Provocative Technology

I recently reread some writing I’d produced about the term ‘provocative technology’ in the first year or two of my PhD, reproduced below. Supported by other references to the term, I define provocative technology as an object or tool which has functions for the user but that also challenges the contexts of its use, and provokes questions and debate in wider audiences.

At one point I was going to make my PhD about provocative technology, identifying examples across disciplines and contexts and defining its principles. This turned out to be too broad a topic, and I shifted my attention to analysing examples in the field of ‘design for development’, the field which seemed to have perhaps the most real world impact, using perspectives from other disciplines where I’d identified provocative technologies, such as critical design and interventionist art, and science and technology studies.

The term sunk into the background of my PhD, but I still kept it as a useful term to refer to a set of characteristics across a range of practices (and as a particular way of looking at objects). I used the term again recently for a course I taught at the Cologne International Institute of Design (KISD) in 2012. I used it to describe my selection of objects (as ‘Political Art and Provocative Technology’) for my exhibition ‘Sideshow‘ at the Nextwave Festival in Melbourne, Australia in 2006. And I’m working on an idea for an exhibition at the moment that will explore it further.

From my notes:

Provocative Technology 2007 (redux 2013)

The subject of my research is ‘provocative technology’; in business, the term can refer to technologies which have the potential to be ‘disruptive’, overturning incumbent technologies and systems; for certain designers, academics and technology producers it describes a type of tool or technology which intervenes in, interrogates and communicates the social, political or economic contexts of its use. This purpose can be intentionally designed for, or read into objects.


In order to define the term ‘Provocative Technology’ for my research, I searched for and analysed documented uses of the phrase as applying to a field of practice. The result is this ‘etymology’ of the term.

The term ‘provocative’ is sometimes used in business and technology contexts to describe a technology with the potential to significantly impact markets or existing technologies[1], or colloquially in broader public contexts to indicate the possibly disruptive social or ethical implications of a new technology[2]. While retaining some of these meanings,  ‘Provocative Technology’ is also used in a narrower way to describe a specific, emerging field of practice. These instances of use include:

Professor Krzysztof Wodiczko refers to the the mobile shelter for homeless people he designed as a ‘provocative technology’ in an interview in ‘The Interventionists’ (2003, MIT Press). Professor  Wodiczko is the director and founder of the Interrogative Design Group (IDG) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His definition of ‘interrogative design’, his field of practice since the mid-1980s, contributes to a definition of provocative technology. In the IDG’s ‘Statement of Purpose’, he imagines a tool or technology which reveals the circumstances that necessitate its use:

A bandage covers and treats the wound while at the same time exposing its presence. Its presence signifies both the experience of pain and the hope of recovery. Is it possible to further develop such a bandage as equipment that will communicate, interrogate, and articulate the circumstances and the experiences of the injury? Could such a transformed bandage address the ills of the outside world as perceived by the wounded? To see the world as seen by the wound! [3]

Rebecca Hansson and Tobias Skog of the PLAY Research Group, Interactive Institute in Sweden stated their intention in 2001 to produce concepts and prototypes under the title ‘Provocative Technology’, in which their ambition was to “create artefacts which can be used as a starting point when discussing, for instance, ethical and moral issues regarding the design and use of information technology. We also want to provoke users of those artefacts to reflect upon and become aware of certain issues, and perhaps to persuade them to change their views or feelings.”[4]

A term also used by Hansen and Skog is ‘persuasive technology’. Stanford University advances the term through their Persuasive Technology Lab which “creates insight into how computing products — from websites to mobile phone software — can be designed to change what people believe and what they do”[5].

Provocative technologies are more open-endedly informative or communicative than specifically persuasive, and are not limited to human-computer interaction (HCI). Their mode of action can be antagonistic, as alluded to in the next text.

Brooke Foucault, Pheobe Sengers, Helene M. Mentis and Devon Welles explored “the potential usefulness of disturbing, uncomfortable systems, demonstrating that provocative technology can have a positive effect on social relationships” in their paper ‘Provoking Sociability’, presented at CHI 2007. They wrote:

For obvious reasons, HCI design has primarily focused on the goal of creating systems that are comfortable and pleasing for human users. The recent push into emotion in HCI, likewise, has focused on enhancing positive affect and reducing negative affect. Nevertheless, some researchers are questioning the focus on the positive and pleasing, suggesting that this leaves out important dimensions of human experience that HCI needs to take into account or perhaps even support.

