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Digital technology and public engagement

By Jana Wendler

A man sitting on the sofa using a laptop.‌In the summer of 2020, I attended a series of mentoring sessions on digital technology in interactive audience work, run by theatre arts collective Fast Familiar.

The group make participatory, playful and political audience experiences using digital technology, often in collaboration with researchers – for example, the fascinating Evidence Chamber, which was developed with forensic scientists.

‌My own public engagement work is built on interactive and playful approaches too (see for example Downpour or The Data Science Game), but they had always been about real-world interaction – getting away from screens as much as possible.

As our lives turned online, it seemed a great moment to connect with digital technology and explore the options it brings for creative public engagement with research.

Here is some of what I learned…

Technology isn't good for everything. What it does best is that it puts the audience are at the centre – it's their experience. It can reach new audiences that cannot easily come to live events. And it allows some nifty research and evaluation, for example tracking decisions or discussions – only with consent, of course.

There is a need for extra care: we need to think about how we get audiences in and out of the experience, how we create safe spaces online, and what accessibility requirements there are. These considerations aren't new but they are different in the digital sphere.

Tech is difficult and expensive. That's not a reason for not using it, but it takes long to build things and it is hard to change later on. That makes good collaboration between artists, technologists and academics particularly important. Everyone needs to understand the process and constraints, and things like sign-offs and IP.

But approach it right, and digital technology can add an exciting dimension to interactive public engagement.

Learn more about and apply for the Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF): Public engagement funding scheme calls.