APEX Award holder 2017-2018
University of Leeds
Engineering the imagination: disability, prostheses and the body
Award amount: £23,956.32
The project’s aims were to develop conversations between the academic disciplines of engineering design and literary/cultural studies, to engage the public in these discussions, and subsequently work towards better thinking about provision of assistive technologies for disabled people. My collaborator, Dr Raymond Holt, and I wanted to do this through experimental, innovative and provocative methods that increase understanding of the ways in which literary and cultural narratives and theories about the body can be brought to bear on engineering practice in the design and production of prosthetic limbs.
The project aimed to highlight the ways in which human/non-human relations are built through ideas of empathy, affect, interdependence and cultural imaginings, and especially how they are filtered through the optics of design, technology and use. We did this through what seemed a counterintuitive process, the design and production of a deliberately designed prosthetic hand, but in the belief that this created a real opportunity to bring considerations of cultural theory and narrative to engineering in the processes of understanding disability experience.
The findings/conclusions became ways to chart how issues of representation, design, and engineering production all approach questions of disability and technology in different ways. The project allowed us to see, in detail, how multidisciplinary approaches to thinking about prostheses worked in practice and then to showcase this to the public during the British Academy Summer Showcase in June 2018, explaining our research and discussing disability and technology with a wide range of people. Opening up such complex discussions about disability allowed for real insight into the ways we see and think about bodily difference.
The core provocation and innovation of the project, the design and production of the disabled prosthetic and the questions it raised, has provided a real opportunity to address research questions and disciplinary connections that have been underexplored for too long. In much cultural and disability theory, an idea of ‘the prosthetic’ has largely been metaphorical, one applied to questions of memory, imagination and artistic formations. For example; at the same time, engineering production has tended to focus on the functional and utilitarian nature of manufacturing prosthetics even as its multiple methods actually evidence flexible and dynamic approaches that overlap with much cultural theorising. ‘Engineering the Imagination’ brought this into focus.
The design and production of the hand made it impossible to ignore the grounded and located, but also imagined and (to a degree) fictionalised, nature of disability technologies. The experimental nature of the way we worked allowed us to approach the challenge of registering prosthetic’s meaning, as well as associated ideas of the boundaries of the body, decision-making processes of design etc. It was precisely because APEX asked for research questions to be posed in challenging and innovative ways that this was possible.
The approach highlighted through the APEX work has led to concrete research outcomes and developed interdisciplinary methods across Humanities and the Engineering. Our disability/technology focus is now central to two major projects supported by the Wellcome Trust: the multi-institution five-year ‘Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures’ (2020-2025) and Leeds-based three-year ‘LivingBodiesObjects: Technology and the Spaces of Health’ (2022-2025), the latter a deliberately open and experimental research development award that has a similar philosophy to APEX. Additional awards for the development of Equality and Diversity and Public Engagement in relation to these have followed. In each case feedback has stressed the innovative, interdisciplinary and field-extending nature of the work.
A host of publications exploring disability/engineering/technology connections has followed, but two that draw/focus specifically on the APEX project are a 2020 BMJ: Medical Humanities article by PI Murray and collaborator Dr Holt and a forthcoming essay in a new Bloomsbury collection Posthumanism in Practice. Both pieces acknowledge the APEX funding.
‘Engineering the Imagination’ was not a project directed towards policy or practice. We embraced the opportunity given to us by APEX to pursue work that other funders might not take up and so were deliberately open and experimental. At the same time, the British Academy Summer Showcase showed the project not only to the public, but also a series of specially invited guests, including university Vice Chancellors, heads of research organisations (for example the Head of Science at the Wellcome Trust), policy makers (several MPs attended) and media groups.
‘Engineering the Imagination’ created change in three areas. The development of major new research projects has not only created new perspectives across academic disciplines, it has enhanced capacity through the creation of new PhDs, postdoctoral Fellowships and project management positions (in Leeds and beyond). Likewise, the opportunity I had to work with students in Mechanical Engineering created cross-department discussions that had not existed before, giving undergraduates new options for project work, for example.
While these examples are in-house and university-specific, I feel nevertheless that one of the very best things any research project can do is to create opportunities for new generations of scholars and students, and to bring questions that might at one point have seemed esoteric or outside of academic practice to more mainstream student and early-career spaces.
The final area stems from the hope that the British Academy showcase helped its already-curious participants just think more about what an ‘engineered body’ might be, and to share that with others.
The APEX Award has been hugely beneficial to me. It took place during my ongoing development as a scholar working across interdisciplinary Disability Studies and Medical Humanities. Work on the project during 2017/2018 helped extend my ideas on the relationship between English/Cultural and Technology Studies as they enact research in Disability Studies and Medical Humanities.
The space for this was twofold. I was able to use what I had learned from the APEX project to expand the scope of my own writing (it fed directly into my thinking in my 2020 monograph Disability and the Posthuman: Bodies, Technology, and Cultural Futures, published by Liverpool University Press, for example); and I was able to contribute more creatively to ongoing conversations about the development of research culture at Leeds. To receive funding from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, in particular, allowed for a real engagement with research Science communities from which I have enormously.
The Award has become a touchstone for me. In discussions I reference it as an example of exactly the kind of scheme that can genuinely generate ideas through the provision of time and space, in ways that larger and (ostensibly) more complex research projects cannot.
To follow up on my above comments about the new collaborative research projects on which I now work: ‘Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures’ involves new partnerships with roboticists and assistive technology experts at the University of Sheffield, Philosophers at the University of Exeter, and Art & Design specialists at the University of Dundee, as well as filmmakers and visual artists specialising in the relationship between bodies and technologies.
‘LivingBodiesObjects’ has extended my interest in embodied technologies to Immersive Technologists and VR experts in particular, as well as non-academic partners across the Arts, Museums and Charities sectors. All of this work, which now takes up four days of my working week has clear connections to the ideas and practice that were at the heart of ‘Engineering the Imagination’.
This total funding is more than £2.5 million, but the £24K I received for the APEX Award is, to my mind, the best example of what research support can do in the support of developing ideas and making new work possible.