“The higher question was, can you design empathy?”

Based on the idea that the creative industry could make useful contributions to solving social problems, such as reducing dormant conflicts and polarization at all levels (think corona, nitrogen, Ter Apel, the culture of cancellation, etc.), Fabrique co-founder and concept design professor Jeroen van Erp The VR film ‘As if I already know you…’.

The film zooms in about tensions between residents on the one hand and young people on the other in the Meerveld shopping center in the Meerhoven district of Eindhoven, and was made by the so-called Bubble Games consortium, consisting of Fabrique, TU Delft, the municipality of Eindhoven, Fontys Hogescholen, VR Gorilla , LB MGMT and Fonkeling. The aim is to understand each other better, to reduce tensions and to make new agreements that both young people and residents can agree on.

Simply put, the groups in the project ‘literally’ enter each other’s living environment. And it works. On the one hand, there is distance due to technology – everyone can calmly tell their story. In return, they get an insight into each other’s ‘normal’ lives, which results in empathy and shared suffering.

Van Erp: ‘To be completely honest, there is a lot of knowledge about polarization and social cohesion, but we as designers have done very little with it.’

Can you explain in a few sentences what you did?

‘The highest goal was to find an answer to the question of whether empathy can be designed. We have developed a hypothetical journey based on theory and models of how to bring opposing groups closer together. After this, we carried out a social design and research project hand in hand, with the ultimate goal of developing knowledge in the field of polarization. We did this using VR in a real situation. That we seem to have solved the problem in the neighborhood en passant is a bonus.’

What was the reason, where did the idea come from?

‘I am also on the advisory board for Effenaar in Eindhoven. The question was asked where Effenaar would be in 10 years, because the world of bands and artists is changing rapidly, partly due to big data. At the moment Effenaar chooses what goes on stage, in 10 years it will be the artists who choose Effenaar because they know exactly how many people are coming and just rent the hall.

The image of a ‘rental shed’, as director Jos Feyen framed it, is obviously not desirable. We started thinking about both the future and where Effenaar comes from. About the latter: it was once set up by students from the social academy to bring people from the city together, to facilitate meetings. Oh yeah, they had a scene too. That phase was part of the goal, but later it took over, losing sight of the original intentions.

In recent years, De Effenaar has invested heavily in VR and AR equipment to enrich the concert experience. The idea then arose to use this equipment to develop social cohesion, bringing together Effenaar’s original DNA and technology. De Effenaar then became a formal field laboratory in social cohesion. 10 projects were funded with money from ClickNL. The Bubble Games consortium brought the polarizing idea, which was positively received and honored.’

How do you design such a process? What can you tell about creating, what obstacles did you encounter?

‘Good question, isn’t that something that builds up in your head over the years where at some point you think, ‘Would it be possible to…?’ When we got the partners around, the biggest obstacle was recruiting participants, which we underestimated. Because the municipality was a partner in the project, it was distrusted by the neighborhood.

We have had participants withdraw because they had been talked down by more radicalized neighbors in the conflict. Could you start again? We had conversations with young people, where at a certain point we mentioned the mayor of Eindhoven – to whom we would possibly present the project. We couldn’t have done better, they went through the roof, they thought the ‘guy’ was as wrong as could be. It succeeded, the participants in the project are now ambassadors for ‘peace’ in the neighborhood and links between the neighborhood and the municipality. And there is also a new mayor in the meantime.’

As an experienced designer/communicator, for example, what did you know about: if we organize or design in one way or another, it works?

‘Also a good question. I think because of the underlying knowledge and theories. I strongly believe in knowledge-driven design. There are a number of examples of how VR has created more understanding for others. Hack the Planet once did a great project to bring rival tribes in Uganda together. These examples were not flown in from a theory and an intended journey or from ‘a grander plan’. We did. My relationship with TU Delft and the fact that I know the knowledge base in the design world helps of course. But heythe project is far from finished, there is still much to learn.’

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