Promoting Empathy between Physically Seperated Communities through the Sharing of Prayers

In our previous work, we have highlighted that empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; is an emotional capacity that has often been overlooked as a design goal in the creation of digital systems (Coulton et al. 2014). Empathy may be viewed as one of the essential components of the ‘human condition’, with observation of atypical empathetic responses suggested as indicators of a number of autism spectrum and personality disorders. In order to investigate the potential for empathy in digital communications, we introduced the concept of designing for empathy and created of design interventions intended for the promotion of empathy within an existing church community (Coulton et al. 2014; Huck et al., 2014; Huck et al., 2015). These interventions allow parishioners to share their otherwise private prayers and concerns within their community, in the hope of facilitating conversation through which empathy can emerge and promote pro-social behaviour (Huck et. al. 2015).

This research is taking place in collaboration with the congregation of The Church of St Peter De Beauvoir Town in Hackney, London. This church community was chosen as they already have a number of rituals in place for members to share their prayers and thus, these design interventions would compliment and extend existing practices, thus promoting ease of uptake. One intervention relates to the ‘4Candles’ system (Figure 1; Huck et al., 2015), which replaces the traditional votive candles in a church and allows individual prayers (which are input into a touch-screen interface) to be captured digitally. These prayers are then visualised around the church, sharing the anonymous messages with the rest of the community, and thus allowing the whole community to view their collective prayers. Following a successful and well-received installation, we are now turning our attention to the promotion of empathy beyond a single ‘local’ community by allowing prayers to be shared between multiple communities that are distant from each other.


Figure 1: The ‘4Candles’ system installed at the Church of St Peter De Beauvoir Town, London.

This next stage of our investigation into designing for empathy will therefore include a second church: The Church of St Michael and All Angels, Hawkshead, Cumbria. This second church was selected for this work as, aside from the significant distance between the two locations (approx. 370km), there is a significant contrast between the typically younger and relatively static community at St Peter’s, and the typically older community of St Michael’s which is extended in the summer months by many tourists to the Lake District who visit the church.

A ‘4Candles’ system (Figure 1) will be installed in each of the churches, and the prayers will be transmitted via the network to the counterpart church, where they will be displayed in animated projections that are designed to reflect the aesthetic of each of the churches (Figure 2; Figure 3). In this way, the prayers may be shared between the two communities, and investigation may take place into whether or not design for empathy can be effective across two different and disconnected communities, as part of the continuing exploration into this concept. Of particular interest will be the extent to which it is possible to develop a ‘community spirit’ between the two churches, the extent to which the two communities are able to feel empathetic towards the other, and the potential for the development of pro-social and pro-community behaviours between the two communities.


Figure 2: The interior of the Church of St Peter De Beauvoir Town.


Figure 3: The interior of the Church of St Michael and All Saints.


The authors would like to thank the Reverend Julia Porter-Pryce, Vicar of the Church of St Peter De Beauvoir Town; and the Reverend John Dixon, Vicar of the Church of St Michael and All Saints, for their support and enthusiasm for this project. This work has been funded by the EPSRC through grant EP/L003635/1.


Coulton, P, Huck, J, Hudson-Smith, A, Ralph, B, Mavros, P, Roberts, J & Powell, P (2014). Designing interactive systems to encourage empathy between users. In DIS Companion ’14 Proceedings of the 2014 companion publication on Designing interactive systems. ACM, New York, pp. 13-16, ACM conference on Designing Interactive Systems in 2014, Vancouver, Canada, 21-25 June.

Huck, J, Powell, P, Coulton, P, Roberts, J, Hudson-Smith, A, De-Jode, M, Mavros, P & Gradinar, A (2014). Designing for empathy in a church community. In Proceedings of the 18th International Academic MindTrek Conference 2014. Academic MindTrek Conference 2014, Tampere, Finland, 4-6 November.

Huck, J, Coulton, P, Gullick, D, Powell, P, Roberts, J, Hudson-Smith, A, De-Jode, M & Mavros, P (2015). Supporting empathy through embodiment in the design of interactive systems. In TEI ’15 Proceedings of the International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. ACM, New York, pp. 523-528.


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