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Studies in Co-Creating Assisted Living Solutions (SCALS) is a five-year research programme funded by Wellcome and led by Professor Trisha Greenhalgh of the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at Oxford University. Whilst hopes are high that technology can improve health, the reality of technology-in-use is often messy, with unintended consequences. Research has already demonstrated that the lives of older people with several medical conditions and social needs are often complex and evolve over time. Technologies designed to help these people often fit awkwardly into their lives. We found there was often a mismatch between the way people actually use assisted living technologies to help them live at home and their intended use


Having previously engaged extensively in healthcare settings with patients and clinicians to understand their views on assistive living technology, we wanted to develop new ways to engage with the public as citizens.  In 2018/19 the Messy Realities project brought health services researchers, museum facilitators and community partners together at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Together, we considered the emerging findings from SCALS research alongside the Museum collections, and co-produced a temporary exhibition which provoked debate about the meaning of technology.


Our project included the following: 

  • Synthesis of research data into narratives and storyboards.  GemmaHughesfig.1.JPG
  • Comparison of research and Museum technologies.
  • Grouping objects and images to stimulate discussion (see Fig 1)
  • Interactive workshops for a core group of 20 people all with different perspectives on the use, meaning and design of assistive living technologies: nine community members experiencing chronic conditions, design students from a local college and researchers. 
  • Family activities at the Museum open day.
  • Co-production of a display in the Museum July-September 2018.


We assessed the benefits and impact on: the research team; public audiences and participants and; other stakeholders.

Benefits to research team:

  • GemmaHughesfig.2.JPGPrompted new insights and interpretations of research data
  • Contextualised research in new ways: as part of wider human endeavours involving technology
  • Developed new skills in explaining research through stories and illustrations and engaging the public through handling and grouping of objects (see Fig 2).

Benefits to public audiences/participants: 

  • Participation in enjoyable, thought-provoking and stimulating activities (see Fig.3).
  • Experienced a sense of shared community GemmaHughesfig.3.JPG
  • More thoughtful engagement with assistive living technologies

Other benefits

  • Raised awareness within the team and wider Department of the possibilities of engaging  with new audiences on new terms 
  • Inspired further collaborations including a  project between the Museum and the  University of Oxford’s Brain Networks Dynamics Unit, people living with Parkinson’s, engineers  and clinical neuroscience researchers.


We evaluated the experiences of people participating in the activities, and the effect of the programme on our research.  We sought feedback from participants at each workshop to inform subsequent sessions and conducted ‘before and after’ discussions with the research team to assess changes in their perceptions of their research. 


The Museum team have considerable expertise in engagement, and helped us to target and involve people who had experience of using assistive living technology. We created an environment of learning together, and used a range of story-telling and visual images to support participation in inclusive and accessible ways.


Gemma Hughes won the SPCR Impactful Contribution in Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement award for this work.