Native is the website and print magazine for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

Working with Rohan Gunatillake, I was a writer and consulting editor for the project, contributing to the website and two print magazines in 2014 and 2015, both lovingly designed by Rydo.

Never blending in: a profile of Jon Rogers

Jon Rogers
Jon Rogers

We’re more than half way through an interview in which Jon Rogers has, amongst many other things, talked excitedly about Buffy The Vampire Slayer (he’s a big fan), internet­-connected fridges (not impressed) and the Met Office (“where diverse talent, and intellect in its many forms, is celebrated”), and I’m still unsure how to describe what he does. Is it possible, I ask, to explain where he fits in across the spheres of design, the arts, technology, science and academia? He shakes his head and I feel daft for asking. “No,” he smiles. “I’m the opposite of a chameleon; wherever I go I don’t blend in. If there was an animal that, whatever environment it went into, adapted perfectly to stand out, then that animal would be me.”

Rogers, who has been a research partner on two R&D Fund projects – first through the pilot round with Punchdrunk and MIT, and more recently with Unlimited Theatre and Storythings – is an academic at the University of Dundee, where he heads up the Product Design Research Studio at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. That description, however, barely scratches the surface of what this fast­-thinking, quick-­talking polymath is interested in and does. In fact he admits with a smile that he’s not really sure what he is. Which is perhaps why, when the college of art offered him a professorship at the end of last year, he was both delighted and a little perplexed.

“My first thought when they told me was: a professor of what? I’ve never designed a product, I’m not even a designer. If it was a case of what I’m trained in, then I’m an engineer, but I wasn’t very good at that. So what is it that I do? What could I be a professor of? Eventually, I kind of realised that I’m a creative technologist, so now I am chair of creative technology. And I like it, because it’s not a discipline – it’s an approach.”

Shabbily utilitarian

The Product Design Research Studio is tucked away on the seventh floor of the Matthew Building, an imposing slab of 1970s concrete recently given a glass­fronted face­lift. Rogers and his team are housed in three shabbily utilitarian office­-cum-­studio spaces stuffed with books, computers, circuit boards, cardboard boxes and the remnants of previous and ongoing projects – including a fold­-up bike perched on a shelf and a white boiler suit pinned to the wall. Much of the time, though, Rogers can be found elsewhere, collaborating with a diverse range of organisations and individuals. “I work with lots of really talented people,” he says, “and I think that’s why I’m able to get away with being slightly eccentric within the middle of it all.”

That diverse collection of people and organisations includes the Mozilla Foundation (a Skype message pops up from its director half­way through our interview – Rogers is running late for a chat), The National Institute of Design India (he’s off to Ahmedabad the week after we meet) and NASA (there are currently no plans to send him into space). What connects these high­profile collaborators is a willingness to push boundaries and test ideas – and not be afraid to take risks when that’s the way to find out what works, and what doesn’t.

As for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, Rogers counts it as an important and vital enabler in the journey of discovery and disruption that his work takes him on. “I think the act of bringing together the three different fund partners [Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Nesta] with three different heads and three different points of view, is incredibly important. I expect there are some interesting conversations going on in the background, and I like that – it feels highly experimental. And having been involved in the pilot and then the first full round of the fund, it feels like it’s matured a lot, that there’s a real confidence around the grittiness of this sort of activity.”

It’s a mark of his excitement about the fund that, despite having had anything but a smooth ride with 2012’s Sleep No More, he had no hesitation about getting involved with the fund again for the Unlimited Theatre-­led project, UNeditions, which developed an immersive digital platform for playscripts. “I got a huge understanding of the space from working with Punchdrunk and MIT – well, who better to be apprenticed to? But it was a very different experience the second time.”

Three – it’s the magic number

The differences started long before the project began. For Sleep No More, he was “parachuted in” after the application had been accepted – along with fellow researcher Dan Dixon from University of the West of England – and had no prior relationship with the project partners. Recognising that this could be done better – and that, when it comes to collaboration, three really is the magic number – for the second phase of applications, the fund required projects to have a trio of partners, including a researcher. So, with Unlimited he was an integral part of the team from the start.

“I actually first met Jon [Spooner, Artistic Director of Unlimited] at a Met Office event,” explains Rogers. “It was a NASA Hack Jam – where else would you meet a theatre director? He was wearing an orange space suit, telling people that he was going into space the next day.” Six months later, his feet still firmly on the ground, Spooner emailed to say he was applying to the Fund and would Rogers like to be involved?

As with Sleep No More, Rogers’ research approach on UNeditions has involved what he describes as ‘insight journalism’ – essentially a community-­centred approach to reporting, drawing on the ideas of citizen journalism developed in partnership with Paul Egglestone from the University of Central Lancashire . But whereas with Punchdrunk this was done as evaluative research, responding to the live performance as it happened in New York with a series of daily ‘newspapers’, for Unlimited it was part of a co­design process involving all the partners – and a community of 20 participants, who, through a series of labs, would create the parameters for the project.

