EPIC2023 Theme

FRICTION
A Force of Resistance, Creativity and Change

Friction is a function of the everyday. The experience of friction can feel uncomfortable or constraining: impeding our personal and professional goals, disrupting flows of data, erecting barriers to participation and inclusion, disrupting innovation. As ethnographers, however, we also understand friction as a generative force. The diverse perspectives, unexpected partnerships, and conflicting goals that friction yields can open time and space to plot creative paths forward.

Our work in service of people and organizations will benefit from engaging with friction as a quality of social life that we grapple and design with, not only as a frustration or discomfort to avoid. We invite you to consider Friction at multiple sites and scales:

As practitioners, researchers, designers, innovators, and creators, our work is fed by friction. Ethnography inevitably surfaces differing interpretations, values, and viewpoints, and issues of positionality, bias, and reflexivity. From these we create the frameworks, design principles and strategies that enable our organizations to take action amid the complexity of life. Our insights and impacts are forged through friction—the partnerships, alignments, and dissonance among our teams, collaborators, stakeholders, organizations, communities and critics.

Friction is part of people’s engagements with products, services and processes. The focus on reducing friction has created key efficiencies and helped address struggles, priorities, and inequities from users’ points of view, including people excluded from the definition of ‘user’. But with our compulsion toward ‘seamless’ experiences, we also reduce social interactions to technical transactions, constrain human agency, perpetuate inequities, and privilege idealized happy paths at the expense of our diverse realities.

Innovation happens in the friction of global connection. As businesses and organizations alternately and unevenly pursue profit, disruption, connectedness, inclusion, or climate-readiness, ethnography is crucial in navigating complex social realities that populate our horizons and so-called white spaces. Too many products and policies land, and fail, on poorly understood ground. Understanding the friction of the diverse interactions that make up our contemporary world is essential to organizational learning, decision making, strategy, and foresight.

Our keenest insight and most powerful impact come when we challenge entrenched practices and prevailing wisdom. Those moments both embrace friction and are friction. Join us in Chicago in 2023 to grapple with and harness friction for all its complex and productive powers.

A wheel turns because of its encounter with the surface of the road; spinning in the air it goes nowhere.

Rubbing two sticks together produces heat and light; one stick alone is just a stick…

Friction reminds us that heterogeneous and unequal encounters can lead to new arrangements of culture and power.

—Anna Tsing, Friction (2011:5)