Thursday, 21 July 2011

docfest: RCUK Digital Economy Summer School 2011

A ten strong group of dot.rural PhD students made their way to Lancaster University to take part in the RCUK digital economy summer school, docfest, hosted by HighWire DTC. With a programme of creativity, risk, leadership, collaboration and serendipitous jelly beans there was something in there for everyone.

DAY ONE: 13th July

Day one began with random groups assigned according to jelly beans distributed as everyone entered the impressive Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts building on campus.

Prof. Alan Dix began the activities with a creative angle on critiquing ideas. Distinctly bad ideas were thought up by each group, including, custard bricks, ice pokers and spiky cushions. These bad ideas were then swapped between groups and thoroughly assessed to establish the exact properties that them a bad idea. Flipping things round it was then asked what was good about this bad idea. Readopting these good properties the bad idea was promoted as a good idea.
Any other bad ideas in mind? ...Wind-up fridge, self-lubricating floor tiles, door with hinges on all 4 sides, and the worst mesh condoms... now try to think of anything good about them ?!?!?!?!

In his following lecture Alan emphasised the importance of critical assessment, and really asking what makes your own ideas good or bad. The bad ideas are the sparkling points that allow us to think out of the boundaries and they lead to generate new good ideas. Taking this theoretical understanding and putting it together with a practical application makes for a winning combination in the PhD.

"Blame yourself for what you do, but not for what who you are" - Alan Dix.

Chris Csikszentmihalyi from Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a mixture of amusing anecdotes from his own career to highlight the importance of personal, intellectual and professional risk in the creative process. Chris' talk was followed by a disclaimer that HighWire DTC were not promoting anyone take on activities that would result in arrest during their PhD. This was swiftly followed by a reply from Chris that ' Yes, yes, do get arrested'. With this in mind groups began looking at their own PhDs to ask how risky their ideas were. Discussions then looked at opportunities to increase the level of risk in the PhD, creating a fantasy PhD where anything is possible. Despite the light hearted take on this activity it did highlight the importance of standing back and questioning how much you were pushing the boundaries of your ideas. Chris concluded his talk with a video to explain that taking a risk can be valuable where Werner Herzog is eating his shoe. Werner had promised to “eat his shoe” if Errol Morris would ever finish a film. Well, Morris did it and Werner kept the promise concluding that:

"To eat a shoe is a foolish signal, but it was worthwhile and once in a while we should be foolish enough to do things like that. More shoes, more boots, more garlic." - Werner Herzog

Sir Chris Bonington the mountaineer rounded off the afternoon with an inspiring look at leadership and team work. Giving a gripping account of his trials whilst climbing Everest he demonstrated the qualities of good leadership as well as every team member being aware of each others strengths and weaknesses. Enthused and motivated by Sir Chris' tales we left the session to sit in the sun and enjoy a fantastic BBQ.

"True leaders provide opportunities for others rather than trying to grab them for themselves." - Chris Bonington

After dinner thoughts turned to the future as Mark Huijbregts, the worldwide digital director of Saatchi and Saatchi, explored the impact that the individual is having on branding and design, and ultimately how this is changing the digital realm.

DAY TWO: 14th July

Again jelly beans were the order of the day to facilitate serendipitous connections throughout the day. The mornings activities started with an update on the breadth of intriguing research being conducted across the hubs and digital training centres throughout the UK. This was followed by a lecture from an interdisciplinary artist, Jane Prophet who has collaborated across the sciences, arts and computing to produce a diverse range of visual media. Jane highlighted the importance of recognising creativity and different working practices to make multi-disciplinary collaborations successful.

The final activity for the two days drew on all the topics covered and pitched teams against one another against the clock. Each group was issued with a locked box containing instructions for the rest of the afternoon and a key. The twist being that the key did not unlock the box currently owned by a team. A rapid flurry of box swapping began across the room with the fastest team locating their box in only 5secs! Teams then relaxed a little over lunch to create a Haiku of just 17 syllables, producing a mixture of comical and abstract poetry. After refuelling a fast and furious treasure hunt ensued where teams had to answer a combination of mathematical problems whilst searching for hidden locations around the university campus. With some devious and tactical game play being brought into action there were disqualifications and point deductions dished out. However, the final winning group contained none other than one of dot.rural's newest recruits Danny Heptinstall.

Although tiring, the two days were fun filled and it was great to have an opportunity to stand back and take a look at the PhD from a fresh angle. A big thank you to our hosts HighWire, they will be a hard act to follow at next years docfest.

..happy people at docfest...

and the dot.rural delegation:

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