Category Archives: Work


I’ve written a book

Yes, a book. It sums up the experiences, ideas and insights that we’ve gained from working with Borgerlyst for the past 3 years. Nadja and I spent a good part of this spring and summer writing the first draft, and now it’s finally coming together into a coherent whole. It’s called “Borgerlyst — handlekraft i hverdagen”, which translates roughly as “Civic desire — agency in everyday life” (a little less poetic in English, I’m afraid).

We’ve decided to publish the book ourselves, and to that end, we’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Danish crowdfunding site Booomerang. The book is in Danish, of course, so it might not be particularly interesting to non-Danish speakers. But we hope that with success in Denmark it’ll be possible to make an international edition afterwards.

If you do speak Danish, check out our video, and support the project:

You can see current progress on the campaign here:

Any help — both in terms of money and spreading the word — is most appreciated. Thank you!

Status 2011

I recently realised that I still refer people to my website, yet I’ve failed to blog here for almost a year! Goodness! I guess that is an indication that my plan of focusing my blog in a new direction has failed miserably. That being said, I have been rather busy with both work (which I was supposed to blog about here) as well as some other projects. So, I thought I’d give a quick run-down of what I’m up to these days.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work with the Aarhus-based Alexandra Institute focusing on user involvement in the development of new smart grid infrastructure that can support the introduction of new products such as heat pumps and electrical vehicles that will come to tax the Danish power grid in the future.

I’ve also been working with the Copenhagen-based consultancy Nueva, conducting explorative research on how Danes relate to their food, and particularly to the food that they end up throwing away for various reasons.

I’m still heavily involved in Borgerlyst (a Danish portmanteau consisting of the two words Borger (meaning citizen) and Lyst (roughly meaning lust, urge, delight, inclination). In short, a sort of civic urge). It is meant as a sort of play on the phrase ??civic duty??. Whereas civic duty is all the obligations, rules and expectations society forces upon you, civic urge is something like the opposite.

With Borgerlyst, we arranged a series of open citizen salons where we facilitated the discussion of themes and issues in civic engagement through unconventional means such as conversation menus, spectrogram exercises and more. Currently, we’re working on a new website, which will be an even better online platform for inspiring civic engagement in Denmark. That is also where I do most of my blogging these days.

Københavns Fødevarefællesskab
For the past 2 years I’ve been an active member of the Copenhagen food co-op called Københavns Fødevarefællesskab (or KBHFF for short). It’s a food co-op where all members agree to work 3 hours a month in the coop. And in return they get to buy organic fruit and vegetables grown by local farmers at a price that is lower than at the supermarket.

In fact, because the food co-op replaces the middle-man with volunteer labour, not only do we get cheaper food, but the local farmers also get a fair price for their produce (often better than what the supermarkets pay them). In that way, it’s a win-win situation. The concept is proving to be a success, and we now have more than 1500 members and four shops in different parts of Copenhagen that are open every Wednesday afternoon.

On occasion, I have been a spokesperson on behalf of the food co-op, for instance in this short video about how the co-op generates community and engagement locally (it’s in Danish):

Foreningen til Kollektivers Fremme
Yet another initiative that I’ve helped start up is Foreningen til Kollektivers Fremme, which translates to something like the Association for the Advancement of Communes. We use “commune” as a blanket term to describe intentional communities of people living or working together, sharing common interests, property, possessions and resources to a greater or smaller extent.

Having lived in a commune growing up, and living in a commune for the past four years, it is a perfectly natural way of living for me, and I’m very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses related to living in this way. But people often have a lot of prejudice when it comes to communes, and there are loads of things that are unnecessarily difficult when it comes to starting a commune or interacting with various parts of the bureaucracy, which lack a neat box that communes can fit into.

Thus, we’ve started the association to help people wanting to find or start a commune, and allow existing communes to work together and pool their resources to the benefit of all.

So, yes. I’ve been busy alright, even if my blog doesn’t reflect it. 🙂

On my own

After having worked at Socialsquare for almost two years, I’ve resigned, ending my contract at the end of March. It was not a decision that I took lightly, since it was my first full time job since graduating, and it’s a bunch of talented, inspiring colleagues who’ve taught me so much.

I’ve learned a lot about working as a consultant, the process and pitfalls of designing social software, being part of a team and coordinating and solving huge and complex tasks together and producing deliverables that make sense and solve problems within the clients’ organisation.

And for that I’m very grateful.

But all things considered, I felt the need to move on. I felt a need to focus on ethnographic research rather than social business consultancy – and a need to focus on other non-work-related projects as well (more about those in later blog posts). And so, I found that the best way for me to do this is to try my hand at working on my own.

So, I’m starting my own one-man enterprise under my own name, and I’ve updated this website to reflect that. The main change is in the “About” text which now reads:

I??m an independent consultant and researcher working at the intersection between people and technology. I help organisations understand the everyday lives, practices, motivations, worries and needs of their users and stakeholders.

As an anthropologist, I meet people on their own terms, using ethnographic methods to gather empathic insights on how new products, experiences, spaces and services can have a positive impact and create value in existing social and cultural contexts.

