Porto Graffitti, photo by Georgina Voss
Porto Graffitti, photo by Georgina Voss

Speculative futures / Digital fabrication / Sexual health


19 March 2014

As part of their studio residencies, we've invited our residents to contribute to our blog. This week is the turn of writer and researcher Georgina Voss.

I started my residency at Lighthouse Studio at the beginning of 2014 during the floods and the storms, when the trains stopped and the roads were washed away. One of the first issues which often gets raised when transport logistics fall over is about food security – how many packets are left in the cupboard, on supermarket shelves? How long will that last us for? I got intrigued by a different question though, of access to medicine. How many days of Warfarin have you got left? How many packets of Citalopram? And then what? In the studio I built this up into a larger enquiry about healthcare and digital culture, and applied for funding to take it forward. In early March, we were delighted to hear that NESTA had awarded a grant for the work and my residency has now been extended whilst I run the project, all watched over by the Lighthouse Studio of loving grace.

So I’m asking: what could digital fabrication and hyper-local manufacture offer to the provision of sexual healthcare? There’s a long history of localized user-led design of tools and techniques by medical practitioners, due to the complex, site-specific and emergent nature of medical knowledge. Grassroots and frugal innovation are also an embedded aspect of medicine, particularly in situations of scarcity and around services not permitted under local regulations. Sexual healthcare in particular has been characterized by these factors due to the widespread need for it; and the UN has made recommendations that forms of local manufacturing which use simple technologies should take precedent in this area. The medical possibilities of digital fabrication, which allows both mass-customisation and localized production, are already being examined – yet I hadn’t seen much on sexual healthcare specifically.

In our project we’ll draw on a combination of methods – workshops, interviews, co-design, foresight techniques, literature analysis – to develop and design a series of speculative scenarios, stories, policy reports which consider the technologies and services which could be developed and the contexts of their delivery. We’ll also think about the social, economic, cultural and political issues which latch on to them, to complement the more technical research already being conducted in this field. Technologies don’t emerge in a vacuum, but are shaped by the interaction between society (people, institutions, policy, culture), and I’ve already had a tiny poke at how sexual and reproductive healthcare gets represented in science fiction – artificial wombs, cups of ‘hot contraceptives’ –a useful way of siting a technology in another place in space or time to see why context and politics matter.

Several other design projects have been influential in getting us to this point. Ronen Kadushin’s political product concept ‘Bearina’ – a 3D printed intra-uterine device (IUD) – looked at open design could lower production costs of contraception, and got me thinking about the link between the design and manufacture of these technologies and the larger socio-technical system that they sit in. Anne Galloway’s ‘Counting Sheep’ work has also been enormously influential in terms of method and approach, particularly around working with stakeholders to develop scenarios embedded in local contexts and lived experience, and also encouraging public understanding of new technologies.

This work brings together things I’ve worked on for a long time (user-led and grassroots innovation and design; geographies of innovation; science and technology policy; open hardware; gender and sexuality) with ones I’ve wanted to get my teeth into (digital fabrication; speculative design). To help me, Natasha Carolan and Scott Smith are bringing their smarts to the research. Natasha is a Senior Research Associate at Hong Kong City University and is completing her PhD in on-demand manufacture; she was previously Head of Atoms at MakieLabs and is providing knowledge on the current landscape around digital fabrication. Scott is the founder of Changeist, a futures research laboratory which explores emerging technologies and cultures; and will be bringing in expertise around critical foresight techniques.

Please do get in touch if you’d like to know more; and if you’re involved in sexual healthcare provision and support of any type, I’d really love to hear from you. I’ll be keeping folks updated here, and we’ll be presenting the early stages of the project at Shenzhen Maker Faire next month, on April 6-7th.

Georgina is currently one of our residents at our interdisciplinary studio. For more information about Lighthouse Studio, click here.


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