Co-Creating a Public Education Intervention: A Contextual Analysis

Introduction

What the Future Wants is a project about growing up in a digital, quantified world. But what does it really mean to grow up during a time of unprecedented technological change and acceleration? By the time children become young adults, they are already familiar with the idea that their actions, thoughts, beliefs and emotions are data fodder for tech companies; that their circle of friends is hundreds or even thousands of people wide, including strangers and bots; that not having access to technology for a few days or hours can cause symptoms of withdrawal and panic; and that their dream job, or the jobs of their parents, may be carried out by a computer programme by the time they graduate. This is just a snapshot of the many ways that digital technologies shape young peoples’ lives.

We are approaching a time of critical awareness about the impact technology has on the lives of young people. In 2021, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child acknowledged for the first time that children’s rights apply in the digital world, and students around the world are protesting the use of algorithmic decision making and discriminatory technologies in their schools. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting for social media companies to address the unique problems that young people face when using their platforms. And yet, many of the problems persist and some are getting worse, especially in the context of the pandemic and the technological dependency that it creates.

What the Future Wants was born from the emerging need for critical thinking resources designed for young people, to help them understand the new and existing issues that impact them in their digital lives. What are the biggest concerns impacting young people? How can they be addressed? And how can young people become part of the effort to find solutions for themselves and for future generations?

These questions were the starting point for us at Tactical Tech, a Berlin-based NGO. For the past two decades, we have been working on how to support people to understand, unpack and reflect on technology’s place within society. Over the years we have received regular requests—from parents, educators and others working with young people—to bring our resources into educational environments. Over time, we observed the potential of these projects to give young people critical and thought-provoking tools for understanding the digital world. In 2020, we adapted the Data Detox Kit into a workbook for young people, which has since been translated into 15 languages and has been used by parents, educators and trainers to start conversations with young people around the world.

In 2021, we were given the opportunity to adapt our exhibition about how technology is shaping society, The Glass Room, for young people, which became the What the Future Wants project. Since it’s inception, The Glass Room has attracted people of all ages. Some of the most curious visitors we have had to The Glass Room were teenagers, maybe dragged in at first by a school trip or parents, but often staying longer than other visitors and asking meaningful and engaging questions. In 2019, a 14-year-old student in the Hague had seen The Glass Room at a conference that she had visited with her father and contact to us asking if she could host it at her school to teach her peers. Since then, the intervention has been hosted at multiple schools, libraries and institutions.

Photo of two people wearing all orange hanging up a poster.

Caption: Two colleagues hanging up one of the What the Future Wants posters; photo courtesy of Daisy Kidd

As we found out, the way youth view technology is complex, and it is not always in line with how ‘Generation Z’ are commonly understood and represented in the media. In this two-part series, we explore how Tactical Tech’s first youth-centered team co-created the public education intervention ‘What the Future Wants,’ which was released in Spring 2022. The series outlines the initiation, delivery, and findings of the project (so far) in the hope that other organisations, initiatives, and individuals working with young people can learn from our experience and the rich insights of all of the young people who contributed. 

In Part 1, we outline why co-creation as a method lies at the heart of our approach to a series of workshops and explain the guiding principles behind it. In Part 2, we go into detail about how we implemented these principles in practice.

Uncertainty or Being okay with not knowing the answers

The culture of uncertainty is particularly relevant in the context of the digital worlds that young people inhabit. From the outside, it may seem that young people are the masters of digital technologies, traversing new platforms, trends, and skills with ease and confidence, at a speed that is hard to keep up with. It can be alienating to enter into the world as an outsider and to find a whole generation of people who just know how this stuff works; When did they learn? And who taught them that?

However, to assume that young people are ‘in the know’ misses an important point: the internet and digital technologies were never designed for children(1)—in the same way that centuries of human knowledge and understanding led to safe and nurturing environments for children prior to the internet. Their knowledge about this digital space is self-taught and has emerged out of a necessity to take risks, belong and explore like any teenager has the right to do. The only difference is that they are developing in a new territory that is not well mapped out and so the risks and challenges that present themselves are unprecedented, to them, and others.