I deliver such anthropological insights in a lucid and actionable manner that can be used to qualify decisions or develop people-centred design solutions, often in direct collaboration with other disciplines.

To me, this is the core product that I as an anthropologist can offer organisations: A better understanding of the relationships of which the organisation is part, and in which it wants to take part – whether through a new product, service, space or experience.

It’s kinda grand and kinda broad, I know. But at the moment, I’m trying to open up my expertise from the digital context in which I have been immersed for years and use ethnographic methods to engage in other contexts as well. Contexts where the social relations, interactions, tools and designs aren’t necessarily digital. If you’re curious to hear more, get in touch.

Let the user finish the design

At EPIC, I took part in a very interesting workshop discussion led by Jeanette Blomberg and Elin Rønby, two of the leading figures within the field of ethnography-supported design.

The theme of the workshop was making visible the object of design in the design process, and centred on this diagram describing the generalized design process:

design process

This diagram indicates four generalized phases in a design process, which have been placed between two overlapping dichotomies: Between reflecting and acting, and between using and designing:

Study – “Reflecting using” – The ethnographic examination and abstract reflection on the context and given circumstances under which a design is being used or may be used at some point.

Design – “Reflecting designing” – The abstract composing of concepts, ideas, and solutions based on the research and analysis of the existing tools and context of use.

Technology/intervention – “Acting designing” The concrete building, implementing, and configuring concepts in the form of real technological design to improve the existing tools and use.

Live/Work – “Acting using” – The concrete and actual use of the implemented design. The un-reflected day-to-day practices taking place in the given context.

But, as the workshop organizers noted, this is not (only) meant to be seen as a flow from “research to design to implementation to use”, but rather as a continuum – allowing for “back-and-forthing” between the four activities. Their argument was that we need more integration between these, and that the diagram wasn’t intended to maintain the boundaries between these activities, but rather to break them down.

That was the focus of the workshop: How can we best integrate these diverse elements of the design process to make the best possible solution?

It was at this point in the discussion that it became apparent that the phrase “object of design” isn’t quite transparent: The organizers had meant the object being designed: How can it be made visible throughout process – including the ethnographic study? But I had understood it as the object for design: The context, the potential users, the social relations in which the designed object will take part.

I argued that the main challenge in integrating the four elements above is to maintain a focus on the context, the actual situations where a given tool would be used. That is my main concern in the ethnographic work I do in relation to the design and development work at Socialsquare: Connecting the site of use with the designers and developers who build the new social tools for our clients.

Design in itself can only offer affordances for use, it cannot tell the users how to use it. When we design and build tools, especially social tools online, we seek to build the tools people want to use, but we can only do that by letting them use them. One of the other workshop participants said it best when he referred to a phrase one of his older engineer colleagues often used: ‘Let the user finish the design.’

The Community of Practice on Communities of Practice

Some time ago, I was invited by John D Smith to present my thesis work on Ubuntu as a Community of Practice at the CP Square autumn dissertation fest. CP Square is an online community of researchers and consultants working with Communities of Practice – a term coined by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave, and which is a central part of the theoretical framework for my thesis.

I gave the online  presentation this evening, and if I hadn’t been so darned busy lately with work and moving to a different commune (more on that in a separate blog post), I would have blogged about the presentation earlier so that you’d all could have had had the opportunity to listen in.

Online in this case means via Skype teleconference  and a community chat channel, which meant visualizing my audience while talking, and linking to images that related to presentation in the online chat (NB: they’re not sorted. It’s a mess. I’ll add my notes to the images soon to give some sense of a sequence). It’s not the easiest of formats – a lot energy and rapport goes lost in the ether. But I thought it worked out well. The participants were attentive and inquisitive while remaining constructive and supportive – a real treat.

Actually, I was surprised to get the invitation. But I’ve really relished the chance to revisit my thesis work. As I reread it, I realised that writing the thesis is only the beginning.

Since I joining Socialsquare, I’ve been working with all sorts of aspects relating to communities online, and it’s been great to return to that the my work on the Ubuntu Community and see new ways to extend my old analyses and apply them in new contexts. But most of all, I’ve come back and found just what a good framing the Community of Practice is for understanding online communities, and I hope to learn a lot more on how to apply it from the CP Square community.

Epiphanies commoditized

The final session at the EPIC conference was a return to the original question that led to the creation of the EPIC conferences in the first place:

How do we make people (stakeholders, decision makers, change agents and others) understand the value of ethnography in praxis?

This was the main issue discussed when EPIC started in 2005, and it remains a central issue in the community: How can we as ethnographers build and exhibit the authority necessary to be able to sell and provide ethnographic insights?

Simon Pulman-Jones started the discussion by comparing the work of ethnographers in industry with the services provided by the Catholic church centuries ago: The church, he argued, maintained a monopoly on authority on the nature of God and all that is holy. This monopoly allowed the church to dispense its knowledge through epiphanic insights, commoditized in the form of sermons.

Similarly, Pulman-Jones argued, ethnographers in industry are seeking to establish themselves as an authority on The Real – what it is really like out there – in order to commoditize our insights, our epiphanies, to help the organisations that we work for and with.