“With Sleep No More, we were playing that gritty role as academics and I don’t think that was a very supporting and positive role for Punchdrunk – and we learnt a lot from that. In the end, we didn’t get the editorial [of the newspapers] right, we didn’t get the relationships right, and we definitely didn’t get the reporting right, so it became much more of a friction than it should have been, and I’ve apologised for that. With Unlimited, we’ve done it as more of a collaborative process.”

Iterative hacking

As well as drawing on his time with Punchdrunk, the research process for Unlimited was informed by Rogers’ experience of attending one­-off events, such as hackdays. “I’ve been to some great collaborative making events and hackdays with people like NASA, the BBC and Mozilla. But while some really quite clever stuff happens at these, I’d often think, where’s the follow up? So what I wanted to test with Unlimited – and I think successfully, I’m really proud of what we did – was to run an iterative hack process rather than just a one-­off event.”

The result of this approach was three separate days of community labs, the 20 participants split into two groups of ten for morning and afternoon sessions. With six weeks between each lab, there was time for ideas from one lab to be acted on and then discussed further in the next. It was, explains Rogers, a genuine co­-design process.

“Although they [the lab participants] weren’t writing the lines of code, they were setting the requirements and the agenda. And for me as a researcher, this long tail of iterating between labs really worked – they were testing rather than making, but they were making the requirements for the project. We’ve also blurred the boundaries with this project; Jon [Spooner] is very happy to comment on the processes of co­design and insight journalism, and get stuck in with the technology and what he thinks it should do – like me, he likes to boundary cross.”

As befits the nature of the project, the labs themselves were also conceived as theatrical events, with props designed by Uniform, a Liverpool design studio with which Rogers regularly collaborates. There were, for example, beer mats for the ‘Rusty Compass’ pub and fold­out menus. Participants were asked to use these to respond to various questions and requests, such as “write five characteristics you expect from a play­script app”.

“The first lab was really about arriving at a shared challenge,” explains Rogers. “All the participants read the script for the play, The Noise, and were told we wanted a digital app or publishing platform at the end of the process, but that was all. And what came out of it was some really clear insights about them wanting light and sound, the theatricals, key things around liveness and atmosphere. They also wanted it to be free, and open source.”

Blurred roles

Rogers clearly had fun with the project, particularly the blurriness of the roles and the physicality of the whole process. While the end product was destined to be a screen­based app, the labs didn’t involve any time staring at devices – the closest they came to this was a foam iPad with a roll of paper for a screen, and the ‘Unpad’, an A4 paper writing pad with an iPad­-style black frame. Moving away from screens is something Rogers is keen to see more of.

“We’re still predominantly delivering digital technology through a rectangular screen – all we ever do is change the size,” he says. “Even doing this [turns his laptop sideways] is seen as radical. And my real passion is saying: all this [taps the screen], how can it come into our world? Digital is the most empowering, technical revolution we’ve ever had – it’s like the social equivalent of penicillin. So it’s amazing to me that we are so limited in the way that it’s delivered.”

Rogers traces this desire to see digital technology reflected in a more everyday, tactile and physical way, back to when he first came into contact with computers as an 11 year old. Thanks to his ZX Spectrum console, he suddenly found himself able take control of the family TV – a privilege previously only bestowed on the BBC and ITV. “I learnt to code because I could re­shape the world around me, and it happened to be on my TV. But I’m very frustrated that, over 30 years on, I’m still stuck with the screen – and that’s nowhere near as exciting anymore, because everyone has one. I want to subvert the table we’re sitting at, I want to reprogram and hack it!”

Rather than the Internet of Things, however, what Rogers wants to see is a Web of Things – an approach that operates within agreed and open protocols. It’s early days, but Rogers is already talking to the Mozilla Foundation about how they can start working towards this, in the same way Tim Berners­Lee and colleagues did when they were creating the universal standards for the world wide web.

“I have a real issue with the Internet of Things – it’s so anti what the web should be,” he says. “I think if we really want cultural R&D to happen in this physical space, it has to happen in an open way. It can’t just be left to the market, and that’s why I’m an academic – to exist outside that system. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it can be delivered without commercial partners, but I don’t want to leave it to them entirely. It’s about a commercial, cultural, technology and research partner coming together to solve these bigger problems.”

The future for R&D in the arts then, believes Rogers, is more collaboration, more cutting across disciplines, more demolishing of ivory towers, whether they’re in academia, business, technology or the arts and culture sector itself. “The three partners approach of the R&D Fund feels like the right way to fund things,” he says. “Put three different ingredients together and you’re going to get some exciting results.”

And with that, he’s off to make a Skype call to the director of the Mozilla Foundation – ever the anti­chameleon, an academic on a mission to stand out and be counted.

Originally published June 2014 on

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