The Connectivity Lab: an arena for prototyping together

Asta Wellejus, developer, interactive producer and director of Connectivity Lab, and Karin Johansson-Mex, director of Medea, tell the story of the Connectivity Lab.

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

What is the vision behind the Lab?

KARIN: The basic idea is to create a space where researchers can develop and build prototypes together with our co-partners. It could be a co-partner from the business world, the art world, maybe someone from a public institution or an NGO who has a concrete need to solve a specific problem where digital tools can be applied to solve the issue.

In many cases, our researchers at the university are in particular rewarded for the more theoretical parts of their work and for writing papers targeting the research community, which is sometimes a bit limiting. We saw a need to strengthen our research by adding a more concrete applied aspect to it. In parallel with this, we realised that our co-partners also had a need for an arena where the knowledge of the researchers can be combined with their desires and visions to join in efforts to create more relevant products, solutions or tools. We saw the need for a physical arena, a space, a platform for creative development with a focus on the theme of prototyping.

ASTA: Many of the activities in the Lab are actually about connecting the right people and the right idea to the right technology. We bring everything together, the skilled people, the tech and the developing processes for prototyping, and through that actually make research become an active part of society faster. By bringing scientific knowledge and innovators that yearn for their task together, we can actually get things happening more quickly in comparison to today. It is about moving all these areas – universities, companies, organisations, developers – closer together to create a faster road to change the world.

At Connectivity Lab, we want to involve students at the university, teachers, professors and experts from outside academia. For example, that might be a person specialising in 3D modelling or maybe a company trying to figure out how social engagement can be facilitated by playing games in public space. It could also be a huge company scoping for new technical platforms, or regions that need to solve issues regarding citizens’ empowerment and digital engagement.

Right now we are involved in a project on how open governments can be empowered through digital media. Another example is a project (Designing Classical Music Experiences) that we are planning to do with three symphonic orchestras from Denmark and Sweden, where we want to explore how to create new kinds of audience experiences through digital tools. You could say that Connectivity Lab is a boost and inspiration on what is the latest in research, in business, in the art world. But it is also a concrete place where you can test and prototype new ideas and projects. It could be ideas that come from the researchers, but it can also be companies that want us to help them to prototype a product for the future.

Nätverk by Doing at Fabriken

Concretely speaking – how will it actually work? If someone wants to run a project or do an experiment in the Lab, where do they start, where do they go?

ASTA: We have different levels of prototyping. If you are a public organisation or an NGO or a company and just might be looking for inspiration, then we can give a lecture about our latest cases and research and give you a briefing about what is going on out there.

The next level is that you have an actual need for a solution or a concrete project you need developed and tested. Let’s say, for example, you are a young entrepreneur and you have an idea within the field of connected devices. You come to us and we help you actually develop, build and program that project and make into a testable prototype.

The third way is to establish long-term research and development projects, such as the Vinnova project Elis which will run for two years and the Living Archives, which we just received 18 million Swedish kronor in funding for. The project’s aim is to find out how archives can be activated through digital tools and be an active part of social change and empowerment.

However, it is important to also point out that we do not produce end-products. We create the framework and the arena for creating change and support researchers, students, companies and organisations with developing and prototyping their needs, ideas, products and services. So we take it to the level where it can be proven it works and has potential as a product/solution/concept. Then we can help show the way to incubators if it is a student’s or entrepreneur’s project. If it’s an NGO or organisation, we can help find reliable partners for the production, for example, help with the tender process. If it is a company they can produce it internally or find help finding compatible partners through us.

Connectivity Lab Hands

KARIN: Basically, the prototyping model that we will follow consists of three parts. First, we have the inspirational stage that Asta was mentioning, where we combine different competencies and skill sets for joint exploration of a certain topic or issue. The second stage is to dive into looking at and prototyping different types of solutions, such as models for operating in relation to different target groups. The third level would be to actually build the thing, to program it in order to create a testable prototype for different contexts and with different user groups.

What kind of objects are you referring to when you say “connected devices”? I assume that it has more to do with physical objects like robots, sensor or different kinds of electronics? Or can it also be about interface design and digital systems?

ASTA: Well, yes and no. You cannot really separate the physical from the digital. For example, a project could be a sensor connected to a platform that is providing data to the city council about the traffic situation or movements in the city. It is about the digital platforms that help you convey the data, but also about the physical platforms that collects the data or creates responses based on the input.

KARIN: We are targeting the realm of digital/physical objects, which means that all our projects are based on digital communication in one way or another. We will not work with plain product design. However, it can be a physical object that is connected to digital data, or a completely virtual product that also needs to be prototyped. It can be anything from a social game or a transmedia project to a tool for measuring the water level or temperature, to be used in agriculture. The central words for all our activities are digital and connected, which also include connected physical objects.

ASTA: We want to create solutions that change the world and the way we live. We believe that interesting things happen if you combine and connect not only different kinds of competencies and knowledge, but also data, as well as the physical and the digital. We are connecting technology, people and ideas to create bigger changes.

KARIN: To sum up, the Connectivity Lab will be used on different layers. We will use the Lab for traditional research projects where we need to build prototypes. We will also use the lab in projects where we need to build full-scale test arenas, such as in the case of the Elis project. To be able to achieve this, we need staff that can actually build and program these systems. The researchers do usually not possess this kind of programming skill. Therefore we have hired programmers that are connected to the Lab to build these full-scale prototypes, among other things. Other kinds of processes that we are working with in the Lab are collaborations with companies, which might have a need to prototype or develop an idea or concept.

ASTA: Another project (Evolution M) we do in collaboration with Media Evolution is where the Connectivity Lab is facilitating the development of business plans, the conceptual design, mockups and prototypes for digital projects run by three different companies. In these cases, we use our skills to help them develop their projects.

KARIN: The Connectivity Lab is an arena, a tool that can be used for more traditional kind of research, all the way down to commissioned prototyping assignments and workshops.

ASTA: You could say that you either get inspiration from what is happening in research, or in the forefront of the digital and connected scene. You could access our processes, tools and methods for prototyping. We can facilitate or create the projects together with you. It basically depends on the need of the people, our partners. We want to help change the world in a positive direction.