The Embodied Hybrid Space – Designing Social and Digital Interventions to Facilitate Connected Learning in Coworking Spaces

In my PhD thesis I developed and evaluated strategies for social and ubiquitous computing designs that can enhance connected learning and networking opportunities for users in coworking spaces. Based on a social and a technical design intervention deployed at the State Library of Queensland, the research findings illustrate the potential of combining social, spatial and digital affordances in order to nourish peer-to-peer learning, creativity, inspiration, and innovation. The study proposes a hybrid notion of placemaking as a new way of thinking about the design of coworking and interactive learning spaces.

Further below is the abstract, research questions and aims, structure, key publications and contributions to knowledge of this work. The full PhD thesis can be downloaded here.


Coworking spaces are shared spaces for people to pursue work and other interest-driven activities. The core challenge of coworking spaces is to facilitate their users’ need for connected learning and networking opportunities to nourish creativity, inspiration and innovation. The objective of this thesis is to deliver design solutions for social and ubiquitous computing technology that achieve this.

The thesis reports research findings from a case study at The Edge – a bookless library space at the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia that is explicitly dedicated to connected learning, coworking, peer collaboration, and creativity around digital culture and technology. Based on a participatory action design research (PADR) approach, it delivers a greater understanding of the challenges and barriers for connected learning as perceived and experienced by everyday users at The Edge; it also informed the development of two design interventions that were deployed and evaluated at The Edge:

Hack The Evening (HTE) – a social intervention – was initiated as a weekly meetup group around hacking, making and Do-It-Yourself technology. Insights from 18 months of participation, ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews with HTE group members revealed hidden factors that are crucial for the organic growth of a community-driven, self-maintained and sustainable locale for self-directed, connected learning.

Gelatine – a custom-developed ambient media system – was aimed at supporting shared encounters between coworkers by allowing them to digitally ‘check-in’ at a workspace; the system displays skills, areas of interest, and needs of currently checked-in users on a set of public screens. Gelatine combines the affordances of the physical and the digital towards an embodied hybrid space – a space that is manifested in the physical world, but embodies digital information to make invisible social aspects of a coworking space visible. The outcomes of the evaluation show how Gelatine supports connected learning through amplifying users’ awareness of fellow coworkers in ways that would not be possible in unmediated physical environments.

The research outcomes of this thesis illustrate the potential of combining affordances of social, spatial and digital space for connected learning. They propose a future research agenda on hybrid placemaking as a new way of thinking about the design of coworking and interactive learning spaces.

Research Questions and Aims

The aim of this PhD study is summarised in the following overarching research question:

How can ubiquitous computing technology be designed to facilitate connected learning among users in coworking environments?

My approach to provide answers to this research question was to explore and evaluate opportunities through user-centred design, development and evaluation of both technological and social interventions at The Edge. The Edge served as a case study and ‘living lab’ environment throughout all stages of the research. The study followed a Participatory Action Design Research process (Chapter 5) and aimed at the following four research aims towards understanding relevant aspects and finding answers to the RQ stated above:

1) Understand user attitudes and challenges of connected learning in coworking environments;

2) Inform design strategies for social and ubiquitous computing interventions that enhance connected learning among users;

3) Design, develop and deploy a relevant ubiquitous computing artefact;

4) Evaluate the target artefact and its implications in ‘the wild,’ real-world context as encountered by people during their everyday visits.


The core of the thesis consists of eight papers that have been published or submitted for publication during the period of my PhD candidature. Each of these papers is presented as one chapter of this thesis. The chapters stand as individual writings on their own, but also form a cohesive narrative iteratively targeting the four research aims and research question described further above.

The studies presented in the individual publications cohesively follow a Participatory Action Design Research (PADR) process (Chapter 5). They iteratively contribute towards understanding user attitudes and challenges (Aim 1) and informing relevant design strategies (Aim 2) from different angles at the intersection of people, place and technology. These iterative cycles of understanding and informing were fed into the design, development and deployment (Aim 3) as well as evaluation (Aim 4) of two target design interventions – a social intervention (“Hack The Evening,” Chapter 7), and a technology intervention (“Gelatine,” Chapter 11).

The way the individual chapters are related to the research process and aims is depicted in Figure 1. The order of the chapters was set to construct a coherent research narrative from understanding and informing towards designing, developing and evaluating the subject matter in relation to people, place and technology related aspects.