The session, then, consisted of 6 talks trying to explore the ways in which ethnographers have sought to establish that authority and win influence in big organizations. Here’s a brief synthesis of the points made:

Ethnographers are indeed ‘brokers of the real‘ – they have themselves attained a sort of gatekeeper role between the designers and the engineers and the real world where real people actually use the products. They help the engineers meet and understand the users in order to change the way the engineers think and feel about them.

But it takes time and effort to build trust in ethnographic methods and validity within the organisation. The ethnographers need to be aware of the organisational culture present – especially the core business practices within the organisation – and adapt to their work to the given setting.

This sort of translation between the technologists and the real often requires some amount of performance: Making things strange, emphasizing the the unexpected, and giving the data emotional charge.

Typically, this process of building trust begins with the basic notion of ‘adding value’ to the product. One presenter talked of an “arc of success” for the integration of ethnographic work in her organisation:

1. Knowledge building – the ethnographer as a provider of insights directly associated with the product development (for instance project evaluation, usability, feature-specific work) – direct support for the engineers.

2. Influence buildling – the ethnographer as a co-designer, participating in the design process as a equal partner.

3. Guiding – the ethnographer as a manager (?) leading the design effort, where ethnographic work is at the centre of the process.

This third level of success raised an interesting point: If ethnographers are climbing the corporate ladder to the point where they themselves are becoming managers, even attaining titles like “Vice-president of Ethnography”, then the question is no longer whether people understand the value of ethnographic praxis but rather how to make ethnography have the best and greatest possible impact on the organisation.

As one participant noted during the final discussion, this EPIC has showed a shift away from that early concern of “ethnographers vs. the rest” towards a new set of issues that arises when thinking of the “ethnographers and the rest” – of actual cross-disciplinary collaboration rather than just the ethnographers seeking to get their insights across.

From some of the comments given, I fear that this could well lead to another anthropological crisis of self-confidence at actually being in a position to make positive change. As the ending keynote speaker Lucy Kimbell did well to point out, referring to the epitaph of Karl Marx: Ethnography is not just about describing and analyzing the world – but about reassembling and changing it.

Finding ways of collaboration with other disciplines to affect positive change remains the main challenge for ethnographers in industry and elsewhere. Hopefully, that will be a leading theme at next year’s EPIC.

You can find all of the papers, on which these talks were based, in the EPIC proceedings.

So square

So, I’ve got a job.

This Monday, I officially started working at SocialSquare, Denmark’s premier advisers, builders and communicators of all things related to social media. I stress “Officially” since I’ve already spent a month here on a sort of trial-internship to get to know the people, the projects and the processes. In that time, I even helped write the brand-spanking new company website, so you can learn more about what we do, too.

Along with the new website, the company has officially changed its company language from Danish to English, in a brave attempt to signal openness towards a global market. Since the company works to promote the effects of social media and social network services in our daily lives and help organizations embrace that change, they’ve chosen a name that is intended to reflect that mindset.

Now, if you look up ‘Square’ in Wikipedia, you’ll find it to be a very ambiguous name. But you can rest assured that the Square in SocialSquare isn’t referring to any sort of mathematics or the notion of being unhip. Rather, it refers to the Square as a place – such as the Town Square or the Market Square. The central idea is, that the Internet has made it possible for people to reinvent the Town Square of yore, but since that square is no longer related to a specific place, it exists solely through the sociality of the people interacting within an on-line community built from shared practice, interest, or relation. Thus, Social Square.

Well, at least that’s my interpretation. You’ll note the new, hip way of drawing the two words together, which may obfuscate this somewhat, but I feel that my interpretation gets substantial support from the company… well, it’s not so much a logo as it is a map… of a town square (PDF).

So, apart from documenting internal processes and fussing about the company name, what does my job at SocialSquare actually entail?

I’ve been hired to work as an “Ethnographic Researcher” – that means using qualitative methods to gather information – both within organizations and among their external stakeholders and the prospective users of the services they would like to build – analyzing that data, and presenting these analyses in such a way that they can help the companies make informed decisions as to their social media strategy, or inform an ongoing design process where we help organizations build the necessary platforms for interaction, which they may need.

Basically, the job is a totally sweet spot between design anthropology and the anthropology of social media and on-line communities. At least, that’s my hope and expectation. So far, I’ve been involved with two big projects. One of these I can talk about, which is a project we’re doing for the biggest interest Danish organisation for elderly people, ?ldre Sagen. We’re in the initial phase of figuring out how social media can help bring the family closer together in support of weak or ill members of the family.

You can follow our efforts on the new project blog, which opened recently (Danish only, unfortunately). I’ll be blogging there as the project progresses, sharing some of the ideas and findings that we come upon. On top of that, I’ll be blogging at the SocialSquare blog from time to time.

That means that in way I’ll be paid to blog! Just not here, unfortunately. So updates may remain sporadic for some time. Especially in the coming weeks, as I have a lot of interviews lined up. It’ll be a very busy start, which seems to confirm that there is lots to do in this field.