Workshop 4: Essaying the Fabpod
21st August 2014, 10:00am – 2:00pm
RMIT Design Hub, Level 9
This workshop seeks to catalyse participants’ imaginations on what the FabPod can become through creative writing methodology and evoke future scenarios of its use and experience. The workshop moves through various stages and spaces to explore three questions:
- What is the FabPod?
- What could it be?
- What does a co-created experience feel like?
Conversing over food and drinks will be part of these stages. The workshop was led by David Carlin and invited participants from the Design Research Institute, Design Futures Lab, Digital Ethnography Research Centre and Non-fiction Lab to speculate futures and produce a collective essay that combines writing and imagery by the end of the 3hr workshop.
Its makers describe the FabPod as ‘a prototype meeting enclosure located in an open knowledge space… developed to address acoustic performance…bringing together existing knowledge of acoustic diffusion, CNC prototyping and digital workflows and craft traditions of making’ (Williams et al 2013). Being committed to iterative processes of practice-based research, the FabPod is an ambitious undertaking that experiments with various hyperbolic curvatures, modular construction and materials for noise diffusion. A prototype has been erected in RMIT Design Hub building for use and further experimentation by researchers. Our curiosity was triggered by overheard accounts from users who were disappointed with the FabPod as a meeting room in terms of its noise-diffusing acoustics and light levels. Many were disgruntled by the design and technological ‘promises’ it appeared to make by its presence, occupying an open-plan warehouse where people desired a space to have a private conversation.
Given its status as prototype, conventionally, such feedback is often used to inform the next iteration of the design, to iron out its acoustic issues and improve upon them. However, the Design + Ethnography + Futures approach departed from this ‘convention’ to instead explore ways to ‘disrupt’ a certainty that the FabPod was a meeting space and the ways in which this limited the user-experiences of it. We looked upon this opportunity to explore qualities of certainty and uncertainty in relation to the FabPod, but also in our own conceptions of it.
We wanted to know what other possibilities could be imagined and sensed with users, and how these would allow us (users and researchers) to reframe our understanding and expectations. This led to an approach to initially create ways to un-know what was known about the Fabpod – creating a deliberative ‘disruption’ – and to examine the ways we (ethnographers, designers, architects and research participants) can know or not-know.
Design + Ethnography + Futures workshops seek to foster conditions that are fruitful for collective, yet uncertain explorations. In continuing this approach, we asked a creative writer in non-fiction, David Carlin, to be a guest facilitator. Again, this choice to invite David (who is not a designer or an anthropologist) was determined by serendipity rather than logical decision-making, responding to his curiosity in Design + Ethnography + Futures and his experience of using the FabPod over two years as a meeting room.
David invited established writers to participate alongside FabPod users (from social science and design), making 13 participants, 4 of whom had no experience of the FabPod. His suggestion was to explore how creative writing can provoke us to imagine, relate to and propose alternative conceptions, beyond its current use. We were also interested in how the collective and performative experience of creative writing – an adaptive ‘technology’ of sorts – could shift our individual, and the group’s sensory perception of the FabPod. We were interested in how this process may enable what we could ‘become together’, united by a reflexive awareness of Design + Ethnography + Futures’ ecology as generative of new ways of knowing.
Again, the notion of uncertainty underpinned the workshop. For some the FabPod itself was uncertain terrain, for others who were not writers, creative writing put them on uncertain ground. Above all we began with the principle that we were uncertain but curious about what would happen that day.
In the first exercise, we shared what we each thought we knew or felt about the FabPod. Few participants knew about its research biography as an acoustic prototype enclosure so their knowing was based on how they felt in using it. A participant with no experience anticipated the disappointment she may feel if it was actually real. Frequent users expressed an embodied, affective knowing, oriented around walking around it like landscape. Others who saw it being assembled spoke about their curiosity about what it might become. Some remembered its arrival as if a spaceship or similar to the ‘Tardis’ in Doctor Who. This sharing process was accompanied by writing, which was then read out by each person. Variety of words like homely, disappointment, fabulous, sorrow, amusing, pompous, ambitious, curious, futuristic, alien, exposure, uncomfortable, whimsical, were voiced. We created a collective, shared ecology of statements and imagination, which were documented, referenced and echoed in our creative writing. From this sharing process emerged a certainty rooted only in the way that we each felt about the Fabpod.
