This chapter introduces GRACE, a FemTech sociomaterial assemblage that performs concerns related to equity in computing. GRACE is an interactive installation combining IoT, origami paper, and the history of computing performed at three events in Denmark, the USA, and France. Each event was designed to unpack equity in computing through different types of sociomaterial performances, while allowing us to collect data about the lived experiences of equity in computing. GRACE is both reconfigurable and relational. It is reconfigurable because GRACE is malleable and can take different forms (reaching out to people who are committed to the agenda as well as to people who are within the domain but not necessarily committed to the agenda) – even though its core remains the same. GRACE is relational because the nature of the installation emerges in use and thus is shaped by the relational connections created through specific use and people enacting the artefact. Through sociomaterial manifestations, GRACE seamlessly integrates the performance of equity in computing with data collection on equity in computing. We argue that designing GRACE as a sociomaterial assemblage allowed for long-term engagement with a gender-equity agenda across multiple diverse encounters and over several years.

With GRACE we wanted not only to understand gender diversity within a specific institution but also to see how we could create an interactive artefact that would produce both encounters that allowed for reflections and discussions on the issue at hand and new insights and data about the currently lived experiences of equity in computing.

Rosner et al. (2018a, b) demonstrate the strengths of exploring the past as part of understanding the contemporary when they, through the core memory project, made design inquiries into gendered legacies of engineering. In their work, they combine stories of women literally crafting the memory core allowing the Apollo expedition to happen (Rosner et al. 2018a, b). Similarly, we explore that past in computing by building on the story of Grace Hopper finding the first ‘computer bug’ – a moth – in the vacuum tubes of one of the first mechanical computers and use this as a starting point for the development of GRACE (Menendez-Blanco et al. 2018).

GRACE is designed as a critical design artefact (Menéndez et al. 2017) which both challenges computing as predominantly digital, male, and ‘hard’ while proposing parallel narratives combining different materials like colorful origami paper in the mixing of the back-end functionality of GRACE with the front-end experience through a DIY design (Tanenbaum et al. 2013), where the functionality is open and visible for scrutiny. Thus, GRACE is designed to trigger reflection and help articulate matters of concern (Disalvo et al. 2014), which in our case is equity in computing.

We performed GRACE at three different events: a tech festival in 2017 in Denmark for approximately 300 people, an ACM SIGCHI conference in 2018 in the USA for approximately 25, and an ACM SIGMM conference in 2019 in France for approximately 400. While the performances took different forms during each event, the core design remained the same. We collected data about each performance in different ways, and over time we were able to identify ways to seamlessly integrate the performance with the data collection about equity in computing.

In this chapter, we introduce the design of GRACE and multiple performances of GRACE over the 3 years. We argue that designing GRACE as a sociomaterial assemblage allowed it to both challenge equity in contemporary computing and act as a data collection vehicle, which ultimately allowed us to unpack the contentious issues (Disalvo et al. 2014; Menendez-Blanco and Angeli 2016) of equity in computing and their consequences for peoples’ lived experiences in the field. But first we introduce our sociomaterial-design approach.


Researchers generally agree that design objects produce distinctive knowledge (Gaver 2012) that reaches beyond what the designers themselves say about these objects. Yet how to situate, translate, and transform design knowledge gained through design artefacts into broader relevant academic knowledge and insights remains a challenge (Zimmerman et al. 2007; Koskinen et al. 2008; Bardzell et al. 2012, 2016).

Taking seriously the blurred boundaries between design creation and design presentation – between designers’ intention and peoples’ encounters – we want to develop practical and theoretical ways to think about designs as extending creation, presentations, and knowledge production into multiple intertwined activities. In our work we do not distinguish between design production and design presentation; instead, the two are interlinked in our agenda to impact and intervene in the matter of concern (equity in computing). Thus, we need to pay equal attention to our design intentions and staging (use-before-use) and to how design objects are being produced after the fact (design-after-design) through the encounters people have with our design objects (Bjögvinsson et al. 2012). Our knowledge interest is not limited to our design intention; instead, it must focus on the knowledge produced through these encounters. As phrased by Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, and Lone Koefoed Hansen: “imagine if our knowledge of modernist painting were limited to what Matisse said about Matisse, what Picasso said about Picasso” (Bardzell et al. 2015, p. 2096). As in art, knowledge produced through design objects is not limited to the intentions of the designers but reaches beyond those intentions.

