The SMARTlab Ethos

SMARTlab has at heart a ‘universal design’ concept. By designing for sections of society whose interests and needs are least served by off-the-shelf technologies – e.g. women, young people at risk and people with (extreme) disabilities – we aim to create socially inclusive, sustainable projects and products of use to all.

The SMARTlab team maintains a strong collaborative ethos in its work and includes live artists, performers, dance and movement specialists, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, sculptors, textile experts, fashion designers, poets/writers, composers/musicians, sound artists, VR engineers, programmers, game and interface designers and e-business specialists who design for sustainable development, social change and community wellbeing.

SMARTlab’s ethos is simple: every project is grounded in a community, culture or research environment. The team spends time getting to know the local people, issues, concerns and needs before involving the larger group of experts, who may include artists, computer scientists, medical and social care professionals, educators and scholars. The larger, integrated cohort then develops new technology tools with real social impact, whether for individuals, for groups or for wider international aims.

SMARTlab selects projects and teams on the basis of ethical concerns, social engagement and the ability to work effectively in interdisciplinary groups, as well as for the originality and potential impact of the research, in basic and applied terms.

In every context, the aim is to effect knowledge transfer within the team, between teams and local communities, and within broader academic and industry relations.

Activities

The SMARTlab has three distinct threads of activity:

1. A practice-based PhD programme and research centre for designers, artists and technologists working in artistic domains, who have long encountered difficulties in placing their work in relation to the academy: in finding appropriate ways to ‘measure’ artistic practice in ‘research exercises’; in identifying appropriately flexible and experimental forms for artistic research processes and outcomes; and in competing for academic funding.

2. A suite of community engagement and creative industries projects around e-inclusion and design for ability, assistive technology, IT for women and girls, and educational inclusivity.

3. A knowledge transfer centre and sensory studio that operates as a space where local communities can join forces with UCD academics, artists, technologists and game designers to make and test games and interactive tools.

The Communities

Our three primary user groups are women, young people and people with disabilities. We work off-site in women’s shelters, schools, hospitals and rehabilitation centres, as well as in universities and industry think-tank settings and retreats. We also operate out of a new ‘home’ studio and ‘playroom’ at UCD, with sister sites in operation (and accessible via telematic stream) in New York, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Montreal, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Aarhus, Fes, Marrakech, Alibag and Mumbai. We are funded from a variety of sources, many of which are listed below.

We operate a not-for-profit company called Safespaces.net, which has been recognised as a best-practice model for community engagement in creative technology innovation by the US government and by our partners at the UN, Worldbank, Microsoft, the BBC, NESTA, the Carl Sagan Trust, the Wellcome Trust, the Gublenkian Trust, LEGO Europe and many other past and present partners.

The Method

Projects are designed to meet the needs of those communities or social groups least represented or supported by off-the-shelf technology tools for education, communication, skills training and/or artistic and social empowerment.

Creative Industries and Knowledge Transfer Experience

SMARTlab approaches Experience Design in an innovative format framed by improvisation, testing and iteration of models for learning, sales, interactive arts, gaming and leisure. We see Experience Design as a metaconcept providing direction, vocabulary and technique that can enable multiple disciplines to work together in a unified manner. As Karl Long writes in the ‘Experience Curve’:

Borrowing from the design strategies of successful theme parks, Experience Design emerged in 2001 as a recognised design method for manufacturers and retailers in need of generating excitement about their brands or in-store experience. Experience marketing is meant to immerse the customer in a customised/custom-built environment programmed to educate and energise enthusiasm about a brand.

The advent of online shopping has significantly affected the retail industry’s perception of the in-store experience. With no necessity now to go to a store, retailers and product manufacturers are having to rethink the promotion paradigm and pull bodies into stores to rationalise capital investment in brick and mortar and justify their place and identity on the street. Manufacturers have designed retail-style outlets that are in fact there not to sell but to promote a brand. In New York City, Samsung, Sony, Nokia and Adidas have followed the successful example of Apple, bringing a brand and its identity to the street and making shops fun places to hang out in and try new products.

User-centred Experience Design can be used to engage communities and to:

  • build sustainable competitive advantage
  • differentiate brands in a crowded world
  • build brand equity and perceived value
  • drive brand awareness
  • create excitement and momentum

SMARTlab has been working with local government and development agencies in East London since 2005, providing strategic vision and skills/experience training as the neighbourhoods of East London prepare for major transformation with the arrival of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012. In this we will build further on our existing track record of event and experience design and management. We have, for instance, led major workshops for the European Commission and Media Programmes in Creative Arts and Experience Labs, with events ranging from day workshops to full-week retreats that take ideas from concept to 2D and 3D prototype stage, or encourage ‘emotional intelligence’ and experience cue recognition, as well as standard ‘pitch strategies’.

By way of example, SMARTlab could provide the following Knowledge Exchange experience sessions for industry:

  • ‘Discovering the Message’: Experience Thinktanks, taking clients through an
    engaging process of discovering what they want their messages to say, and
    the best ways to deliver specific messages
  • Delivery System: development and iterative testing of bespoke systems for
    delivery of selected brand messages across the sector
  • Proof of Concept workshops and open pitch sessions
  • Competitions and Awards (with BAFTA)
  • ‘Training the Trainers for Experience Design’: extended workshops and
    short courses

We have collaborated closely with the London Development Agency on the Games Academy, and with BAFTA on a new set of awards for interactive experience design achieved through Meaningful Games and Mobile Games for Learning.

SMARTlab’s main site at University College Dublin (UCD) hosts a formidable team of recognised industry professionals, including health and assistive-technology experts, designers, artists, technologists, programmers, architects and engineers. Many of our team members started their careers in the commercial sector and have a wealth of expertise in Experience Design for the health, retail, entertainment and hospitality industries. The SMARTlab team is available for consultation to help explore, focus and create the right message and delivery approach for clients and customers. We can host creative brainstorming sessions at UCD, or can do on-site visits for creative focus sessions.

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