Figure 1: Thesis structure

Figure 1: Thesis structure

The following eight chapters were published in below listed publication outlets, targeting specific audiences across the domains of people, place and technology.

Chapter 2:
Bilandzic, M., & Foth, M. (2012). A Review of Locative Media, Mobile and Embodied Spatial Interaction. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (IJHCS), 70(1), 66-71. (download from eprints)

Chapter 5:
Bilandzic, M., & Venable, J. (2011). Towards Participatory Action Design Research: Adapting Action Research and Design Science Research Methods for Urban Informatics. Journal of Community Informatics (JoCI). Special Issue: Research in Action: Linking Communities and Universities, 7(3). (download from eprints)

Chapter 6:
Bilandzic, M., & Foth, M. (2013). Libraries as Coworking Spaces: Understanding User Motivations and Perceived Barriers to Social Learning. Library Hi Tech, 31(2). (download from eprints)

Chapter 7:
Bilandzic, M. (2013). Connected Learning in the Library as a Product of Hacking, Making, Social Diversity and Messiness. Interactive Learning Environments. (download from eprints)

Chapter 8:
Caldwell, G., Bilandzic, M., & Foth, M. (2012). Towards Visualising People’s Ecology of Hybrid Personal Learning Environments. Paper presented at the 4th Media Architecture Biennale Conference: Participation. (download from eprints)

Chapter 9:
Bilandzic, M., & Foth, M. (2013, under review). Social, Spatial and Technological Aspects for Designing Effective Coworking Spaces.

Chapter 10:
Bilandzic, M., & Foth, M. (2013). Learning Beyond Books – Strategies for Ambient Media to Improve Libraries and Collaboration Spaces as Interfaces for Social Learning. Multimedia Tools and Applications. Special Issue on Ambient Media Applications Linking the Digital Overlay with the Real Physical World, 65(1). (download from eprints)

Chapter 11:
Bilandzic, M., Schroeter, R., & Foth, M. (2013). Gelatine: Making Coworking Spaces Gel for Better Collaboration and Social Learning. Paper accepted for publication at OzCHI 2013 – Australian Conference on Computer-Human Interaction. (download from eprints)

Significance and Contributions

The significance and contributions of this study are situated at the intersection of people, place and technology (see Literature Review – Figure 2). With the rise of the Internet over the past two decades, there have been major reconfigurations in terms of work and learning spaces. However, despite our increasingly networked society, opportunities for people to mingle, connect, collaborate, socialise and learn from each other, still matter. In fact, spaces that provide such opportunities might be more important than ever before. This is illustrated by the exponential rise of the number of coworking spaces across the globe over the past seven years (Deskmag, 2011a), as well as global grassroots community initiatives such as Jelly coworking groups (workatjelly.com, 2012), hackerspaces (Altman, 2012; Borland, 2007; Tweney, 2009) or local meetup groups (Edgerly, 2010; Sander, 2005). Innovative corporations, office building proprietors, libraries and coworking spaces have recognised the significance of providing spaces that encourage such interactions. From a design perspective, the focus is mostly on physical arrangements of such space (e.g., Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), 2006; Oblinger, 2006; B. Sinclair, 2007). However, little is known about design approaches that combine physical and digital affordances to facilitate connected learning in such spaces. This thesis fills that gap by exploring design factors for digitally augmented physical spaces that facilitate connected learning.

Ubiquitous computing – a research area that explicitly studies the embodiment (Dourish, 2001) of computing into physical space and facets of everyday life – was only born just over two decades ago (Weiser, 1991). As Humphreys notes, “despite a 25-year history of computer-mediated communication research, the role of physical and social spatial practice has been relatively neglected in the field” (Humphreys, 2010, p. 775). This work contributes to the efforts of an emerging body of research into urban informatics that recognises the significance of studying the interplay between people’s spatial practices and the embodiment and ubiquitous integration of computing devices in everyday environments (Dourish, 2006b; Dourish & Bell, 2007, 2011; Foth, 2009b; Foth, Choi, & Satchell, 2011; Galloway & Matthew, 2006; Gordon & de Souza e Silva, 2011; Willis, 2010).