One of the most influential arguments for this new focus stems from Dunne and Raby’s formulation of design noir. They suggest that electronic product design has been focused too exclusively on sanitized versions of human life and behavior and argue for the inclusion of “darker,” more genuine human needs in the design of technology. As they elaborate, “an occasional glance through almost any newspaper reveals a view of everyday life where complex emotions, desires and needs are played out through the misuse and abuse of electronic products and systems.” Yet, “the range of emotions offered through most electronic products is pathetically narrow.”[6]

Dunne and Raby are Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, designers and academics (with the Computer Related Design (CRD) Research Studio at the Royal College of Art, London). Their description of their use of “products and services as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging technologies”[7] contributes to our definition of provocative technology, as does the idea that technologies could be designed to antagonise our social-technological terrain in order to reveal valuable information about it. [At this stage, in 2007, I don’t think I’d yet read much of Dunne and Raby’s work. I ended up referring to it quite extensively in my thesis after reading ‘Hertzian Tales’ and ‘Design Noir’ – RB 2013]

William J. Mitchell., Alan S. Inouye, and Marjorie S. Blumenthal edited the book ‘Beyond Productivity’ (2003) for the National Academy of Sciences, USA. In the chapter titled ‘The influence of Art and Design on Computer Science and Development’, the term ‘provocative technology’ is used in the description of a project to “confront users with negative aspects of technology” (surveillance), though “users who saw the “product” demonstrated in an ostensibly commercial presentation were surprisingly enthusiastic”.[8]

The chapter describes a field of practice they term ‘information arts’, a cross-disciplinary art and science collaboration which uses “artistic practice to manage and interpret information at the cusp of technological and scientific research.”[9] Information Technology and Creative Practices (ITCP) looks to the artist as a mediator, between the science and technology establishment and the public, for example. This management, interpretation and communication of information around technological and scientific research we can also define as a possible feature of provocative technology practice. The role of the artist in provocative technology is expanded on later in this report.

The Disruptive Design Team (DDT), the research group within the department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Trinity College of which [was] a member, has referred to ‘Provocative Technologies’ as one of the topics members focus on since the group’s inception in 2003:

The focus of the research group is to challenge traditional ideas of connectivity, connection, communication and sociability through the creation of installations and applications that subvert uses of technologies and create situations for questioning. The research students are engaged in a wide range of projects that focus on topics such as Urban Public Space Art, Provocative Technologies & Interactive Spaces, Urban Wearables, Urban Narratives and New Media & Feminist Methodologies. A multi-disciplinary approach to these topics is taken. There is an emphasis both on developing theoretical ideas and on creating and building work to progress ideas.[10]

Creating ‘situations for questions’ is a feature of provocative technology as a design practice; as is the challenging of traditional ideas about the use or meaning of technology through creating work.

[1] ‘Fed-Watcher Extraordinaire David Gitlitz Joins MetaMarkets Think Tank’, Business Wire, July 17, 2000

[2] ‘Stem cell research: Breakthroughs and controversies’, in The Jewish Standard

[3] The Interrogative Design Group, MIT, 2002 (now changed)

[4] ‘Provocative Technology’,

[5] Persuasive Technology Lab, Stanford University

[6] ‘Provoking Sociability’, CHI 2007

[8] Mitchell, W. J., Inouye A. S., Blumenthal M. S., Ed. (2003) Beyond Productivity: Information technology, Innovation and Creativity. USA: The National Academies Press Chapter 4, p.9

[9] Mitchell, W. J., Inouye A. S., Blumenthal M. S., Ed. (2003) Beyond Productivity: Information technology, Innovation and Creativity. USA: The National Academies Press, p.2 Chapter 4, p.9

[10] Disruptive Design Team website,

Peter Morgan receives award

C-type pump

Dr Peter Morgan with a prototype for the C-type Zimbabwe Bush Pump in his garden in Harare, 2010

Zimbabwean scientist Dr. Peter Morgan, whom I interviewed for my PhD research, has been awarded the Stockholm Water Prize. Dr. Morgan redesigned the appropriate technology icon the Zimbabwe Bush Pump, and was celebrated as ‘a feminist
dream of an ideal man’ by Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol in their seminal science and technology studies paper on the Bushpump, ‘The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology‘ (2000). You’ll have to read their paper to contexualise that remark!

