While we are Apart

How is closeness and distance being renegotiated and navigated? What does it mean to ‘bump into someone’ in the context of home-working and social distancing?

This project was commissioned by Brigstow during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was designed in a time when distance and proximity had become part of daily life. It began from two fundamental research questions:

  • How is closeness and distance being renegotiated and navigated?
  • What does it mean to ‘bump into someone’ in the context of home-working and social distancing, or are ideas of serendipitous encounter resigned to a pre-COVID past?

The researchers believed that during this time the tools we were creating to respond to ‘the new normal’ had the capacity to further cement telepresence into our lives and to move further away from social communication. It was a time in which all of us were thinking afresh about how we live well with distance.

What did the project involve? 

While we are Apart was a workshop series that ran over a two week period. The researchers and participants from the Bristol area met for two lunchtime sessions, and aimed to stay connected in between the sessions. These sessions and meetings all occurred online over video conference platforms.

These meetings were intended to be playful ‘remote idea lunches’ in which participants were asked to playtest the very early stage of a new format, designed to connect a community offline, online, and perhaps even stimulate collaborative ideas for future projects.

This took the form of ‘cartographic collaborations’. The participants were introduced to a software that allowed them to map out important locations and key areas on a communal map of Bristol. Participants were invited to talk and discuss these area with the other members. They were invited to play together to explore new forms of connection and collaboration during a time of physical restriction.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Tim Cole (University of Bristol) has wide ranging interests in social and environmental histories, historical geographies and digital humanities and also works within the creative economy.
  • Sam Howey Nunn (Free Ice Cream) is an experienced producer of immersive stories in the theatre sector and increasingly in transmedia formats. She has a particular interest in producing stories across live and digital platforms. She is a co-director at Free Ice Cream.
  • Malcolm Hamilton (Play:Disrupt) is an expert in games and creative play, with a background in acting and a personal interest in mental health. He has produced a variety of innovative engagement and behaviour change tools for research in the fields of wellbeing and environment, using play and creativity to engage and connect the public.
  • Simon Johnson (Free Ice Cream) is a game designer specialised in enabling people to play in real, social spaces. He designs to amaze, activate and promote understanding. He is a co-director at Free Ice Cream, where they make complex subjects playable.

What were the results?

A large trailblazer award and audience research fun was attained from Bristol and Bath Creative R&D cluster to further develop and test the While we are apart project.

This led to the evolution of this project into the software Elements. Elements is the name of a digital mapping platform currently being developed by Play:Disrupt and Free Ice Cream. It combines and builds upon the work of both organisations in their aims of improving citizen participation in decisions affecting their community. Specifically, the platform is built on Free Ice Cream’s ‘Understory’ application; a tool that draws upon network theory to map community resilience by highlighting the connections – and the gaps – between people involved in their community, and organisations/groups they are related to. In this way, understory creates an abstract, nodal map of relations through which it becomes possible to identify key individuals who bridge support between groups, as well as reveal where additional bridging is needed to strengthen linkages between related groups. Understory maps the values that underpin different groups, helping to highlight shared values and increase connections. Through this map, larger institutions gain insight in the social capital in a community, to inform the distribution of resources and decision-making.