The outcomes of this thesis contribute to the existing body of knowledge with innovations on three levels:

Methodological Innovation

Participatory Action Design Research (PADR) is presented as an innovative methodological approach to tackle the cross-disciplinary requirements of the individual disciplines (see Literature Review) through which the subject matter of this study is investigated, as well as to feed back the findings towards disciplinary as well as trans-disciplinary impacts. PADR is designed with an aim to combine the strengths of Design Research (Hevner, 2007; Hevner, March, Park, & Ram, 2004; March & Smith, 1995) and Action Research (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996; Davison, Martinsons, & Kock, 2004; Tacchi, Foth, & Hearn, 2009) in order to inform and guide the designdevelopment and impact evaluation of innovative technology. It builds on previous discussions in the field about the challenges of combining ethnographic approaches to understand socio-cultural settings with design and development oriented methods in the field of ubiquitous computing (Dourish, 2006a, 2007; Hughes, King, Rodden, & Andersen, 1995).

Theoretical Innovation

This thesis presents an innovative approach towards combining the affordances of digital as well as physical space to enhance opportunities for connected learning. It introduces the concept of an ambient media architecture (Chapter 8), i.e. digitally augmented physical spaces that are designed to increase awareness of and connections between likeminded other people in the same space. It provides a set of design strategies for such ambient media architecture (Chapter 10) towards visualising the current in-situ collective intelligence and available social capital of a place-based community. These strategies not only recognise learning as a phenomenon that is fertilised through both physical face-to-face interactions, as well as social interactions in digital spaces, but actually suggest a design approach for hybrid learning environments that provide opportunities for both. This is relevant for a growing audience of researchers and practitioners of spaces that strive to nourish connected learning and collaboration among their user community.

Empirical Innovation

The analysis of empirical data in this thesis provides insights into socio-spatial barriers (Chapter 6) as well as opportunities (Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10) in relation to connected learning. I used these insights to design and develop a social (Chapter 7) as well as a technological (Chapter 11) intervention at my case study at The Edge. The evaluation provides empirical evidence for the potential of the mechanisms that I used in these interventions. In particular, Chapter 7 provides insights how the socio-cultural context of an interest-driven meetup group enriched The Edge as a physical destination for connected learning, incidental learning, and learning through socialisation. Chapter 11 provides empirical evidence for how a custom-designed ambient media artefact amplified users’ awareness of connected learning opportunities, as well as brokered serendipitous conversations and collaborations among coworkers that were unlikely to happen otherwise.

Literature Review

The following chapters provide an overview of relevant literature at the intersection of people, place and technology. The scope of the literature review is depicted in Figure 2.

Chapter 2 is situated at the intersection of people and technology. It discusses previous work on locative, mobile and embodied media, in particular in relation to how such media affect people’s socio-spatial interactions and their transitioning between being physically present at a particular place and being digitally connected beyond the physical barriers of that place.

Chapter 3 is situated at the intersection of place and technology. According to the nature of the selected case study environment at The Edge – a space motivated and initiated in the context of a public library, it discusses the library as a place and how it has been affected and challenged by the emergence of ICT over the past couple of decades. I discuss literature on contemporary strategies for libraries to respond to such challenges, and relate the research questions of this thesis (as outlined in the Introduction) to a research gap that has been mostly neglected so far in the current literature.

Chapter 4 is situated at the intersection of people and place. I discuss concepts of space, place and placemaking from literature in the urban context, and provide examples of how digital amplification of urban architecture (e.g., through LED signs, animated building lightning, public displays) has had positive and negative effects on people’s sense of place. I discuss the insights from these studies in relation to the challenges, issues and goals of this thesis, and outline relevant research areas from the ubiquitous computing domain as a design space that informed and inspired the concept and development of the technology intervention presented later, in Chapters 9 and 10.

Figure 2: The research focus of this thesis is situated at the intersection of a number of research areas across people, place and technology.

Figure 2: The research focus of this thesis is situated at the intersection of a number of research areas across people, place and technology.

