A conversation with Bo Schiønning Mortensen, Research Assistant at Aarhus School of Architecture, Aarhus, Denmark
Bo Schiønning Mortensen, together with his friend and colleague Mikkel Lindskov Pedersen, has taken cultural probing one step further.
Cultural probes as a concept were developed in 1999 by Tony Dunne, Bill Gaver and Elena Pacenti. They are a means for the designer to get valuable personal insights from users, us regular people, in order for him or her to design better and relevant solutions. It works like this: You give a selected group of people a documentation kit (could be in the form of a camera, video camera, post cards, sketch book, etc.) and a theme or topic you would like them to explore (could, for example, be where they feel safe in their home or what annoys them when traveling). The whole point is that when you give people the voice, and you listen, your insights are of a qualitative higher level than when you simply ask or observe. This way you get a chance to see everything from a user’s perspective.
What Bo and Mikkel have done is to take the concept of cultural probing and then asking the question: Can you do it in a way, where the user is unaware and therefore more intuitive and, you might say, honest?
The answer took the form of artifacts, something that is put into a local context and where people can interact with it. It is unfinished in its’ design. For instance, it could be a rough bench in a common green area, where the elements can be split and moved around, thereby encouraging people to do so and thus making them take the first step towards taking action and designing their own community. Cultural probing 2.0 is as much about empowering people to take ownership of their local community as it is about getting raw information. You obviously need to monitor the changes that happen with the artifact, maybe by engaging one of the local people.
Besides giving the designer valuable information about the local culture through the personal traces of activity that people leave, Bo and Mikkel’s method will also potentially change the behavioral patterns of the people taking part in the interaction. The ultimate goal is for the artifacts to become superfluous.
There are three important design parameters for making the artifacts. First, they must be simple, obvious and fit into their context. Second, they must be easy to interact with. Third, they cannot be too long-standing for they are meant to be temporary observers and change agents; not design icons or works of installation art.
The question of how any changed behavioral patterns will be anchored naturally arises, and to this, Bo’s answer is that of course there are no guarantees. You are working with people in a context and with both elements being complex and constantly changing entities, there are no givens. However, when you choose to meet people in their context and at a scale where they feel at home and confident enough to take action, chances are people are more likely to engage and take ownership. Cultural probes 2.0 is an open-end solution where the space will not be created until the user takes part in it.
With this bottom-up approach, the architect or designers role is changing. Instead of being the decision-maker of every thing and every detail, the designer is here a facilitator of action and interaction. It takes courage to walk this path, as the designer becomes less of a hero and more like a host.