Design objects are made and re-made through encounters, and knowledge is produced through these encounters. Design objects do not have pre-determined boundaries but instead are bounded in the temporal practices by which artefacts are enacted in practice (Bjørn and Østerlund 2014). The design objects we create are not pre-determined but instead must be understood as emergent phenomena where the boundaries for when an object begins and ends are open-ended (Bjørn 2012). Objects become bounded in practice; the boundaries for what makes the object are created in practice. In this perspective, “bounded has a double meaning – namely to bind together, as in a hyphenated structure, and to set the boundaries for what makes the entity, as in [bracketing structures]” (Bjørn and Østerlund 2014, p. 9). It is through the encounters that the nature of the design objects – sociomaterial assemblages – emerges in specific temporal entities. This relational perspective on design objects entails that design objects cannot fully be understood as clear-cut entities with clearly defined boundaries but instead come into existence through encounters of a temporal nature.

Design activities become infrastructural activities by which designers situate design objects as sociomaterial assemblages connecting humans and non-humans – as when Design Things (with capital letters) for social innovation produce infrastructures combining artefacts, people, and experiences (Bjögvinsson et al. 2012). Design objects are both “objectified”, as they exist in the world as entities, and simultaneously “experienced”, meaning they manifest a matter of concern as part of the sociomaterial assemblages through the lived encounters and experiences of actors (Binder and Redström 2006). In adding agency to design objects, the importance of investigating the agency of humans and non-humans is foregrounded (Bjorgvinsson et al. 2010). Further elaboration of the agencies of design objects and computation points out how objects do not exist in isolation but interconnect people, artefacts, values, and contexts, also referred to as “object ecology”, highlighting the role of design as a generative device created through infrastructural activities (Jenkins et al. 2016).

Design inquiry in the sociomaterial perspective entails that knowledge is produced through a dialogue between activities and design materials, a dialogue that continuously challenges the agenda in focus (the matter of concern) through the design activities (Binder and Redström 2006; Löwgren et al. 2013). The design inquiry becomes the inspiration for design interventions (Koskinen et al. 2011; Löwgren et al. 2013), and the artefactual aspects of the design become the objects of inquiry producing knowledge. The design object becomes epistemic, as it “cannot in advance be fully articulated and demarcated. Rather, researchers shape and develop their understanding of the nature of the questions they examine, as well as potential answers to them, through the process” (Dalsgaard 2016, p. 4992). Objects of inquiry designed to trigger reflection and imagination can take different forms, for example reflective design (Senger et al. 2005), adversarial design (Disalvo 2012), or critical making (Ratto 2012). Adopting any of these approaches entails a focus on eliciting discussions and debate by provoking, challenging the status quo (Disalvo 2012; Ratto 2012), or proposing alternative narratives through design artefacts (Menéndez et al. 2017). Our interest is in investigating how we, through sociomaterial-design activities, can articulate, engage, and challenge matters of concern through sociomaterial assemblages with open-ended boundaries (Bjørn and Østerlund 2014).

It is not only the design object that produces knowledge. Knowledge is also created through the ways in which the artefacts are staged, allowing for different encounters in different situations such as public events or exhibitions. While we quite literally design through construction – as in building and placing physical and digital materials – an essential part of our work includes considerations of how we produce knowledge through material choices, staging our matter of concern supporting our design research inquiry (Koskinen et al. 2011). When we construct and stage digital and analog materials, we shape the spaces and engagements as key means to construct knowledge (ibid). In our interventions, engagements with objects are usually ephemeral and spontaneous, which poses challenges for knowledge construction (Bardzell et al. 2015) and, in particular, for how we can produce insights from such events. Therefore, challenges are a matter not only of “how” to construct knowledge but also of “what” kind of knowledge we are able to create. Thus, our design inquiry research question with GRACE is: How can we design an artefact that both performs concerns related to equity in computing across multiple encounters and produces new insights about the concern?

GRACE Design Process

When we began the design process, we wanted to create a design object that would allow us to perform concerns related to equity in computing while collecting data about those concerns. To that end, we followed traditional methods in design research and interaction design. More concretely, we were inspired by design research projects that focused on designing for debate and on eliciting change through those debates such as the Presence Project (Gaver 2012) and the Slow Technology project at the Interactive Institute (Hallnäs and Redström 2001). In addition, we relied on traditional methods and techniques in interaction design such as conceptual designs, sketches, and lo-fi prototypes (Buxton 2010). The design process did not follow a linear path; instead, we iteratively engaged with processes of ideation, prototyping, and reflection.

Concretely, we outlined a set of variables that we considered important (Sharp 2003). Some of these were related to interaction (e.g., What are the individual task/s that people can engage with?), to technical details (e.g., Which kind of components could be used?), or to design limitations (e.g., Design a physical installation that challenges traditional assumptions about computer science dealing with screen-based interactions). For each concept, we collected a set of inspirational images that illustrated the envisaged aesthetics of the design. In total, we came up with six different conceptual designs, including a digital message board, a digital wall of great inventors, and an interactive origami landscape.