PhD Final Seminar Presentation

Reviews / Assessments

Assoc Prof Martin BrynskovAarhus University, Denmark

– Editor of Byens Digitale Liv. Digital Urban Living (2012)

Martin Brynskov_rev

Assoc Prof Malcolm McCullough, University of Michigan

– Author of Digital Ground (2004) and Ambient Commons (2013)

“… At risk of oversimplification, I take this as research in the role of ambient media, in making places in libraries, to recognize how increasingly the users of major digital resources can (indeed expect to) become resources to one another. Again and again, for the perspective of these different papers/dissertation chapters, this work sheds new light on that…”


  1. Altman, M. (2012). The Hackerspace Movement. from http://www.tedxbrussels.eu/2012/speakers/mitch_altman.php
  2. Baskerville, R., & Wood-Harper, A. (1996). A critical perspective on action research as a method for information systems research. Journal of Information Technology, 11, 235–246.
  3. Borland, J. (2007). “Hacker space” movement sought for U.S.   Retrieved 21 May, 2012, from http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2007/08/us-hackers-moun/
  4. Davison, R, Martinsons, MG, & Kock, N. (2004). Principles of canonical action research. Information Systems Journal, 14(1), 65-86.
  5. Deskmag. (2011). The birth of coworking spaces. from http://www.deskmag.com/en/the-birth-of-coworking-spaces-global-survey-176
  6. Dourish, P. (2001). Where the action is : the foundations of embodied interaction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  7. Dourish, P. (2006a). Implications for design. Paper presented at the CHI 2006, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
  8. Dourish, P. (2006b). Re-space-ing place: “place” and “space” ten years on. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer supported cooperative work, Banff, Alberta, Canada.
  9. Dourish, P. (2007). Responsibilities and implications: further thoughts on ethnography and design. Paper presented at the Conference on Designing for User eXperiences 2007, Chicago, Illinois
  10. Dourish, P., & Bell, G. (2007). The infrastructure of experience and the experience of infrastructure: meaning and structure in everyday encounters with space. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 34(3), 414 – 430.
  11. Dourish, P., & Bell, G. (2011). Divining a digital future: mess and mythology in ubiquitous computing: The MIT Press.
  12. Edgerly, P.M. (2010). Using the internet as an access to leisure: a study of Meetup. California State University, Sacramento.
  13. Foth, M. (Ed.). (2009). Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
  14. Foth, M., Choi, J., & Satchell, C. (2011). Urban informatics. Paper presented at the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2011), Hangzhou, China.
  15. Galloway, A., & Matthew, W. (2006). Locative Media as Socialising and Spatialising Practices: Learning from Archaeology. Leonardo Electronic Almanac, 14(3).
  16. Gordon, E., & de Souza e Silva, A. . (2011). Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. Boston: Blackwell-Wiley.
  17. Hevner, A. (2007). The Three Cycle View of Design Science Research. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 19(2), 87.
  18. Hevner, A., March, S. T., Park, J., & Ram, S. (2004). Design Science in Information Systems Research. MIS Quarterly, 28(1), 75-105.
  19. Hughes, J, King, V, Rodden, T, & Andersen, H. (1995). The role of ethnography in interactive systems design. Interactions, 2(2), 65.
  20. Humphreys, L. (2010). Mobile social networks and urban public space. New Media & Society, 12(5), 763-778. doi: 10.1177/1461444809349578
  21. Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). (2006). Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A guide to 21st century learning space design   Retrieved from http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/JISClearningspaces.pdf
  22. March, ST, & Smith, GF. (1995). Design and natural science research on information technology. Decision Support Systems, 15(4), 251-266.
  23. Oblinger, D. (2006). Learning spaces (Vol. 2): Educause Washington, DC.
  24. Sander, T.H. (2005). E-associations? Using technology to connect citizens: The case of meetup. com. Harvard University, Cambridge.
  25. Sinclair, B. (2007). Commons 2.0: Library Spaces Designed for Collaborative Learning. EDUCAUSE Quarterly Magazine, 30(4).
  26. Tacchi, J., Foth, M., & Hearn, G. (2009). Action research practices and media for development. Journal of Education and Development Using Information and Communication Technology, 5(2).
  27. Tweney, D. (2009). DIY Freaks Flock to ‘Hacker Spaces’ Worldwide.   Retrieved 21 May, 2012, from http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/03/hackerspaces
  28. Weiser, Mark. (1991). The computer of the 21st century. Scientific American, 265(3), 94-104. doi: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/329124.329126
  29. Willis, K. (2010). Shared encounters. London: Springer-Verlag New York Inc. c.
  30. workatjelly.com. (2012). What is Jelly?   Retrieved 27 January, 2013, from http://wiki.workatjelly.com/

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