The Future of the Lab

by Nik Gaffney, FoAM. (preprint of a foam publication in “future of the lab”, ed. Baltan, 2010)

The Lab evokes the smell of ozone, the excitement of experiment, the chaotically direct activity of ants, the energy of shared purpose and promise of adventures into the unknown. It exists as a sort of proto- or para- institution, slightly out of sync with the institutions around it. Whether part of commercial R&D, academic laboratory, startup-friendly research institute, secret government facility or independent design incubator, many labs share a certain displacement that allows them to flourish.

In looking at the “Future of the Lab”, Group 11) discussed examples of what had worked well for each of us, what we saw as the successes of other labs. More generally, we also identified what we suspected would improve our own labs and provide fresh insight into our methods of working, creating and sharing. fluidity, awareness and process are central to this vision of the lab.

We see labs as places where structured research can coexist with unstructured tinkering and exploration. Open enough to encourage serendipity, while retaining the rigor necessary to access, develop and spread knowledge. We emphasise the need for face-to-face work alongside online collaboration for successful research. Important techniques include scenario building, prototyping, tinkering, playing, telling stories, hosting workshops, editing Wikis and working with technology. These methods can be used to bring stories into and out of the lab, providing an interface with the wider world. Non-hierarchical structures are seen as important for maintaining open and transparent methodologies.

Technology is a necessary part of a flexible infrastructure but we feel that it shouldn't prescribe research policy. Appropriate technology should be light and inexpensive, able to be taken in and out of the lab as required. It should invite hacking, exploration and reuse. An awareness of history, a living archive and experiments drawing upon that history should form the preconditions providing flexible access to knowledge. Trust is the glue that holds these labs together.

The map we used has been annotated with a set of features and roles. The following descriptions provide some guidelines for improving existing labs or creating new labs.



“fluidity, flexibility, facilitation” - a flexible space provides opportunities for a variety of uses. Fluid movement of ideas, inspiration and people. Facilitation of processes to encourage and focus activities.

“space to let things happen” - leave room for the unexpected, the unplanned, or the seemingly inconsequential. Some of humanity's most important discoveries happened by accident.

“openness & transparency” - discuss everything, question assumptions, make things apparent and obvious rather than hidden. Document what you are doing. Encourage the use of open source, free software, open hardware, creative commons, open access publishing or other methods that promote open collaboration.

“production as trace of process” - any artifacts produced in a lab should hold traces of the process that formed them. Objects should be turned inside out.

“minimal hierarchy, emergent structures” - follow questions, rather than orders. Assume you are working with people who are peers, while understanding their knowledge domain may be vastly different. Allow structures to emerge as required and dissolve when unnecessary.

“explicit methodologies” - make processes explicit. Explain yourself. Keep notes, scribble on everything, sketch. Explain the techniques you are using, explain the assumptions behind the techniques.

“creative interdisciplinary” - a lab can provide a space to learn, copy or steal from other disciplines, a place to share, question or stretch perspectives. Cross the borders between knowledge guilds. Be aware that research techniques and results can be wide and varied. Experiment without losing rigor, while understanding the constraints and benefits of each context.

“scenarios & prototypes (think & make)“ - give shape to your ideas, explore tangible examples using whatever low-tech methods or elaborate situations are available. Making things helps you think about them. Thinking about things helps you make them.

“iterative testing, learning from failures” - given form and substance, prototypes can be assessed, redesigned and improved. Scenarios can be questioned, explored and expanded. Make the first iteration quickly enough that it can be thrown away if it doesn't work. Why doesn't it work? What could be improved? Are we heading in the right direction? Start again. Repeat.

“understanding through practice” - in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice…

“openly agnostic toward technology” - use what is useful, but you may need something else. Technology should be seen as a way of enabling the activities in the lab, not shaping its purpose. Approach technology as a tool, rather than infrastructure, adopt tools that encourage hacking, exploration and reuse.

“dissemination and access to knowledge” - spread what you are doing in the lab, share it, ask for feedback, criticism and help. Teach others what you have learnt, replicate your experiments.

“living archive” - keep track of what you are doing, an experiment is only a failure if no-one knows the results. Explore the context in which you work. Cultivate an awareness of history, while looking to the future.

“direction” - a self suggesting, emergent direction should become apparent from the work done in the lab. Don't mistake direction for purpose. Direction needs constant trim tab adjustment, purpose keeps the lab in flight.

“trust” - a lab is a social environment, held together by trust.

“communication & networking” - find peers, establish connections, keep in contact. Find other labs, respected institutions or renegade individuals to work together with and learn from.

“observation & reflection” - examine, observe, reflect.


“horizon scanning” - maintain a view of what might be emerging, and what is disappearing over the horizon. Look as far ahead and as far back as practical. Listen for weak signals, be aware of what is going on in your field, and in the world at large.

“guides, advisors & connectors” - people working in the lab will inevitably need guidance and advice. This can come from both peers who understand the specifics, and outsiders who can provide different perspectives and may find connections to relevant work outside the lab.

“generalists, brokers or producers” - the role of providing general insights and suggestions on what may be needed to improve a project (find gaps, expand or narrow scope, provide new connections or changes in direction) while being able to identify, or bring together, required resources, is essential yet often overlooked.

“specialists” - deep domain-specific knowledge and understanding of the methodologies of any domain are invaluable. Remain aware of both the strengths and limits of the domain, while exploring what can (and can't) be applied elsewhere.

“translators” - understanding the variety of languages, mindsets and ways of working is essential for any successful lab. The more diverse the group, the more necessary this role becomes.

The group involved - Yves Bernard – iMAL, Annet Dekker - Netherlands Media Art Institute, Gisle Froysland- Piksel, Nik Gaffney – FoAM, Ignatio Nieto – LaMe, Angela Plohman – Baltan, Clare Reddington - iShed
  • future_of_the_lab.txt
  • Last modified: 2016-01-21 17:05
  • by nik