Configuring Velonomy Otherwise

Nikki Pugh, PhD candidate,
Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts (LICA) & Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe),
Lancaster University

Introduction

Everyday Superpowers is the participatory element of a practice-based PhD: a community bike hub designed with—and for—trans+ people, gender non-binary people and allied women in order to explore what would happen if these were centred from the start rather than provision for them being tagged onto spaces typically dominated by cisgender men.

Everyday Superpowers' main emphasis is on cycling for transport (rather than for leisure) and identifies alternative metrics for achievement instead of going far or going fast. Here cycling with chronic pain, pulling a trailer with two kids in, or pedalling when you could have driven are all held up as things to be celebrated.

In contrast to velonomy's ideal of an autonomous, self-sufficent cyclist (Batterbury & Vandermeersch, 2016), Everyday Superpowers looks instead towards mechanisms of support networks, collective strength and peer-to-peer learning.

Whilst options for bringing strangers together for convivial gatherings, tool sharing and peer-to-peer learning are currently very limited, I still wanted to conduct my initial scoping interviews in a way that had potential to sow seeds for community building and also to use engagement with physical objects as a way to animate conversations (see Bleecker's props for conversation, 2009), helping us to get to richer stories and delicate resonances that might not have come about via screen-based interactions alone.

Method

A series of 19 badges were developed to represent objects and concepts associated with velomobility, everyday tasks, and relationships with others.

Following Aldred's work exploring the complexities of stigma associated with cycling identities being too competent or not competent enough (Aldred, 2013), and “if you can't see it, you can't be it” being a recurring theme in first-hand accounts describing cycling as being “not for people like me”, care was taken to be non-specific in illustrating specific types of bodies, genders, cycles or other specialist equipment.

Thus clothing is represented with a hanger rather than padded lycra shorts, and physical health is represented with a heart rather than a slim, athletic body.

Spanners remain the go-to image for maintenance and repair, but how would you represent concepts such as mobility or community?

I wanted to represent safety. Initial designs were of sticking plasters and medical crosses. But we know what's really at stake here.

The skull gives me a visceral, gut twisting reaction when I see it.

I am at the beginning of the process of running these focus groups. Configuring Velonomy Otherwise was originally conceived as a form of one-to-one interview, but early tests showed that it worked really well as a shared experience.

Where possible, I'm curating groups based on some form of commonality: either participants share a geographical location or are connected through participation in the same network. This opens up possibilities for the badges to have a continued use after the focus group has ended.

Focus group participants are either gifted a set of badges I have hand made, or they can choose to print off a sheet of designs to cut out at home themself.

Focus groups with three participants are conducted via videocall and last for 2 hours. The first part comprises initial introductions and then discussion around a selection of badges. After a short break, there are then more directed activities—still using the badges—to help identify the needs of the participants and potential ways in which Everyday Superpowers' next phase of activity can be designed to be meaningfully useful.

The first part of the session allows participants to select which topics are discussed. They are prompted to either select from the badges based on what speaks to them as being important, being something they want to learn more about, or things they've got no clear idea of what it might represent.

The badges are framed as being an engine for storytelling and the participants are asked to make their own meanings rather than worry about giving 'correct' answers. I make it clear that it's not all about the bike, and that I'm interested in linking out to ideas about community, the necessities of daily life and other responsibilities.

The second part of the session starts by asking participants to hold up badges in response to each of theses prompts:

A participant in New York is thinking about how to maintain her bike ...but the protest signs and the one with all of the people trigger powerful recent memories for her.

A mother of two children values that cycling's something that people of all ages can do, but worries that she doesn't know how to check the family's bikes are in good working order and how blame might be ascribed should something bad happen.

The same person wishes there was clothing that worked with her Raynaud's Syndrome and that people would just stop when they are supposed to.

Someone riding primarily to improve their mental and physical health appreciates that cycing gets them outside and active in all weathers.

A student loves that getting around by bike saves her money ...but wishes the council would spend a bit more on fixing potholes.

I choose the map, the group of people and the shopping trolley as things I want to develop, because I am new here and don't yet have my routes, gang or habits formed.

Finally the session wraps up by asking people what they need; what doing things collectively might help them to do, compared to doing it alone; what makes a safe space; and what makes a brave space.

So far...

Spending about 10 minutes responding to each prompt allows a process of collective meaning making to develop. Later in the session, badges are sometimes held up to camera and, unspoken, communicate all that has become encapsulated in that symbol.

Badges have already started to make their way out into the world: sometimes as anchors for a state of mind or intent, sometimes as acknowledgement of value,

once as a delegation of responsibilities.

In a context where group gatherings and social activities are limited, I fantasize about strangers meeting, recognising the badges they are both wearing and that allowing for conversation and an awareness of a dispersed support network. The power of triangulation (Whyte, 1980) in a 25mm disc.

In a context where behaviour change to integrate velomobility into daily practices is part of the overall aim of Everyday Superpowers, badges can signify a pledge to work on new skills or to try different things.

I prefer this to a gamification of awards won, but they're not entirely dissimilar to the sleeve-full of sew-on patches associated with the Scouting movement or Japanese Daruma dolls.

Now if you'll excuse me, I seem to have pledged that my next grocery trip will be by bike rather than by car...





Bibliography

Aldred, R. (2013) 'Incompetent or Too Competent? Negotiating Everyday Cycling Identities in a Motor Dominated Society', Mobilities, 8(2), pp. 252-271. doi: 10.1080/17450101.2012.696342.
S.P.J. Batterbury and I.Vandermeersch 2016. Bicycle justice: community bicycle workshops and "invisible cyclists" in Brussels. In A. Golub, M.L. Hoffmann, A.E.Lugo & G.F. Sandoval (eds.). Bicycle justice and urban transformation: biking for all? Routledge. 189-202.
Bleecker, J. (2009) 'Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction'. Available at: http://www.nearfuturelaboratory.com/2009/03/17/design-fiction-a-short-essay-on-design-science-fact-and-fiction/.
Whyte, William H. 1980. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. New York, NY: Project for Public Spaces.
Daruma photo by SW-1 on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://flic.kr/p/7HgTZ6