06 March 2024

How can computing and interaction design better support rural communities?


Citizen-centred design and innovation is commonly used to tackle many of the grand societal challenges we face but it is often through an urban lens, writes Ian Johnson, Lecturer in Computing (Human-Computer Interaction & Community Technologies. In towns and cities, there are countless examples of technology being developed but what about the swathes of the population who live in our rural areas? Typically, such innovation and design is from the urban and for the urban, and there is a growing belief that rural life and cultures are incompatible with the logic and economics of technology design, where there is often an expectation of rapid economic growth and scaling up.

Newcastle University’s School of Computing and Open Lab have teamed up with the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE) to offer a PhD Studentship in Computer Science: Human-Computer Interaction – Rural Computing for Resilient Rural Communities. This will explore ways to extend and expand the scope of citizen-centred design and innovation from an urban-centric perspective toward rural and coastal communities.

Social cohesion and community resilience

The increased dependence on communications technologies (such as Zoom and Teams), and platforms (such as Facebook and WhatsApp) during the Covid-19 pandemic further emphasised that access to connected digital technologies are important to social cohesion and community resilience.

For example, during the pandemic, information and communications technologies (ICTs) became a primary way of supporting the exchange of information, engagement in community life, and participation in social activities, as well as involvement in collaboration, organisation, and buying and selling goods and services. However, despite rural communities facing ecological, social, and economic uncertainties, civic technology and ICTs are not designed with rural areas in mind.

Taking this into account, our studentship may address the following questions:

  • How do rural communities use sociodigital infrastructure to engage in civic life?
  • What is the potential for civic technology in rural communities to support social resilience?
  • How can we develop a sustainable place-based approach to research and innovation with rural communities?

The successful student will be based in Open Lab and work in collaboration with NICRE. The project involves substantial amounts of fieldwork in rural areas and/or design ethnography working in partnership with community organisations, civic institutions, and sometimes in collaboration with industry partners.

Candidate information

To be eligible for this opportunity, candidates must have, or expect to gain, a minimum 2:1 Honours degree or international equivalent in a relevant subject (Computing, HCI, Design). A Masters qualification in a relevant subject area will be highly advantageous.

Enthusiasm for community research, ability to think and work independently, excellent analytical skills and strong verbal and written communication skills are also essential requirements.

Software development experience and/or physical fabrication skills are desirable as the project may involve prototyping and communicating design ideas with partners and collaborators.

The successful candidate will receive training and gain skills in prototyping, design-led approaches, social research methods, and analytical techniques.

The deadline for applications is 28 March. For queries, contact Ian Johnson at ian.johnson2@ncl.ac.uk