In his book, ‘New Dark Age’, James Bridle writes: ‘Over the last century, technological acceleration has transformed our planet, our societies, and ourselves, but it has failed to transform our understanding of these things.’(2)Here Bridle identifies a crucial characteristic of our digital age: it is rooted in uncertainty, human understanding and comprehension has not caught up with the advancement of technologies and the myriad ways that they impact us and our surroundings. This is in part because of the normalisation of technologies. As they fit seamlessly into our everyday lives—the algorithm that decides what song you’ll listen to next, the psychological tuning that makes you stay online for hours, the supply chain that delivers a new iPhone model every year—these systems and mechanisms expertly meet our evolving needs, making it easy to stop questioning them. Even at a time when a simple search query can generate thousands or millions of possible avenues of knowledge, these vast swathes of information can leave us feeling paralyzed(3).

We do not fully understand the complexity of what this might mean for the next generations as these types of transformative times are rooted in uncertainty and driven by a constant state of flux. But within the uncertainty, there is an opportunity for new modes of thinking that leans towards the uncertainty and explores it with curiosity. As is written in the introduction of the  ‘Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education’(4), from the Association of College and Research Libraries: ‘Students have a greater role and responsibility in creating new  knowledge, in understanding the contours and the changing dynamics of  the world of information, and in using information, data, and  scholarship ethically.’ 

Curiosity as a form of critical thinking 

Since its inception, The Glass Room exhibition has provided a space for people to be curious about technology and to explore its impact on the world. It is not a space to provide answers, but rather to pose questions and a forum for discussion. The objects on display are sometimes playful, cheeky, challenging, but more importantly, they tell a story about technology through a unique lens, giving people an entry point into a topic that may have previously seemed impenetrable.  

Learning from The Glass Room’s breadth of exhibition experiences, we knew that this approach of curiosity as a means for critical thinking works well with young people. The idea for co-creation was taking that concept one step further so that instead of engaging the youth perspective at the point of visiting, the curiosity mindset was built into the initiation and conceptualisation of the project. The curiosity mindset works both ways. We entered into the project with an open mind, ready to learn from the participants, trying to shed our preconceived notions that youth were addicted to their phones and unaware of data collection and targeted advertisements, and open to the possibility that everything we knew before may be turned on its head. We also wanted to encourage a curious and open mindset from the participants, towards their individual perspective on the issues at hand, like algorithmic curation and the role of influencers, but also towards each other, to allow the different cultures, backgrounds, genders, ages to promote learning and connection rather than to deepen differences.

Visual of topics of interest clustered in a web

Caption: Visual of topics of interest clustered in a web; courtesy of Dominika Knoblochová

An insightful article that sheds light on this concept is from Barabara Fister as part of the Project Information Literacy Series. In article titled ‘Principled Uncertainty: Why Learning to Ask Good Questions Matters More than Finding Answers’(5), she poses the question: ‘What can we do as educators to encourage the ethical practice of curiosity, not just for times of uncertainty but as an everyday habit?’ Her answer, to paraphrase, is that we must encourage students to lean into uncertainty rather than to retreat into the familiar. In doing this, students learn the skill of asking open-ended, exploratory questions that have no definitive answer. The learning then is in the pursuit of uncertainty, rather than the adoption of established ideas. As Fister writes: ‘An approach to uncertainty grounded in curiosity invites students to claim their own authority as they formulate their understanding. If we support them when they venture into the unknown and give them the tools  to move forward with integrity, they will be able to explore territories their teachers haven’t already mapped.’

Methods and Principles of Co-Creation

In a study from MIT’s Co-Creation Studio, the researchers define co-creation as "an alternative to the single-author vision and involves a  constellation of media production methods, frameworks, and feedback systems. In co-creation, projects emerge from process and evolve from within communities, with people, rather than for, or about these  communities.”(6)

The MIT study identifies four types of co-creation: ‘within communities (real world and virtual), across disciplines, and humans working with non-human systems.’ The What the Future Wants project followed type one: co-creation in communities, in person(7). What became clear from researching co-creation methodologies is that the core principle of co-creation is that the activity happens in collaboration with a strong element of listening and inclusion.

