get the funders off their backs. When that doesn’t work, they term us ‘hard to engage’. They might do some outreach (too late, but they’re desperate now and frustrated we haven’t turned up in grateful droves), so they abseil in, tech in hand and its roll up, roll up, the circus master is in town, bringing wonders. But the crowds don't appear so they wonder why people don’t have the capacity to attend their workshops in the middle of the day, or at inaccessible locations. This is for our own good, why can’t we see it? Their frustration grows and perhaps they don’t like what they hear, if someone like me at the outreach speaks truth to power. After all, they’ve built a career on this (on us), and worked with the highest echelons of power. Their fragility engaged, we must just be scared, they rationalise. We just don’t understand, they conclude comfortingly. And then subtly penalise the staff who couldn’t or wouldn’t offer them pliable, polite, grateful natives. But we understand much more than they do, and we have seen their type before.
"These words, appetite and aptitude shifted the axis my inclusion practice into something a little less like a lance and more like a spindle."
My 3 ask to them are:
- When you conclude the project isn’t viable, can you notice the values you brought with you?
- Ask yourself what you are doing to decolonialise your practice.
- To whom, exactly, you are listening and why?
The meeting had over-run its bounds already, Zahra, my Inclusion Producer on the Pathfinder and I had both moved to charge devices running low on juice as our connection and words flowed faster.
“The thing is, there are two ways to approach inclusion, ok?”. I nodded, I like lists.
“You can approach inclusion, broadly, in one of two ways; 1. Connect marginalised people to the resources, networks and opportunities they need, or you can work with people in the positions of power already, develop their inclusion.”
“Getting them to stop building closed doors”. I know from my work with boards and consulting with government, that this is my work. In my advocacy work, I connect individuals to the gaps in the frameworks that exist for them, help them enter. In mentorship, support them to figure out how to thrive in a systemically inequitable system. Then I’m working to make sure there’s a seat at the table and a safe space for them when they arrive. In inclusion production, I sit with people as they unfold decades of prejudice and support them through the transformative process of coming awake and redistributing power.
“Right, right. But to do that, you need to figure out what their appetite and aptitude for inclusion is”.
These words, appetite and aptitude shifted the axis my inclusion practice into something a little less like a lance and more like a spindle. I have lived like I am looking down the end of a pike at those I am trying to work with. It’s a visceral sense of polarisation and I felt so unsafe in those spaces, have experienced so many dark arrows and sly stilettos in the shoulder blade as I bent over my work, that now I come in the door knives drawn. I don’t even notice how my intellect has become weaponised in response to the repeated dismissal and minimisation of myself and my abilities. But all this comes with vicarious trauma, not the trauma of being exposed to stories of prejudice and institutional violence, but the trauma of being up close with systems that devalue my very life. It’s wearing, it has an impact.
Appetite and aptitude are a vital ingredient to help me titrate and direct my work. Learning to recognise there is a threshold for beginning inclusion work and some people are not there. I started to think about how I’ve seen inclusion produced, what approaches are in fashion now (implicit bias, empathy), what the opportunities and issues are with them (poor performance outside lab conditions, little data or evidence for long-term shifts). I investigated how we approach inclusion production, mapping the ecology of diversity initiatives within digital work and beyond. I noticed people often approach inclusion through eduction, trying to create empathy or understanding. We are just like you, don’t be scared. See my pain and understand my humanity they say. But ‘there is a charge for the eyeing of my scars’ (Plath, 1968).
Then there are initiatives to encourage assimilation, like confidence building workshops that teach you that it’s your fault you feel undermined and don’t cover that confidence is one part privilege and one part practicing the action you need confident in Because privilege gives lots of support and opportunity for practice, you see. Or speaking coaching that tells you to be taken seriously you need to lower you tone of voice, dress ‘professionally’ (no head wraps, straighten your hair, wear suits) and speak ‘appropriately’. Don’t sound like you are from where you are from. Try very hard to become a white man, basically. People advise this over and over, laughingly, “Pretend you are a non-disabled man, Grace, in the interview”. Then I will, it’s supposed, have the confidence I need to access resources, to proclaim myself worthy. But what if I don’t want to ape a white man to be seen as enough? “I know that I am not just a failed man”, (Gore, 2017).
I can't facilitate conversations, but I can offer space here for you to reflect and invite you to reflect on and tell your story.
- What stays with you from the stories, questions and invitations I have shared and how will this impact the stories you will narrate going forwards?
- How has discrimination shaped…..
- My workplace
- My industry
- My family/loved ones
- My co-workers
- My networks
- My community
- My environment
- My body
- My future
3. Without discrimination, what would your industry/family/as above look like?
4. In terms of digital placemaking, focussing in an inclusive way, what is possible? What is not possible?. What’s my appetite and how can I develop it?