How did the project come about and what does it involve?
Kirsty Ross: The project has a strong legacy and part of that is building a really strong relationship with the University of Glasgow and the Institute of Cancer Sciences, in particular through and with Nicol Keith (Professor of Molecular Oncology and Director of Research Impact at the Institute of Cancer Sciences).
Nicol and I started working together three years ago on a previous iteration of the Future Experiences project which looked at the future of cancer care and precision medicine. That was a wonderful collaboration and mapped on to the next iteration of the project and then to this one, so it’s been evolved through a really strong, growing relationship. Through a conversation six months ago, just as the pandemic hit, we discussed how we wanted to frame the project brief around what was happening in society and in particular how it was impacting people living with and working within the field of cancer. So it was a shared interest this year in tapping into what’s happening in society and relating that very closely to an exploration of future living and future working within cancer in ten years’ time.
Nicol Keith: We’re really interested in genuine research needs, so when we’re looking for these projects we tend to also look for innovative approaches and this idea about working and living with cancer was really appealing. It’s not just the topic, it’s the innovative approaches that can be taken to that. But really importantly of course we try to find projects that work within the framework of research-led teaching because this in an Honours project. This year we were starting to look at this when Covid hit and that has actually helped a lot in how we framed the project. The cancer part of the project looks at how we take groups and areas of cancer out of silos and begin to look at collective intelligence, at joining things up, and all of a sudden we were being put into lockdown, so actually we were talking about being put in silos but yet having a project that was about taking us out of silos and joining us all up. So it was a very exciting time and it was made much more relevant because of the situation we were placed in globally.
Tell us about the collaborative nature of this project
KR: Because we know each other well and we know how to design this collaboration from both sides we designed a very dynamic community of practice to surround the students with. This community contributed professional and lived experience expertise to the project. It’s a wonderful group of cancer-related and collective-intelligence-related experts. It’s also experts in digital health and care from the Digital Health & Care Innovation Centre at GSA and the teaching faculty from Product Design. Between all of that there was a very rich, diverse and plural group of perspectives that contributed and worked directly with the students all the way through during organised sessions. These were live sessions – albeit online – that required the students both in their groups at the beginning of the project and individually in the second half of the project to work directly with these experts and learn how to present and communicate their design ideas to people within design but also to people outwith design; experts who are scientists, researchers and cancer practitioners. Part of the innovation in the pedagogy is setting up the conditions and characteristics for that kind of collaborative learning to take place and flourish throughout the duration of the project.
NK: First and foremost, these projects place the human experience at the heart of the work. We don’t always do that in our normal practice – a lot of it can be very technical. There is obviously a human angle, but this really places the human experience at the centre of it all. That’s important because it makes us think quite differently. These projects create a vital creative environment and actually you need that environment in order to bring such diverse stakeholders and experts together, because we reach out to a number of different disciplines, sectors and expertise and bring them together.
I don’t quite know how they manage this at GSA but these projects manage to create an environment of trust, which is really important because it allows us to address quite difficult topics. Because it’s a real-world problem that we’re looking at, we know that these things can be quite challenging for a field or individuals to talk about, so you have to create the right environment to allow that project to be fulfilled and to do the research and the design properly. That happens in this environment because there is so much respect given to the topic and to the people involved because it’s human centred. That allows you to do a couple of things: it allows you to be very speculative, which is very important and, beyond that, you can actually be quite provocative. From my point of view, we rarely go that far. We do think of what might happen in the future, but the way these students work and the way they are taught leads them much more towards these preferable futures. That for us is very important but even more importantly it gives us insight into how to get there. Again, we very rarely think in such a systematic fashion and we certainly don’t normally create the atmosphere and the environment that allows those creative discussions to take place. For us it really breaks the mould and it gives us that time and space to do this, which we don’t do in any other way. It’s a unique opportunity for us.
KR: Both the students and the staff that teach on the project, we all go on a journey together over the two month period and it’s interesting to see and feel how that change happens. In the beginning few weeks we’re all getting to know each other, we’re trying to understand the brief, we’re learning and starting to do research. If I think about the first expert input day with the students everyone is a bit nervous, they don’t know each other and they’re getting together for the first time. Students are perhaps feeling that they’re going to receive lots of information and expertise and the experts are not sure what they’re going to get back from the students. So there’s that sort of collision where everybody is sussing each other out. It’s very exciting but very quickly this community starts to gel and even by the middle session it starts to balance out and both groups are on a par with each other. There’s a mutual exchange going on. And by the last expert input day when people know each other, the experts are looking forward to seeing progress, the students are looking forward to showing what they’ve been designing and everyone jumps in and works together. I love to see the journey and the transition across those three expert engagement sessions that we run. It really is collaborative learning in action and that for me is quite a unique thing within a Bachelor programme.
NK: From the students’ point of view, they are able to see very quickly the value in design and in their craft and what they’ve been working towards for four years. All of a sudden you’re doing something for real. It’s quite a big shock for students to all of a sudden be let loose on people who are at the top of their game in other disciplines and other sectors. That also comes down to trust, that they learn the value of design because we trust each other with each other’s most valued asset, which is our network. It’s actually a really exciting way to work. And it can be nerve-wracking at times but that’s the value of having a relationship with an organisation and with people over a number of years. That’s why we’re able to come up with these projects that benefit the students, the experts, and the staff as well.
Can you explain how you see the Future Experiences project developing in the coming years?
NK: Working with the designers makes you realise that you can’t stay still, which is great because they push you. Actually working within frameworks like this – these are future-focused projects, it’s explicit yet bounded and that’s what we need. What works well and what I would like to see us continue with is choosing these really relevant and timely research topics; the things that matter and that people care about. They also have to be tricky to address but we have to be up to the challenge because that’s how you draw in the top people and where you can use design to show real value by approaching these tricky subjects in this way. We now know you can do this and within a few months you can come up with so much.
So what’s really good is this richness of the expert pool and it’s important to continue working on that and draw them in. Whether that’s societal organisations or industry sectors or academic disciplines. To be honest, we haven’t had any trouble getting people involved. They come in based on trust and leave with their minds blown. I’d love to see us listening to and involving or integrating the opinions and values of early career researchers or people at the earlier stages of their career in industry. A lot of what we do is driven by quite senior people. What you find when working with the students is that they have a different lived experience and a different way of thinking. Not only are they designers but they’re young. If you could bring in more opinions or the values that some of these early career people might have, I think we could also land on some really interesting topics or elements of topics that could be really useful.
KR: I would like to grow the scale of the collaboration and also to strengthen the relationship we have and that the institutes have. Because it’s been working so well now over three years it allows us to be more global in scale with future iterations of the project and we could bring in multiple or plural forms of input. That’s what gets me excited when I think about the future of Future Experiences as a collaboration. I think it would be interesting, especially in terms of teaching design, to have design industry contributions as well. And then there’s the context of health and wellbeing, which is an emerging area for designers to work within now, both in the public and private sectors, and certainly it’s a big contextual focus for us as an institute at the Innovation School. As an area that’s contemporary and contextually relevant, not just for us but because of what’s happening in society, I think health and wellbeing is a wonderful territory to continue to explore in the Future Experiences project.