The birth of a research centre called Medea

A talk with Bo Reimer, Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Malmö University, former director, and co-founder of Medea.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

You are part of the group that took the initiative to establish a research centre for co-production and multidisciplinary meetings, which eventually became Medea. Where did it all start?

I actually think you have to see the start as the start of Malmö University and K3 (the School of Arts and Communication) in 1998. While establishing this new faculty, we combined the ideas of interaction design, media and communication studies, art and technology and encouraged students as well as researchers to work across disciplines. This way of thinking and working across borders was something that we had been doing for more than ten years. When the Knowledge Foundation (a Swedish research fund) put out a big call for a research grant based on multidisciplinary research and co-production, we applied for a long-term grant which we were eventually awarded. By receiving this grant, we could make an old dream come true, and that dream was establishing a research centre for working across borders on a large scale with actors from outside academia. We had been doing that before, but in a smaller scale. Now we were given the chance to establish long-term collaborative projects on a secure basis, financially speaking.

Were you also inspired by other similar research centres around world?

At that time there were some centres – not that many, maybe a handful – that we of course knew about and were in contact with, and that had models that we could follow and be inspired by. We wanted to build a research centre in Malmö in line with places like the MediaLab at MIT and the at Stanford. One of our benefits when starting was that we had already built a research environment at K3 before Medea, and had plenty of experience in working across borders and disciplines. It is still not that common to work in the borderlines between media and design, between thinking and doing. We had that experience to build on and with the grant we received funding without having to be dependent on companies, which is normally the case at these kinds of research centres. Look at the MediaLab at MIT, they are dependent on funding from specific companies in order to conduct concrete projects. At Medea we are more independent in that sense, as long as we are collaborating with companies. But they do not need to pay for our work.

Once you had received the grant and the mission to build a research centre, what was the first step?

One of the first steps was to create a good working environment, which is the studio we are sitting in right now. The development of the studio was incredibly important. We wanted it to be a space to work in, but we also wanted it to be a public space. The idea was to create a multifunctional and dynamic studio space where we could easily switch from using it as a workspace and space for running workshops into a lecture hall or an exhibition space, for instance. The studio works wonderfully well for that. The establishment of the space was really an important first step in order to get the studio going.

What about the artist-in-residence and entrepreneur-in-residence programs at Medea?

We wanted to have two kinds of residency programs to combine academic perspectives with entrepreneurial perspectives, and therefore have two residents here simultaneously. People that have been visiting us are Jon Kolko, designer and creative director at Frog design, Bob Jacobson, entrepreneur and strategist at Atelier Tomorrow, Arlene Birt, visual storyteller, artist and information designer and Jeannette Ginslov, artist and choreographer.

One of your first moves at Medea was to set up a call inviting researchers, companies and public organisations to send proposals for future projects within the realm of collaborative media.

Yes, it was a call directed towards academics as well as non-academics, asking them to come up with ideas and proposals based on co-production. We received around 40 applications. In the end, seven projects were selected and they got a fairly big sum to build prototypes and demos. That whole project ended with a big event here in the studio where all seven projects were exhibited and presented.

The final projects represented a great mixture of themes and topics, such as tools for urban planning (Parapolis), games for learning and urban exploration (It’s my experience, The Magpie Nest, UrbLove), a network concept (DoDream), a concept for a science museum (DinNatur) and mobile technologies used to enhance concert experiences (Liverse!).

What happened to the concepts after this initial project period?

As always in processes of concept and idea development, some of the projects were successful and went on, and some of them did not go anywhere after the final event. That is the kind of experiment we do here: some things work and some do not and then you learn from that.

Talking about learning experiences, what have you learned from this whole journey of establishing a research centre such as Medea?

One of the crucial elements of working in multidisciplinary groups and across borders, is to acknowledge the fact that people coming from different areas – the university, a company, the public sector – have very different agendas, interests and goals. You need to establish a trust between people with different backgrounds and explore how you can actually work together without necessarily having the same goal. Basically, acknowledge and accept the fact that you come from different perspectives and are there for different reasons. If you build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect, then you can still work together constructively. Sometimes we tend to forget about that and then misunderstandings and wrong expectations inevitably arise. I think that is one of the main challenges when working in multidisciplinary teams. You need to establish a relationship between all co-partners that builds on trust, and that is something that we need to devote time to.