Once we had developed the conceptual designs individually, we got together and extensively discussed each of the concepts, assessing their advantages and limitations. For example, we reflected on the extent to which the concepts could trigger discussions among different audiences about equity in computing (How could the participants engage in discussion? How could the artefact be described? How could the motivation to design such an artefact be described?).

Simultaneously, we worked on the general story of the installation. Building on previous work that relies on historical events to unpack and reflect on current issues with digital technologies (Rosner et al. 2018a, b; Bjørn and Rosner 2021), we brainstormed on different historical events that could serve as props. Examples we explored were the inventions made by Hedy Lamarr, which formed the basis for today’s WiFi technology, or the discovery of the first computer bug, by Grace M. Hopper.

Exploring each of these stories, we selected Grace Hopper’s story. While this story presents many interesting perspectives, one specific reason for this choice was that the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the first computer bug conveniently matched the days we had planned to perform GRACE for the first time – September 9, 2017.

GRACE as an Interactive Installation

GRACE is an interactive installation that celebrates Grace Hopper’s finding the first bug in a computer in 1947. The installation uses analog materials (paper, rubber strings, and wood) and combines these with digital materials (micro-controllers, sensors, and actuators) as well as IoT technology (people can interact with the physical installation through a mobile app developed for both iPhone and Android). In addition, the installation is visually designed to create curiosity and prompt passersby to participate in the installation through a combination of colorful materials and interactive technologies.

More concretely, the installation depicts a retro mechanical computer with vacuum tubes, powered by eight ESP8266 WiFi-enabled micro-controllers, which allow the retro computer to connect to the internet. Each micro-controller controls a servo motor attached with conductive wires and rubber strings. Upon the rubber strings, participants can attach paper origami bugs depicting the bugs in the computer. Participants can control the movement and blinking LED lights of the attached origami bugs and thus metaphorically ‘debug the machine’ by using the accompanying (and publicly available) mobile app. GRACE attempts to push the boundaries of what could be considered computing by combining different materials and technologies in a single installation. Finally, there are four different types of origami bugs shaped by different types of bugs – one being the moth – resembling the actual moth found by Grace Hopper.

When exploring the process of creating origami-paper-based bugs for use in the installation, we found that one of the main drivers in the Danish origami community was a former computer science student, Hans Dybkjær. We reached out and together identified four different types of origami bugs that were appropriate for our use. It was important that they look different and be not too difficult to learn how to fold. We also chose four colors of paper to give the origami bugs distinct expressions: green, yellow, blue, and orange. These paper-based origami bugs were also digitized (scanned), and then used as the main characters in the GRACE app (Fig. 6.1).

Fig. 6.1
figure 1

GRACE folding origami

The GRACE app was designed as a digital representation of the physical installation, and had as its background the same historic mechanical computer that the digitized origami bugs would fly around. The music for the app was created by Peter Bjørn Rasmussen with Lise Dandanel singing as an ambient background, which could run in continuous loops. The number of origami bugs ‘caught in the computer’ represented the number of paper origami bugs attached to the physical installation. Participants could, by tapping their fingers on the digital origami bugs, ‘debug’ the system, and the origami bugs will disappear from the app, while moving or blinking on the physical installation. The GRACE app works for both iPhone and Android and was programmed by Kasper Lorentzen.

GRACE Performance & Intervention, Copenhagen 2017

The City Makers faire was part of a larger tech festival in Copenhagen, where we joined with the GRACE installation in 2017. The event lasted 3 days and drew more than 2000 attendees in total. The audience was very diverse and included families, schools, teachers, researchers, and tech enthusiasts. The physical appearance of GRACE took the form of a large and heavy wooden board (3 × 2 m), which took us approximately a full week to build (cut out and assemble the wooden boards, place the background image, attach the micro-controllers and actuators, etc.). We prepared different promotional materials to be distributed at the maker faire, such as leaflets and laser-cut wooden moths. The leaflets were also intended as a gentle introduction to equity in computing and included the story of how the first computer bug was found by Grace Hopper, a description of GRACE, and information about the research project. Further, we carefully curated the physical staging area we had been allocated in order to create a flow between different activities (welcoming area, origami activities, and discussion area).

The performance placed specific emphasis on challenging stereotypes about computer science (e.g., male-dominated, nerdy field, for video game lovers) and proposing an alternative (e.g., digital-analog installation, public event, craft activities). The performance was meant as a playful yet serious provocation: a large wooden board with colorful origami bugs, portraying a historical event about a woman computer scientist, physically assembled by academic researchers from a computer science department.