The practice of co-development and co-creation is not new, but it has risen in popularity within the context of media and storytelling. What does an alternative to a single-author vision mean in the context of youth, data and technology? Firstly, it creates a space for multiple perspectives—and importantly different perspectives—so that the blind spots in planning for uncertain digital futures can be inclusive of younger generations. And secondly, it allows for a deeper level of critical thinking and action around technology, resulting from participants’ ownership and self-authorship of the topics explored.

Diagram of core methods and principles

Caption: Diagram of core methods and principles; visual by Yiorgos Bagakis

Despite having extensive experience with partnerships and collaborations, Tactical Tech had not carried out co-creation with this age group before and so most of our approach was guided by partners, existing research and methodologies. In particular, we followed defined core methods as well as core principles. Our co-creation approach was based on these core methods:

  • Participatory action research: A form of research that emphasises participation and action by members of communities affected by that research. It often involves co-creation as a way of understanding the world from that community’s perspective.
  • Peer learning: Peer learning is a self-directed, collaborative form of education where  people assemble collective wisdom to reach learning outcomes.
  • Design thinking: A non-linear process to challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test, share tools and best practices. When we actively listen we suspend our own thought processes and give the person speaking our full attention. We make a deliberate effort to understand someone's position and their underlying needs, concerns and emotions.

Furthermore, our co-creation approach was based on these core principles:

  • Curiosity as critical thinking: As stated above ‘an approach to uncertainty grounded in curiosity invites students to claim their own authority as they formulate their understanding.’ This meant allowing plenty of space for participants to mull over ideas and ask big questions.
  • Pursuit of uncertainty: If the participants came into the workshop knowing that we knew the answers then their engagement would be very different. Therefore, we adopted The Glass Room’s method of not providing answers but instead giving people a space to ask questions. In this light, we were facilitators of the space, to allow a safe and exploratory pursuit of big questions.
  • Equity and inclusion: This meant agreeing on common terms, clearly spelling out decision-making, ownership and governance issues.
  • Process orientated: Whilst the outcomes of the workshop fed into the development of the What the Future Wants exhibition, this was not the core focus of the workshops.

With What the Future Wants, we are trying to find those blind spots, to pay attention to the insights and experiences of young people as they explore the unknown, uncertain future that is technology.

Read on to Part 2 to learn about how we implemented these principles in a series of workshops that went into co-creating the What the Future Wants exhibition.

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Original essay written by Daisy Kidd. Thanks to Dominika Knoblochová for coordination and support during the co-creation process. Reformatting and edits into a mini-series by Safa Ghnaim, Stefanie Felsberger, and Christy Lange. If you are working on similar topics and want to collaborate, we would love to hear from you. Please write to the team at youth@tacticaltech.org.

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Footnotes:

  1. “Online safety: Internet 'not designed for children'“, BBC News, 5th January 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/education-38508888
  2. “New Dark Age” by James Bridle, Verso, 2018
  3. “The sheer amount of information about every current idea makes those concepts difficult to contradict,  particularly in the framework where public consensus has become the ultimate arbiter of validity. In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.”  - Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong?
  4. Association of College and Research Libraries, January 11, 2016, “Framework for information literacy for higher education,” https://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework#inquiry 
  5. Barbara Fister, February 16, 2022, “Principled Uncertainty: Why Learning to Ask Good Questions Matters More than Finding Answers,” PIL Provocation Series, 2(1),  Project Information Literacy Research Institute,  https://projectinfolit.org/pubs/provocation-series/essays/principled-uncertainty.html.
  6. Co-Creation Studio, MIT, COLLECTIVE WISDOM: Co-Creating Media within Communities, across Disciplines and with Algorithms, https://wip.mitpress.mit.edu/collectivewisdom
  7. Many of the What the Future Wants co-creation workshops ended up being delivered online because of school closures and pandemic restrictions.

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