Article below from (thanks Dad!)

Ray Choto

WASHINGTON, DC — A Zimbabwean scientist is this year’s Stockholm Water Prize
recipient for his innovations in safe sanitation and clean water supplies.

Dr. Peter Morgan, a former civil servant with the Ministry of Health, will
receive his prize of $150 thousand and a crystal sculpture at a ceremony in
Stockholm during World Water Week in September.

Some of Dr. Morgan’s innovations adapted by the Zimbabwe government include
the Bush Water Pump, the Blair Ventilated Pit Latrine and the upgraded
family well, used mainly by rural communities. The 70-year old researcher
says the technologies he designed are also being used in other African
countries. For each of his technologies, Dr. Morgan says he developed a wide
range of training and educational materials to help communities install and
maintain them without expert supervision.

Dr. Morgan calls the award an “honour” not only for him, but for all the
people of Zimbabwe.

“I think it means the recognition to me personally,” Morgan said. “It means
the recognition of perhaps most of my lifetime’s work, which has been
dedicated to this area. For the country I think it’s important to many of
my colleagues here within the [inaudible] community and within the
government have told me that it means a lot to Zimbabwe, as well, to be
recognized for the work that we have done in this country to actually push
the state of the art forward.”

Dr. Morgan is a naturalized Zimbabwean. He was born in 1943 and educated in
England where he graduated with a Ph.D. in marine biology. He worked as a
chief research officer at the Ministry of Health’s Blair Research Institute
in Harare, now called the National Institute of Health Research. In 1991,
he was awarded member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Dr. Morgan
has received many other awards and distinctions, including the International
Inventors Award, the AMCOW Africasan Award for Technical Innovation in
Sanitation, and the Rural Water Supply Network Award for Lifetime Services
to Rural Water Supply.

The Sweden-based Stockholm prize committee, which has selected a winner
every year since 1991, says Dr. Morgan was chosen for what they called his
“unwavering commitment to inventing low-cost practical solutions to provide
access to safe sanitation and clean water to millions of people worldwide.”
The Director of the Stockholm Water Prize, Mr. Jens Berggren, says making
the selection was not easy, but Morgan’s work was special because its
beneficiaries were the poor.

“I think the [inaudible] nomination committee was really impressed that he
has done over the past 40 years,” said Mr. Berggren, “sort of effortlessly
supporting the lives of poor people out there by designing and inventing new
solutions for—especially poor people’s—access to good sanitation and good,
clean drinking water.”

According to the committee’s website, the purpose of the award is to
recognize what it calls the world’s most visionary minds for driving “water
development forward.”

District Six on the Fringe

District 6 on the Fringe

The District Six Homecoming Centre, while we were still setting up. By the time we started it was standing room only – thanks everyone who attended!

The PublicCulture CityLab at the African Centre for Cities hosted a public event last Wednesday night with the District Six Museum, titled ‘District Six on the Fringe: The absence of memory in design-led urban regeneration‘. A series of presentations, followed by Q + A with the audience, looked at issues around the development of the East City as the ‘The Fringe Innovation District‘. My colleague at the ACC, Ismail Farouk, and the District Six Museum delivered the keynote addresses, and I chaired the event. Opening presentations were made by the artist Andrew Putter and visiting Cologne International School of Design student Kai Berthold.

From our invitation to the event:

The area designated as ‘The Fringe’ is intertwined with District Six and yet that history of the space, with its memory of forced removals, has not figured significantly in the ‘cultural regeneration’ plans for the East City. What place is there for memory and history within culture-led urban development? What risk is there that contemporary stylizations of Cape Town might serve to obliterate local histories and entrench the status quo? What of District Six, not only as symbol and museum, but as marker of the pasts that haunt the present?