Exploring whether and how GRACE triggered reflection on assumptions on computer science, we together with a science education researcher from the university, Jesper Bruun, had brainstormed different possibilities for collecting data about the ways in which the performance had “worked” or not. After three brainstorm sessions, we decided to define the extent to which the performance “worked” as the extent to which it succeeded at challenging individual assumptions about computing.

To that end, we conducted semi-structured interviews that included questions about interviewees’ background information (e.g., Do you have any experience related to computing?), general knowledge of computer science (e.g., Do you know what computer science is? What does a computer scientist do?), and expectations about GRACE (e.g., Would you expect a computer scientist to build GRACE?). The interviewees were approached after they had left the area of the performance, to preserve their anonymity. They were informed that their responses could be used for research purposes, and a verbal agreement was recorded. The interviews lasted a maximum of 10 min.

GRACE attracted the attention of people walking by. During the 3 days, more than 300 participants approached us and engaged with GRACE. People explained that the colors, movements, and ‘artsy’ look of the installation had prompted their curiosity. Thus, GRACE’s aesthetic qualities were a crucial mechanism for triggering curiosity and served as a starting point for engagement.

In addition, the staging (installation, welcome booth, table for origami activities, discussion area) guided participants through the different activities and engaged them in different ways. Participants included children, parents, teachers, and researchers. Some created paper origami bugs to attach to GRACE, while others interacted with GRACE using the mobile app to ‘debug’ the machine. Some preferred to learn about the technical details, and others discussed concerns related to equity in computing. In general, children preferred doing origami and playing with the mobile app; adults engaged in all kind of activities. When talking with participants, the story was instrumental in smoothly guiding discussions towards equity in computing. As researchers, we experienced that the story of Grace Hopper helped us connect the performance with the matter of concern and open up discussions with a heterogenous audience in an informal setting.

In total, 57 micro-interviews were conducted and later transcribed. These interviews transformed the ephemeral encounters with participants into small accounts about perceptions of computer science. GRACE triggered reflection on assumptions about computer science; but, more interestingly, they also showed that despite those assumptions, many people did not really know what being a computer scientist meant. Indeed, when participants were asked whether they knew what working as a ‘datalog’ (computer scientist in Danish) entailed, hardly anyone knew:

I have no idea, but my guess is that it would be someone who are sorting data, but I really do not know.(…) they are probably sitting in front of a computer. (Micro-interview, Denmark, September 2017)

Then, when asked whether they were surprised that it was researchers from a ‘datalogi’ department who had created the installation, only a few were surprised, since only few knew what ‘datalogi’ was in the first place (Fig. 6.2).

Fig. 6.2
figure 2

GRACE at the Maker Faire

The installation succeeded in performing the matter of concern while gathering data about that concern. When reflecting on what made the installation ‘work’ (Koskinen et al. 2011), we identified three main aspects. First, it was important that the performance of GRACE prompted people to approach the installation and that the activities shaped by the curated staging engaged diverse audiences. Second, it was important that the story embedded in the design object was designed to open up discussions about equity in computing in an informal setting. Finally, it was important that we were able to transform these ephemeral encounters into returns for the project. However, our reflections also highlighted several weaknesses. For example, a key aspect was the temporal and spatial division between the interviews and the performance. This distinction reduced the richness of and insights about our equity in computing, as the insights turned out to be more about the participants’ understandings of computing rather than producing new insights about equity in computing.

GRACE Performance & Intervention, Florida 2018

In 2018, GRACE was accepted as a demonstration at an international SIGCHI conference with approximately 80 attendees. Since it was impossible to transport GRACE’s large wooden scaffold by plane to the conference, we created a different GRACE manifestation specifically adapted to the context. The installation was made of cardboard (with the same image on the old mechanical computer), micro-controllers, and actuators, and origami bugs were attached using paper pins. We also shaped the interactive activities differently than we did at the City Makers faire. We staged the performance to focus on opportunities to reflect, discuss, and share personal experiences related to equity in computing.

To that end, we invited the demo session attendees to reflect on their concerns regarding equity in computing, to think about actions that could help address those concerns based on their personal experiences, and to discuss those concerns and actions with other participants. We did not ask participants to add any personal data (e.g., gender, position, country), since this could influence their engagement, especially given that the group was small and relatively familiar with each other. This decision was based on our experience, which shows that equity in computing is a highly sensitive and often controversial subject, where people might be reluctant to share their thoughts and experiences if there is a chance they might be identified.

After, we invited participants to write those concerns and actions on a piece of origami paper, fold the paper into an origami bug, and attach the bug to the installation. The performance included demo-ing the installation, discussing with participants, and assisting them in folding origami bugs – which could be added to the installation.

