The Disciplinary Dance: Contributions across a design lifecycle

The CoDE team featured centrally in the second annual Festival of Research by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences here at Surrey, with Professor Annabelle Gawer chairing the panel on ‘Technologies Impacting Life’, featuring Professor David Frohlich on the panel.

The Festival is a full day event exploring the intersection between our Faculty’s research and societal pressure points. The keynote speech, ‘How Not to Hate Your Research Collaborators’ by Professor Nigel Gilbert of the Department of Sociology cut straight to the point (answer: Keep Calm and Be Nice) and got us thinking about the challenges of interdisciplinary research.

The contribution of multiple disciplines to digital innovation is well established. Anyone working in the field of interactive system design, for example, will be used to working in teams containing some mix of engineers and computer scientists, social scientists and marketeers, possibly with input from the fields of art and design. This is reflected in the encouragement of interdisciplinary collaboration by funding bodies such as the EPSRC or Innovate UK, and by most models of the design and innovation process which involve cyclical development of system prototypes with strong user engagement.

What is not so well understood, is how exactly to co-ordinate the contribution of different disciplines across the design lifecycle.  A serial organisation of contributions is almost never used, for obvious reasons to do with lack of true collaboration between team members. But — a fully parallel organisation can be chaotic in terms of integrating the findings from different disciplines, and making design decisions.

We are seeing these issues play out in a recent project we have started at Surrey in collaboration with the Geography department at the Open University.    The Next Generation Paper project seeks to connect paper to the web through augmented reality technology and printed electronics, and involves five disciplines and research groups at Surrey in addition to cultural geography from the OU. These include communication design from Digital World Research Centre (DWRC), software engineering from the Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing (CVSSP), hardware electronics from the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), tourism research from Hospitality and Tourism, and business research from CoDE.

The team will produce a series of augmented travel and photobooks, in collaboration with our industry partners, over the next 30 months, with phased contributions from the different disciplines involved. These interactive artefacts form a focal point for skilfully co-ordinating disciplinary inputs, according to a workplan that’s more a choreographic notation or orchestral score, with room for improvisation.

As digital opens up more borders across disciplines, this ‘dance’ will feature more and more centrally in research projects. Remember to Keep Calm…..






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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.