The event was informed in part by a public document authored by the District Six Museum as a critique of the Fringe Innovation District draft framework, which they spoke to on the night, and you can download here: The Fringe: Draft Framework – District Six Museum comments 4 March 2013. The text of Ismail Farouk’s presentation can be downloaded here: Conflicting rationalities – Post-apartheid spatial legacies and the Creative City.

This is the full programme of speakers and presentations on the night:

Kai Berthold  Exploring gentrification in cities around the world

Kai Berthold is a visiting student from Koln International School of Design (KISD) in Germany. He is part of a project called The Gentrification Relay that worked with Cape Town students to investigate and address issues around gentrification and the East City.

Andrew Putter Harrington Square for the neighbourhood

The artist Andrew Putter is working for the Cape Town Partnership to facilitate the public involvement in the unfolding of Harrington Square as a public place.

Bonita Bennett  District Six Museum Statement: Erasure of memory in the remaking of the East City

The District Six Museum as a cultural institution promotes innovative curatorial practices in addressing issues of memory and dislocation. In considering the place-making strategies for developing the East City, what place is there for understanding the politics of erasure?

Ismail Farouk Conflicting rationalities: Post-apartheid spatial legacies and the Creative City

Ismail Farouk presents some of the results of his long-term investigation into understanding the precinct development in the East City. His work explores the tensions and challenges in redressing historical inequalities in Cape Town through ‘design’.

(UPDATE 17/6/2013 – an article about the event on Africa is a Country)

Debunking the ‘Tragedy of the commons’

Just a brief post to link to an important essay I came across a few years ago, Ian Angus’ refutation of Garrett Hardin’s popular text ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) – Debunking the `Tragedy of the Commons’ (2008). The idea of the tragedy of the commons (that shared resources will always be depleted) has become a figure of speech, an idea that is apparently self-evidently true; in common with other popular ideas such as ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘broken-window’ theory in urban design and policing, it needs challenging.

(Sidenote: while looking for Angus’ text again I found this reference to Elinor Ostrom, who received the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2009, and whose work also apparently goes some way towards debunking the ‘tragedy’…

Thinking the City

Thinking the City

Oddveig Nicole Sarmiento and Rike Sitas, Jenny Fatou-Mbaye (chairing) during their presentation at ‘Thinking the City’

Last week, from Tues 12 – Fri 15 March, the Public Culture City Lab at ACC, of which I am a part, staged a series of panel discussions around notions of art and culture in public space, and the ‘creative city’. The series, ‘Thinking the City’, was intended to complement the annual event series ‘Infecting the City‘, which hosts creative projects in public space in Cape Town over a week.

Cape Town has a long history of public art and culture, and has more recently embraced the notion of a ‘creative city’. This is an exciting prospect for creative practitioners, yet the question of ‘creative city for whom?’ keeps bubbling to the surface of public debate, as different interest groups lay claim to the creative expression in, and of, public space. Thinking the City will contribute to the Infecting the City programme by unpacking a series of examples and contested territories related to cultural practice in the city, in order to foster a more critical dialogue about creative practice in public space. It will comprise four presentation and discussion sessions.

The panel I contributed to, alongside Jenny Fatou-Mbaye, with Ismail Farouk chairing, was titled ‘Design and the Creative City: the creative city for whom?’. I looked at a number of creative art/design interventions in Cape Town, asking who they catered to, and raised the idea that the terms ‘public’ and ‘community’ can sometimes be in tension with each other in such projects.

GIPCA has uploaded video documentation of the panel, below. Unfortunately my presentation slides are not included in the video, but you could download my presentation as a pdf and view the images along with the video – design and the creative city.pdf

Thinking the City 2013 – Design and the creative city: the creative city for whom? – 13 March 2013 from GIPCA@UCT on Vimeo.


A couple of Koln International School of Design (KISD) students were inspired by the short course in ‘Provocative Technology’ I taught there in November 2012 in designing the ‘Gentr-o-Mat’ as an output of their research into gentrification in Berlin. The project is a working vending machine that dispenses a range of products to help people ‘resist gentrification’. The products, such as annoying audio devices, marker pens concealed inside latte cups, and ‘Yves Klein blue’ paint-bombs’, draw on real practices of anti-gentrification activists in Berlin. You can download a rough pdf explaining the project.