In total, 11 people wrote on, folded, and attached their bugs to the installation. Several participants did not create bugs and preferred to engage in discussions with other participants and researchers. After the end of the performance, we collected all the bugs and transcribed these for further analysis. Concerns written on the origami paper included personal experiences and struggles related to, e.g., hiring processes, allocation of research funding, and students’ feedback, as illustrated in the following quote collected in a bug:

Students can sometimes be very negative and abuse my status as a young, female professor. Nasty comments in reviews and evaluations hurts the most. (Note on bug, USA, January 2018)

This quote expresses a concern about equity in computing illustrated by a shared experience. Other bugs and discussion included participants’ individual experiences, as in a collective diary of anonymously collected concerns.

In addition, some of these individual concerns expressed in the bugs related to themes discussed during the conversations. For example, when discussing equity in computing with respect to hiring processes, a senior researcher highlighted how it was important to consider gender when hiring computing professionals. Relatedly, one participant described in her bug that even though she considered it important to think about gender during hiring processes, such initiatives should be implemented carefully. Concretely, she explained that she had been encouraged to apply for a position at a ‘big fancy software company’ because ‘there are no girls in the team’, which she found ‘insulting in some many ways’ (Note on bug, USA, January 2018). This situation demonstrates that even though everyone agreed that hiring processes are important to creating equity in computing, there are nuances to these concerns. The performance of concerns through different means (discussions, anonymous notes on the origami bugs) including different participants was instrumental in producing these different views (Fig. 6.3).

Fig. 6.3
figure 3

GRACE at the SIGCHI conference

Not all concerns were illustrated through personal experiences; some were expressed in terms of existing studies, theory, or available data related to equity in computing, as illustrated in the following quote:

I worry about what Lorraine Code called “discrimination by design” i.e. user experiences that implied that the user was a member of an assumed demographic group. We often use ourselves as our model of a human being. We white men [need] to think outside of those assumptions, so that we stop discriminating by design (even if that is not our conscious intention). (Note on bug, USA, January 2018)

In this case, the concern was expressed not in terms of lived experiences but as a matter of interest for research purposes, aligned with the topics of the conference. This quote exemplifies a participant who is not dependent on the change but is still committed to it (Fig. 6.4).

Fig. 6.4
figure 4

GRACE unfolded Origami bugs

The performance of GRACE allowed us to produce insights about equity in computing in a different way from the City Makers faire, since instead of holding interviews after the fact, we were about to produce insights about equity in computing from the diverse perspectives of the participants. The insights gave us interesting snapshots of participants’ concrete experiences. Interestingly, GRACE as a performance was adapted in a very concrete way, as in replacing wood with cardboard – and reducing the size by more than one-fourth of its first instantiation – however, the main qualities and story remained the same and shaped interactions and participations in ways similar to the City Makers faire. So, while the physical manifestation looked different, the core story and aesthetic expression remained the same. Moreover, the performance emphasized the importance of sharing opinions and experiences while engaging in discussions by reducing the prominence of the origami activities. Note that while the origami activities were not as prominent as in the Makers faire, they were still relevant because they enabled a playful and convivial setting in which to discuss issues of critical importance.

The GRACE performance at the SIGCHI conference allowed us to collect insights not only as observations but also as actual experiences written on the origami bugs collected. In this way, there was no spatial or temporal division between performance and data collection. However, this activity did not fully match the metaphor of the ‘bugs’, since the origami bugs contained not only challenges (considered the ‘bugs’ in the computing field and profession) but also proposals for action.

GRACE Performance & Intervention France 2019

In 2019, we were invited to present GRACE in a keynote at a top international conference in the field of multimedia and computing. The performance was divided into a keynote and an interactive demo session. At the keynote, we introduced FemTech work, discussed the issue of equity in computing, and presented some of the FemTech actions we had done previously. At the end of the keynote, we invited attendees to write on a piece of origami paper the challenges for people to enter, stay, and advance in a career in computer science. Next, we asked them to create one origami bug each (only using the moth origami design linking it back to Grace Hopper’s real moth) and to leave these on the table. Instructions for how to fold the bugs were placed on each table, and a total of eight student volunteers aided the task. After all the bugs were collected, we attached these to the GRACE installation, which was made using a pinboard and was much larger (3 × 4 m) than in the two previous events.

Attendees were invited to visit the installation, unfold the bugs made by other anonymous attendees, read the challenges aloud, and discuss the issues written. A voice recorder was placed on the tables to record the conversations. We intentionally did not ask attendees to include any information in the bugs that could identify them in any way. With this strategy, we wanted people to feel free to answer and not feel intimidated to express their opinions openly (Fig. 6.5).

Fig. 6.5
figure 5

FemTech Keynote, 2019

Around 400 people attended the lunch keynote. A total of 154 people folded origami bugs, and 75 wrote down challenges inside them. This performance provided a rich corpus of data displaying participants’ concerns about equity in computing. As in the previous performance, participants highlighted personal stories and research-related issues. However, this was the first time that participants highlighted issues related to intersectionality, expressed potentially unpopular opinions, or challenged equity being a concern at all.

For example, in the context of discussing the stereotypes and assumptions about gender in computing written in the bugs, a man explained:

Coming from [country1], the first foreign country was [country2] and I was treated like… “criminals are coming!” But when I said “I’m an engineer” and suddenly, you know, they appreciated me. (discussion, P5, Demo session, France, 2019)

This comment generated an interesting discussion among people who had experienced discrimination in computing because of intersectional aspects (e.g., gender, race, nationality). Interestingly, the discussion triggered by reading aloud the text written in the ‘bugs’ helped participants adopt the strategy of finding common ground, rather than achieving a unified consensus. In addition, and differently from previous performances, some of the data contained potentially unpopular stereotypes:

Men are thinking in a rational way while women think more in an emotional way but CS needs people be reasonable… (Note on bug, France, 2019)

Indeed, stereotypes and assumptions occupied much of the discussions during the performance of GRACE, and participants agreed that stereotypes are especially harmful to equity. Interestingly, they talked about not only stereotypes related to a specific gender, and how these might prevent people from choosing a career in computing, but also concerns about stereotypes related to nationalities or assumptions about the skills a computer scientist has, which potentially can prevent people from continuing or advancing in a career in computing. For example, a woman participant expressed that when collaborating in research projects, her colleagues in other disciplines referred to her as “‘the technical people’ as if I came with a screwdriver or the soldering station” (Discussion, P1, Demo session, France, 2019) (Fig. 6.6).

Fig. 6.6
figure 6


Finally, a few participants reported skepticism about the existence of the concern in the first place in writing on their anonymized origami bugs sentences such as “I see no problem!!!” (Note on bug, France, 2019). What we find particularly interesting is that some participants felt entitled to express their opinion, even if it meant challenging the idea of equity as a concern at all, and that our performance managed to engage their views in the discussion, thereby producing opportunities for collective interaction with many different views on a concrete concern.

GRACE as Intervention and Performance

Our research interest with GRACE was to perform concerns about equity in computing while producing new insights about those concerns. What made GRACE a conceptual vehicle for different types of engagements and social events were three main relations. These produced the sociomaterial assemblages (Orlikowski 2007; Bjørn and Østerlund 2009, 2014; Østerlund and Bjørn 2011) that made GRACE: (1) a reconfigurable core that was adaptable to concrete situations, (2) diverse ways to engage with both people who are dependent on a change and to mobilize additional people to commit to the change, and (3) seamless integration of the performance of GRACE and the collection of insights about equity in computing.

Reconfigurable Core

While our process was inspired by traditional interaction design methods, our intent was not to create a finished prototype, or a final product (Pierce et al. 2015). Instead, our interest was in expressing the lived experiences, perceived consequences, and desired futures (Disalvo et al. 2014; Nielsen and Møller 2020) pertinent to equity in computing moving towards heterogeneously participation in ‘who’ can successfully take part in shaping the digital technologies of the future. Concretely, GRACE was flexible enough to be adapted for specific audiences and thus to perform differently during events, while still having a core – an ‘installed base’ (Bowker and Star 2002) that remained the same. The installed base embedded in the design of GRACE challenges equity in computing through different types of provocations (Raptis et al. 2017). Aesthetic provocation concerns the material design, the combination of the digital and analog features, and the use of colors, origami paper, and physical installation. Functional provocation challenges computing through the representation of an old mechanical machine with vacuum tubes and how this old computer becomes a novel IoT device that metaphorically allows participants to debug the technical system and the social system of computing. Conceptual provocation (Raptis et al. 2017) is related to the story of Grace Hopper and how a woman is behind one of the core concepts in computing debugging, even if the field is predominantly male.

While the core remained the same, GRACE was flexible for interpretation across different social groups (Orlikowski 1992; Mark et al. 2007) and in this way resembled a boundary object (Star and Griesemer 1989). However, what allowed GRACE to move across events were the ways in which it was performed as sociomaterial assemblages (Bjørn and Østerlund 2014) – as a relational artefact that shaped the connections between the IoT implementation, the material nature of origami paper, the GRACE app, the specific event, and the engagement with people. GRACE’s concrete physical manifestation took different forms in terms of both physical size (from 3 × 2 m in Denmark, A0 size in the USA, and 3 × 4 m in France) and physical material (wood, cardboard, and pinboard). Yet the fundamental aesthetic expression and provocations remained the same.

Thus, GRACE can be perceived as an epistemic artefact (Dalsgaard 2016) due to the open-ended design that allowed it to transform and be shaped through local and situated encounters. Each new manifestation of GRACE became a way for us to enact recursively on the matter of concern – equity in computing – and how this concern was embedded in the core design of the sociomaterial assemblages. Each new iteration included and was defined from the former iterations. So, while future iterations of GRACE might take different forms, past manifestations remain as the reconfigurable core.

By explicitly not engaging in stereotypical norms and cultures around computing, GRACE seeks to produce the field of computing as an alternative narrative combining novel technological components like IoT with digital and analog design. GRACE is a multiplicity demonstrating equity in computing as something that cannot merely be understood as a ‘percentage of women’ (Bardzell 2010) but instead must be understood from several equally important cultural and social perspectives. These include history, women, technologies, and the lived experiences of people in the field – whether women or transgender experiences of sexism or participants’ opinions that there is no problem (as we saw in France).

These insights tell us something about what is visible and what is invisible in the concrete lived experiences of gender norms and stereotypes in computing. In this way, GRACE as a sociomaterial assemblage produces the agenda of equity in computing not as an exclusively women’s problem but as rooted in cultural and social phenomena shaping what is seen as prestige in computing in terms of topics and domains (back-end developing system or front-end developing interactions) but also in terms of gender norms and stereotypes. In producing the back end of GRACE as a visible DIY installation with wires, micro-controllers exposed, we produce the front end of GRACE – the human interaction with the GRACE computer as embedded visible part of the back end. Thus, we break down the barriers between what is back end and front end – what is often seen as prestige within computing (back-end development) becomes a ‘naturalized’ part of the front end and the user experience.

Engaging People Through Encounters

When we engage and produce GRACE through different encounters, we serve two agendas. First, we explore the seamless relations by which GRACE is produced to embody our concern for equity in computing through material objectification of the very issue. Second, we produce engaging encounters situated in specific sociocultural situations. These encounters foster discussions that challenge the status quo by producing opportunities for collective interaction and endeavors. Through these events, GRACE disputes fundamental assumptions about equity in computing through collective engagements (Menendez-Blanco and Angeli 2016) which include different groups of people, some of whom are affected directly by the homogeneity of the computing field and who want to make a change, and others who are part of the producing of homogeneity in the field without such explicit change agendas. In each manifestation of GRACE, we engaged not only those who were alert to the unbalanced gender concerns in computing and dependent on a change but also those who had not considered the problematic issues of homogeneity in computing prior to their experience of GRACE, however prone they were to committing to the cause for change. GRACE as our design artefact seeks not only to engage with people outside computing to get them to join (this would be a project about increasing numbers of women in computing) but also to engage people inside computing to allow them to notice the challenges of equity, thus mobilizing a transformation (Akrich et al. 2002a, b).

By drawing together involved actors, artefacts, resources, and creativity in order not only to manifest concerns about equity in computing but also to involve people who are not currently taking part in the transformation, we extend the group of allies through design (Latour 1987). The artistic expression of GRACE produces meaning as part of the cultural exchange with the participant, which again provides theoretical insights and resources (Bardzell et al. 2015) contributing to insights about the issue. When making real change, it is critical to engage those who depend on a successful change as well as those who do not but are however still committed to that change (Marres 2007; Dantec and DiSalvo 2013). Extending the involved groups allows us to involve people who are important for the change but not affected by the unbalanced gender distribution to engage with and commit to make a change seeking to foster equity in computing.

Seamless Integration of Performance and Collecting Insights

GRACE is about creating change by making artefacts (Menéndez et al. 2017) – since it is through the design we create that contemporary orientations about society are produced (Disalvo et al. 2014). GRACE is about challenging contemporary society to think differently about equity in computing – so that the sociomaterial assemblages we create become carriers of alternative societal thinking. GRACE is not about resolving the issue by design; it is instead about producing a meaningful shift (Rosner et al. 2018a, b) from telling historical facts about Grace Hopper finding moths in vacuum tubes towards a way of collecting and reflecting on lived experiences in contemporary computing. Such reflections are critical to engage in criticism through conversations. A narrow focus on only the historic narrative of Grace Hopper and how well GRACE makes participants aware of the history would be a simply fact-based perspective, solving the problem of people not knowing the history of Hopper. However, this perspective neglects the story by which GRACE challenges the status quo – and produces an alternative narrative (Menendez-Blanco et al. 2018) which is embedded in the sociomaterial assemblages.

