Workshop resources from Lund (1)

This is the first part of a write-up of our project workshop in Lund.

James and I held an expert workshop in Lund, Sweden, which fitted in with my Erasmus visit there. The experts were students and academics based in Sweden and Denmark; we anticipated they’d be able to talk about those contexts, but people could also draw on experiences of experiences of cycling in contexts as diverse as Ukraine, Canada, and China.

The main purpose of the workshop was to find out how participants thought processes around cycling ‘meanings, skills and stuff’ worked in their contexts. It also aimed to get feedback on the idea of using practice theory for agent-based modelling and to see how well using workshops to develop ABM rules might work. For more on practice theory and cycling, and what is meant by ‘meanings, skills, and stuff’ see an article I’ve written with Kat Jungnickel discussing practice theory concepts in relation to cycling.

This is my write-up of the workshop, so while it relies on James’ and participants’ comments, notes, etc. they might not agree on all points – it is also me thinking through ideas as I go along.

We created three sheets for small group discussions focusing on cycling ‘meanings’, ‘skills’, and ‘stuff’ . In the end we only actually used two of these, with one small group discussing ‘meanings’ and one ‘skills’. The sheets sought to give people from different country contexts a sense of how (we think) things work in the UK for cycling, using data from the Cycling Cultures project. We would use slightly different resources for a UK audience which might be more familiar with some of these issues and experiences. The sheets also contained questions for discussion. James sat in on one group and I sat in on another.

The discussion about skills/competences was interesting in that neither word quite seemed to connect with participants. The problem with ‘skill’ is firstly that in everyday use it tends to foreground something that individuals can acquire (particularly in a context where people are all meant to continuously upskill, be employable, and so on!), and secondly that ‘lower skilled’ is seen as derogatory. Therefore, people were not always comfortable talking about skill in relation to cycling practices. Competence was if anything more difficult; ‘less competent’ carries echoes of ‘incompetent’; given cyclists are often cast as incompetent road users, this was also problematic. Perhaps ‘abilities’ might be a better word to use in this context as implying something that might be more or less flexible or fixed for different people. Although it may be possible for individuals to increase their ability to cycle, being unable or less able to do something doesn’t carry the same pejorative weight as being ‘unskilled’ or ‘less skilled’, ‘less competent’ or ‘incompetent’.

That said, there were very interesting discussions in the ‘skills’ group, for example, comparing the two relatively high cycling contexts of Malmö and Copenhagen. Copenhagen’s cycling environment was seen as more consistent than Malmö’s, with one participant talking about being ‘surprised’ to suddenly find herself in the middle of motor traffic while riding in Malmö. People thought that more skills were needed to ride in Malmö because of the inconsistent environment – sometimes a cyclist needed to act ‘like a cyclist’, but sometimes like a pedestrian or like a driver, depending on the cycling environment. However, it was also noted that this led to a greater acceptance of rule-breaking, precisely because of the lack of clarity! (While in Copenhagen, it was argued that the greater consistency of environment has led to a stronger consensus about how cyclists should behave, and hence greater disapproval by cyclists of rule-breaking).

One aspect of practice theory that’s always attracted me is the idea of relocation of competences or skills (or abilities, in fact) from individuals to objects, or vice versa. So, in-car GPS means that passengers and drivers no longer have to acquire/possess map-reading abilities. In a sense it can be seen as deskilling. However, one nagging thought has always been, but, as one type of skill becomes obsolete isn’t it replaced by others? Aren’t there abilities related to using GPS? In what sense is the need to use GPS less problematic than the need to read a map? (You could imagine if there were only speaking GPS and no written maps, how difficult this would make navigation for Deaf people, for example).

This issue came up in relation to cycling skills, in the discussion around levels of skill needed to ride in Copenhagen. While in some respects cycling in Copenhagen was seen as relatively easy, the skills needed to signal and communicate with other cyclists were raised as potentially problematic for those unused to this. To what extent can we identify a skill gradient outside of the prioritisation of certain abilities over others?

So, for example, in the UK the tradition of vehicular cycling has prioritised the ability to cope with riding in motor traffic; not, for example, the ability to negotiate and coexist with pedestrians or with other cyclists, which may be seen as more important in cycling environments where cyclists are less often expected to act ‘as a vehicle’. Similarly with ‘confidence’, a popular term in UK cycling discourse: when cycling in The Netherlands, I’ve been impressed to see people cycling sociably and slowly two abreast on narrow streets, blithely blocking overtaking by a car behind. In a sense, this represents confidence by the cyclists that they have a right to occupy the street; and a lack of confidence by the car driver in asserting a ‘right’ to overtake. Confidence isn’t purely an individual attribute; it expresses the legitimacy of different modes which in turn is linked to policy and provision.

I’m getting slightly off topic now, so bringing it back, during this project we will continue working on how we think about and model skill/competence/ability. For creating our model, we will need to narrow down and focus on what we think is essential to the workings of the system, and to the potential for change. We will no doubt have to simplify many of the complexities around the social construction of skill, and the relationships between inclusive design and different types of skills and competences.

The next post in this series will discuss some ideas that came out of the discussion on meanings.

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