Driving digital inclusion

Dr Eric White and Professor Alex Goody

Creative digital projects for young people

A groundbreaking project is helping thousands of marginalised young people to find a sense of belonging by combining art with technology to express themselves.

The project - called AGAST (Avant-Gardes and Speculative Technology) - is the brainchild of Dr Eric White with Professor Alex Goody and John Twycross from University College, London.

Their aim is to harness young people’s creativity with technology, leading to a greater sense of inclusiveness by empowering them with new skills. To get them engaged, Eric worked with Oxfordshire County Libraries to develop a Virtual Storytelling app and toolkit, using workshops to shape the resources.

Since 2020, the app has been transforming outreach work in the UK and internationally, driving social, technological and cultural inclusion. 

Underpinning research

Reading machines 1930s and present

The project grew out of Eric and Alex’s research into the modernist movement of the late 19th/early 20th century, which followed the impact of industrial societies and the First World War. Their focus was on how modernist artists used technology to challenge the status quo on gender, sexuality, class or racial background.

Eric’s research highlights the ‘reading machines’ invented by poets Bob and Rose Brown in 1930 to make reading more accessible to working class people, while Alex explores how women poets adapted technology to challenge traditional, patriarchal ideas.

From past to present

Drawing on these themes, Eric and Alex developed their project for engaging with young people who were marginalised, for instance due to their sexuality, ethnicity or disability.

Updating the idea of the 1930s reading machine, Eric and Oxfordshire County Libraries were awarded ‘Building Bridges’ funding from CILIP and Arts Council England to build an app and toolkit to engage young people in virtual storytelling. Designed to be easy to use, it guides participants through the process of creating a VR experience in under two hours.

The app was shaped with input from young people aged 12-24 over 23 workshops, many of these taking place in partnership with Oxfordshire County Libraries, and also in workshops with their partners Bergen Public Library in Norway and Tesserae Urban Social Research in Germany.

AGAST workshop

Improving outreach through libraries and museums

As a result of the VSAT project, the libraries and networks saw a 25% increase in 12-24 year olds taking part in its outreach work. The project’s impact was considerable, says Mark Sutcliffe, Oxfordshire County Council’s Improvement Lead. ‘The project has provided our STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts and maths) and social inclusion policies with methods we didn’t have before.’

The multilingual App and toolkit have boosted provision of learning activities using new technology and helped them to learn how to work with inclusion, says Bergen Public LIbrary’s Head of Technology and Learning. In Berlin it's being used to engage young women from immigrant backgrounds in remote language e-learning. The centre’s director affirms its value in fostering social inclusion, since ‘the stories are a focal point for talking together.’

“Libraries and networks saw a 25% increase in 12-24 year olds taking part in outreach work.”

Oxfordshire County Council

‘I feel like I can build anything’

Young people at a workshop

Those young people taking part in the project’s workshops have been enthusiastic about the gains.

One series of workshops, supported by Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, encouraged students to create their own ‘reading machines’. Their models were featured in the Ashmolean Museum’s ‘Cool Modernism’ exhibition from March-July 2018, reaching over 2,000 people. One young person said: ‘I felt so proud that my machine is now an exhibit - I feel like I can build anything.’

Partnering with Oxford’s community arts Ark-T Centre, the project started with workshops for 12 young people. Now the centre is using the app to engage young people from one of the UK’s most deprived areas and is clearly making a difference, as one participant explained. ‘The project made me understand how digital storytelling could help me feel better about myself, and I think it is something I can do for a job’.

New art with award-winning writers

The creative results from the workshops emerged from three installations developed with international sound artist Mike Blow, digital artist John Twycross and award-winning writers Ian Sinclair and Jay Bernard.

The most recent, Unbody (2019-2020), with Jay Bernard, used interactive holographic texts and films to reflect gendered ‘haunting' and urban marginalisation from the perspectives of young people from LGBTQ+ and ethnic minority backgrounds. Named a finalist for the ‘Best Art Work’ Auggie Award at the world leading ‘Mixed Reality’ event (Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California), it was seen by tens of thousands of delegates.

A new version of Unbody with enhanced interactive texts and projections will be launched on Saturday 9 April 6.00pm at OVADA as part of Oxford Brookes’ Think Human Festival 2022.

An agent for social change

The pioneering AGAST project brings into focus the creative possibilities of technology, giving young people beyond the mainstream, new channels to express themselves. As well as helping them to gain confidence and build skills, it’s been instrumental in dismantling barriers to social exclusion, helping young people connect with each other and wider audiences.