Our focus is not whether the situations are resolved through the design (Koskinen et al. 2011) but about creating engaging conversations, increasing the group of committed people required to make a change. GRACE asks questions such as What does equity in computing mean, and how is it produced in real-life experiences? GRACE invites people to enter a world where gender homogeneity is pertinent and then to reflect on what heterogeneously computing would look like and how it would transform the field and profession.

The sociomaterial assemblages producing GRACE serve as a scaffold and infrastructure for engaging in discussions on equity. The scaffold includes the physical installation (origami, app, etc.) as it is produced through the events’ structure and staging, but not only that. GRACE’s sociomaterial assemblages function to expose and re-imagine the conversations on gender equity – and thus seek to begin and move the conversation towards transformation. GRACE allows participants to re-imagine through ‘prototyping’ a new future for computing through their stories on the origami bugs. The GRACE artefact comes into being through participation. The open-endedness is deliberate and critical for the purpose of being not only a performance but also an instrument to provide novel insights into the area of computing.

We engage in the design of GRACE to ask questions while collecting data about the core problems that are pertinent to the matter of concern. We are not trying to solve a problem; we are actively conceptualizing the problem. In this way, we use research through design as a mode of inquiry (Zimmerman et al. 2007). GRACE is about exploring and learning about the lived qualities of the political conditions (Disalvo et al. 2014) that make gender homogeneous in computing. GRACE is a provocation (Raptis et al. 2017) and a method of inquiry – as a way to collect data. Thus, we use it to unpack the ‘implicit norms and stereotypes’ that challenge gender diversity (Bjørn and Menendez-Blanco 2019). We critically explore what roots have turned the field of computing into a gender-homogeneous field instead of a diverse one.

Methodologically, GRACE is interesting as a knowledge production artefact. Over the years during which we iteratively developed GRACE, its performance became seamlessly integrated with the collection of data about equity in computing. During the first manifestation, the performance and the data collection had weak ties, in that the data were collected through micro-interviews with participants after the fact. In this way, the data collection and the performance were two separate activities. During the second and third performances, the data collection was merged into the origami-folding activity when participants wrote down their concerns about equity. The connection between the performance and the data collection became completely seamless in the third manifestation, when conference participants were asked not only to write down their experiences but also to open the anonymous origami bugs and read aloud the text and discuss the issues collectively. GRACE produces knowledge as embodied in the object by combining historic facts about Grace Hopper, through an IoT functionality linked to digital interaction with the lived experiences documented by participants as they write on the origami paper and attach the bugs. When we change the mode from participation as producing data (writing on origami bugs) to reflecting (reading and discussing what is written on the origami bugs), we also shift from the subjective experiences to a collective reflection searching for insights about the issue at hand. We move from knowledge as embodied in design into knowledge as research insights on the area of concern (Bardzell et al. 2016). The knowledge of GRACE is not just about what we, as designers, say (Bardzell et al. 2015) about GRACE but also the manifestation of the sociomaterial assemblage that makes GRACE. The sociomaterial performance of the matter of concern (Bjorgvinsson et al. 2010, 2012) – equity in computing – became completely integrated with the data collection about the concern. In this way, GRACE had a double nature and performed a robustness over time. GRACE was designed through temporal initiations and yet persisted over 3 years. Though the physical manifestation of GRACE might disappear, the GRACE app persisted on participants’ mobile devices as reminders of the issues of equity in computing. Fundamental and culture challenges are not simply fixed through one event; thus, designing for long-term engagement is vital however difficult – and future research should continue to explore the temporal and interventionist nature of design artefact.

Who are the champions proposing alternative narratives to homogeneous computing? Who are the advocates for equity in computing? We as designers take on the explicit agenda when we design sociomaterial assemblages such as GRACE. Thus, we are the carriers of alternative narratives (Bardzell et al. 2015). But since GRACE is produced through interactions, participants are invited to become protagonists and thus to shape the future of computing by adding their story and experience to the design artefact. The design artefact is not about answering clearly formulated questions (since if we knew the clear question, the issue of equity in computing would not be a wicked problem (Dalsgaard 2016)) but instead serves as a vehicle for materializing questions and bringing new insights. The design artefact is a way to embody the problem of gender equity and thus to explore the problem as a reflection on concrete realized experiences. In this way, GRACE embodies and examines a wicked problem (Bell et al. 2005) as a way of exploration. The design artefact is a knowledge producer (Bardzell et al. 2015) both for people encountering the artefact and for us as researchers who designed it, since we use it to learn about the lived experiences of equity in computing.