The second part of the workshop engaged us directly with the materiality of the FabPod. Some saw it for the first time, and for others it was re-visiting something very familiar. We sat in and around the FabPod for a good length of time and we experienced and experimented with its acoustics, lighting, atmosphere and spatial orientation. Our casual conversation drifted from one thing to another, imagining, for example, creatures nestling in its corners or refigured as a walk-through entrance capsule. Additional features were suggested, like suspending a disco-ball or plants from its ceiling. This led to another 25min of individual writing, and when shared, our accounts of the FabPod emerged in new narratives, showing discernable shifts in how we could imagine it. For instance it was gendered as the ‘Queen Pod, with a shivering, swaying fern tiara’. It became an allegory for a nation, ‘she is all business, all principles and purpose, albeit not without a hint of bemusement’. It was seen as language, ‘others get really physical when they start talking Fabpod’. Some wrote about it as an abstract noise machine, ‘there is this acoustic island, shielding us from our own noise’.
The FabPod, our shared stories, experiences, and our writing – it all changed our relationship to it. Essaying the FabPod created a unique temporally and spatially circumscribed shared experience. The majority of the participants, who had previously perceived the meeting enclosure as poorly ‘designed’ for its purpose, began to embrace its shortfalls. In fact, they turned the FabPod into an oddity and bemusement. We observed that its success as a meeting space no longer mattered. This abandonment simultaneously reflects the liberation from the design and designer’s intention to re-cast the space as they each now relate to it. This resonates with Michaels’ (2000:23) notion of de-inscription, ‘wherein human actors withstand, repulse or undermine the prescriptions or proscriptions of ordering non-humans’. There is a power-dimension to this explanation. Likewise, David shares in his writing;
I used to think of the Fabpod as a futuristic folly of a certain sort, wonderful but somehow with an air of hubris. Is it too much a product of cool intellect? But now I want to go there late at night, to make it coloured and to bounce music off its many navels. I want to see the possum that lives in its western nook and to watch movies on the projection screen that traces its impossible curves.
Manifesting from this process was a felt excitement among the group in what their collective encounters enabled, acknowledging what each – the meeting enclosure and their generative creative writing process – contributed. An alchemical ‘mutual changing’ (Michael, 2000: 170) had happened. We emerged with a genuine sense of delight from that collective process with our altered perceptions. Together we had discovered something we were unable to know before embarking.
Michael, M. 2000. Reconnecting Culture, Technology and Nature: From Society to Heterogeneity, London: Routledge.
Williams, N. and J. Cherrey, B. Peters, and J. Burry. 2013. ‘FabPod: A Prototypical Design System for Acoustically Diffused Enclosures’ in Stacey, M. (ed.) Prototyping Architecture: The Conference Papers, Building Centre Trust, London.
This work has been published in two peer-review articles:
Akama, Y.,Pink, S.,Fergusson, A. 2015. Design + ethnography +futures: Surrendering in uncertainty In: Proceedings of the 33rd Annual CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2015), Seoul, Korea, 18-23 April.
Carlin, D., Akama, Y., Pink, S., Miles, A., Brettle, K., Fergusson, A., Magner, B., Pang, A., Rendle-Short, F. & Sumartojo, S. 2015. ‘Essaying The Fabpod: An improvised experimental collaborative account of the uncertain cultural life and futures of the fabpod, as of August 21, 2014’, Axon Journal, vol. 8.
The associated ibook (i.e. Apple only) is available for download at: