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Research Reflections: Collaborative Research and the Hacker Ethic
Creativeworks London exists to bring new collaborative research opportunities to London’s creative businesses and nudges activity in this overlap between academic research and the creative economy through a range of successful interventions such as Researcher-In-Residence (the academic going into the enterprise), Creative Entrepreneur-In-Residence (the creative entrepreneur going in to the academy) and Creative Vouchers (where academics and creative entrepreneurs are funded to collaborate on a research and development project). However, in this research reflection I want to look at the near future of collaborative research and the way that emerging digital methods may increasingly blur the distinction between research activity and the cutting edge of the creative economy.
The affordances of digital technologies and the resulting modes of action which could loosely be described as hacking have changed creative business and may have some similar effects on research, such that some kinds of research & the creative economy are intertwined. The concept of affordances is a useful one because it highlights the fact that, although technology has intrinsic material properties that shape the ways it can be used, the actual uses are not limited or defined by the technology itself and are open to unexpected adaptation. And hacking itself has always been about more than clever coding; the 1975 jargon file (glossary of geek slang) defines a hacker as both ‘A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities’ and ‘One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations’.
My starting point for the intertwining of research and the creative economy is the hack event (hackathon, hackday), where hackers and their collaborators explore the contextual affordances of technologies. Hackathons are already a major theme of research for the Creativeworks London’s Digital Economy Strand – see for example Digital Innovation: The Hackathon Phenomenon. Although hackathons as such are now subject to critique as a potential form of corporate recuperation, they drew their early power from being what Deleuze and Guattari would ‘smooth spaces’, spaces outside of striated organisational or conceptual frameworks and, in the case of the hackathons, where creative activity could not just be energised but actualised in working prototypes. Like the underlying concept of ‘open’ in open source, this is an approach that is immediately applicable beyond the narrow bounds of product development. For example, my own experience over several years is in applying the same approach to tackling social problems through Social Innovation Camps. It was identified quite early on that a key success factor for these events was exactly the kind of interdisciplinary which has now become valued as an aim for academic research.
One strand of Social Innovation Camp has developed this blend of social aims and startup methods in to an accelerator called Bethnal Green Ventures, part of the emerging UK social impact economy. In the meantime many other potentials latent within the hacking approach that may be applicable to academia have become clearer, including on the one hand, startup methodologies like agile development and lean, and on the other hand the adoption of hackathon-like open innovation for activities like policy making and even international diplomacy. Agile development is a software development methodology that dispenses with fixed ideas about end products and substitues an iterative and reflective approach that can respond to the changing understanding of needs that is revealed by the project work itself. The lean startup approach recognises that both the problem and the solution are a priori unknown and the most important activity is the co-discovery of these by developers and users together. Unintentionally, the startup world has adapted to the affordances of technology by reinventing methods that in an academic context have been known as participatory research and action-research.
Alongside this, of course, almost every academic discipline has become permeated by technology and the new (though not unproblematic) avenues this is seen as opening up. While art (especially as netart) has always been at the forefront of digital experimentation, we are now seeing the rise of the digital humanities, both as the use of digital for humanities research and as humanities research in to the digital as an object of study. Thus, I would like to suggest, the stage is set for forms of academic research that adopt some of the hacker and participatory approaches that are native to the innovative edges of the creative economy. It may be slow because of the traditional constraints of academic disciplines, cultures and intitutional ecologies, but there are glimpses (such as ‘guerilla research‘). More substantially, it’s a revolution that is already happening in the paramount discipline of hard science; not just in the wave of ‘open science’ but in the more disruptive ideas of crowdfunded research and citizen science.
Citizen science is one focus of my own current research in Kosovo; developing participatory science projects that use digital affordances but also and more importantly take an agile & lean approach to the research itself, where the users are involved from setting the research question to interpreting the results.
Note that the collaborative and participatory aspects of this kind of intertwining distinguishes it from the other blends of research & creative economy which have recently made the news (Facebook, OKCupid) which stand instead as a warning about the potential toxicity of big data. Rather, if more academic research comes to adopt digital affordances and a hacker ethic, then there will be less need to manufacture collaborative research; academic research will overlap with developments in creative economies because these activities will be occuring at one and the same time.
Author: Dr Dan McQuillan, Goldsmiths, University of London
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