The Practice of Interdisciplinarity in Design and New Media (1)

This short piece examines the history of a multi-disciplinary centre for Design and New Media in Vancouver, Canada. I explore the challenges of developing research models that make it possible for a variety of investigators and practitioners in the areas of Design and New Media to link their work to that of engineers and computer scientists. This is a crucial area for collaborative projects that involve designers and new media creators.

In 2000, the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMic) was started in Vancouver, Canada under the aegis and with the support of five post-secondary academic institutions, industry and the federal and provincial governments. Approximately, nineteen million dollars was invested at the outset mostly from industry and government. I was one of the leaders in the planning and development of NewMic, in large measure because I have a long history of involvement teaching and researching, as well as producing New Media. (The industry members included, Electronic Arts, IBM, Nortel Networks, Sierra Wireless, Telus and Xerox Parc.)

One of the foundational goals of NewMic was to bring engineers, computer scientists, social scientists, artists, designers and industry together, in order to create an interdisciplinary mix of expertise from a variety of areas. The premise was that this group would engage in innovative research to produce inclusive and new media designs of a variety of products, network tools and multimedia applications. The secondary premise was that the research would produce outcomes that could be implemented and commercialized in order to produce added value for all of the partners.

I spent a year at NewMic as a designer/artist in residence in 2002 and was also on its Board of Governors from 2000-2003 until it was closed down late in 2003. There are a number of important features to the history of this short-lived institution that are important markers of the challenges and obstacles facing any interdisciplinary dialogue that includes artists and designers working with engineers and computer scientists. Among the challenges are:

* The tendency among engineers, designers and computer scientists to have an unproblematic relationship to knowledge and knowledge production;

* Lack of clarity as to the meaning, impact and social role of inclusive and new media design products;

* Profound misunderstanding of the relationship between inclusivity, user needs and technological innovation;

* Conflicting cultures and discourses;

* An uninformed and generally superficial understanding of the differences between the cognitive sciences and ethnographic explorations of human-computer interaction;

* Focus on a false distinction between pure and applied research.

Underlying some of these challenges was an apprehension that without interdisciplinarity, it would be impossible to be innovative. The artists and designers from Emily Carr Institute who participated in NewMic and whose concerns were centred on community, creativity, outreach, inclusivity and the ethical implications and effects of new technologies, found themselves in a difficult and demanding position. In my next entry I will examine the benefits and successes as well as some of the problems and failures that were encountered in trying to make NewMic into a world-class environment for new media and design research.

Part Two…