There are a some pleasing circularities in the project’s symbolism: while equipping people to resist gentrification, it also hints at the commodification of resistance, echoing the processes by which street art and creative guerilla tactics quickly get mainstreamed and aestheticised – and are often used in the first waves of gentrification.

Provocative Technology at KISD

In November 2012 I taught a short course at the Köln International School of Design (KISD) in which students were asked to research, design and fabricate a prototype for a ‘provocative technology’ – an object or tool which has functions for the user but that also challenges the contexts of its use, and provokes questions and debate in wider audiences.

I came up with the term ‘provocative technology’ around the start of my PhD research to describe work across disciplines that uses the design of functional objects to provoke questions and commentary. I have a post about it here.

You can download my proposal for the class, which roughly represents the outline of the course. I’ll post some documentation of the projects students produced in response asap. So far I have documentation for the projects ‘InstaFRAME’ and TRASH.

A couple of students who weren’t in the class, but attended some of our presentations, were later inspired to design a ‘provocative technology’ as an output of their research into gentrification in Berlin: an anti-gentrification vending machine, the Gentr-o-Mat.

Kiva Is Not Quite What It Seems

Interesting critique of microfinance charity Kiva’s representation of itself, by David Roodman on his Microfinance Open Book Blog.

Our sensitivity to stories and faces distorts how we give, thus what charities do and how they sell themselves. What if the best way to help in some places is to support communities rather than individuals? To make roads rather than make loans? To contribute to a disaster preparedness fund rather than just respond to the latest earthquake? And how far should nonprofits go in misrepresenting what they do in order to fund it? It is not an easy question: what if honesty reduces funding?

Good intentions are not enough

I was referred to the site Good Intentions by my friend Brian Gough who works for Task Furniture in Education in Cologne. Good Intentions houses critical articles and debates about the effectiveness of aid projects, aiming ‘to provide donors with the knowledge and tools they need to make informed funding decisions’. From her experiences in Thailand working on post-Tsunami aid programmes, founder Saundra Schimmelpfennig observed that:

It quickly became apparent that many poor aid practices were a result of charities trying to attract or keep donors. The donors themselves were unaware of the many misconceptions they held about aid. These misconceptions combined with the lack of easily accessible information made it almost impossible for donors to give in ways that matched their good intentions.

I’m interested in that first statement, describing charities ‘trying to keep or attract donors’ – chimes in with my own analysis of the relationship of design for development projects to first world audiences, sometimes to the detriment of users.

Things that Talk

I’m at the Max-Planck Institute in Gottingen, who fund my postdoc position, using their excellent little library. Looking for books on objects and object studies, I find the book ‘Things that Talk – Object lessons from art and science’, edited by Lorraine Daston (Zone Books, 2004). In the introduction, Daston refers to ‘things, those nodes at which matter and meaning intersect’ (p.16), which is rather a nice way of describing my interest in objects as both functional and communicative. I’ve also read the whole of Kingsley Amis’ 1950s novel ‘Lucky Jim’ over the past few days while travelling, which I think is affecting my writing style (rather).

I’m also interested in her description of things used as evidence – in relation to an idea I’ve been trying to capture about the apparently self-evident truth (or ‘truthiness‘ perhaps) of objects; the way a designed object seems to act in itself as a powerful argument to onlookers, an ‘object argument’ which appears stronger than a proposal or concept. The fact of its materiality and function (thinking here of the realm of design for social impact especially) seems to persuade audiences of its value. Here Dalston writes about objects as evidence (p.12 – 13):

Historically, things have been said to talk for themselves in two ways, which, from an epistemological point of view, are diametrically opposed to one another. One the one hand, there are idols: false gods made of gold or bronze or stone that make portentous pronouncements to the devout who consult them… On the other hand, there is self-evidence: res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself. It does so in mathematics, law and religion… within Christianity, miracles were almost always worked in things, be it the body of a cripple suddenly made whole or the water turned to wine at the wedding feast, and constituted an immediate and irrefragable token of God’s will. In all these cases, the talking thing spoke the truth, the purest, most indubitable truth conceivable. The chief reason why the truth was so pure was that it had been uttered by things themselves, without the distorting filter of human interpretation.