COLAB (Collaboration Laboratory) is a groundbreaking Syracuse University (SU) initiative that connects students, communities and corporations, to bridge gaps, create opportunities and solve some of today's top social, economical and environmental crises. We facilitate visual thinking and collaborative practices through what we've termed serious play.
We believe this is an effective, relevant and critical model for education, with the potential to be utilized and nurtured on a broader academic level to encourage effective collaboration. While there are many initiatives that address similar themes (the d.school at Stanford, Hellen Hamlyn Centre at The Royal College of Art), COLAB is the first program of this kind that we know of. This means we don't have a lot of precedent and have started from scratch on many platforms. We want to share our story, the things we've learned and the way we work, with you, in the hopes of seeing more programs like this in the future, and more opportunities to work with like-minded organizations or corporations.
Garth Robert's AdHoc workspace at COLAB. Bottom: Students at COLAB's Social Media Charrette.
While COLAB is new, the idea of COLAB is not new, it has been a conversation since the 1960s. Arthur Pulos, former IDSA president and then chair of SU's department of design, pushed the idea that design should act as a bridge across disciplines and across colleges within the academy. He believed that design needs other disciplines in order to be most successful. "The student learns under the stimulus of the interplay of all of the disciplines, that education is more than the mere acquisition of knowledge and skills, that it is rather concerned with developing that intuitive sense of structure of the various disciplines which will help them become self-propelled during a lifetime of exposure to new learning experiences."
Syracuse University has finally realized Pulos' vision.
I arrived at COLAB last August, after months of conversation with Chris McCray, COLAB's executive director, who, to put things in context, has a foot-long ZZ Top beard; self-designed, handmade aluminum glasses; and can sell ice to a penguin. The space was not finished. There was a list of projects a mile long and a lot of hard work to do. But, there was also a clear vision and a lot of heart.
Our mission statement reads: COLAB is a creative space for the exploration of complex issues in a multidisciplinary environment. At COLAB diverse talents and visions intersect to engage wicked problems and implement responsible solutions, while fostering future leaders in innovation.
A shift to collaborative practices has been apparent in creative fields for some time, especially in big consultancy firms like IDEO and Continuum, where teams of anthropologists, designers and engineers work together on everything from product and systems design to rebranding and strategy. Specialties are also shifting--borders between graphic, product, system and interaction designers are blurring. In the best case, this results in original, dynamic, innovative work. In the worst, muddy work that's imprecise and difficult to evaluate.
Students working together at COLAB.
COLAB believes that examining this paradigm shift at an educational level is key to saving it from dying in buzzword hell, next to its friend "green." Expertise must be maintained, evaluation must be rigorous, and the ways that collaborations have been effective and ineffective must be examined. COLAB brings these concerns to students now, preparing them for the complex problems they will tackle as practitioners.
We have been careful to create a multi-layered structure, enabling us to better foster all of our partnerships. We act as a broker for community- and corporate-based projects, forging collaborative relationships between students, faculty and industry. Using design methodologies as the pivot point, people from various university departments and disciplines come together to work on diverse problems through curriculum, charrettes and programming.
For instance, this Spring, COLAB connected industrial and interaction design students with Syracuse Opera, a local non-profit cultural institution. A group of 12 industrial and interaction students created 12 short videos which were projected on the sail of a ship, on stage, for the Opera. In an economic environment where the arts budgets are the first to be cut, the Opera was looking for innovative ways to mount their version of The Flying Dutchman. Instead of a traditional set, students, along with faculty Adam Brown and SU's Urban Video Project, produced a multimedia event with projected images, innovative lighting, and dramatic interactions, to the music performed by Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.
Ventures come to COLAB from all directions, and we facilitate appropriate collaborative pairings with classes and faculty. One of our current favorite projects is running through a class taught by Professor Cas Holman in partnership with the Central New York Pride Parade. CNY Pride is a local non-profit that produces the annual gay pride festival and parade in Syracuse each June. While some aspects of the event are a big hit, the CNY Pride community felt that the parade itself was well organized, but artistically bereft. CNY Pride formed a parade committee and contacted COLAB to change the old march into a new public performance that can draw upon students' and locals' creative impulses to utilize the spectacle for maximum leverage in the community . The project asks, how can design affect a politically charged space? How do you create a positive spectacle? The students are using the design process to transform the old idea of a parade into a space for relevant dialogue.
Working things out on the vertical surfaces at COLAB.
If leading educators have been encouraging an initiative like this since the 1960s and continue to support it now, why haven't we implemented structures for educational collaboration on a larger scale? Why isn't this kind of thinking and learning widespread in universities? Maybe our problems have grown so much beyond the scope of individual disciplines and institutional silos that we are finally forced to reconfigure the educational structures we take for granted.
Really, it's a combination of things: economic catastrophe meets new leadership meets a growing creative culture.
In Syracuse, a shifting economy is merging with a new creative class. It is the tale of many post-industrial American cities: a city, once thriving, teeming with industry and life, loses its economic base and steadily declines. Today, like many cities, Syracuse is working to reinvent itself through creative leadership and collaboration. I had a professor in undergrad who used to say, "there are a lot of smart people in these woods," meaning Upstate New York. There are many organizations set up within the university and in the city of Syracuse working passionately on creative approaches to revitalization, from funded public art projects, to workforce redevelopment plans, all very much in partnership with the community members themselves.
Views of Syracuse.
In many ways, COLAB is as much a product of a 1960's utopian vision of teamwork as it is a result of an economy and an environment in dire need of re-imagining and reworking. And, maybe COLAB is also a vision born of a true need for educational change. As I am writing this article, I am under a thatched roof in Costa Rica, on vacation after an 80 hour work week. The woman at the bar next to me last night as i was drinking my boozey papaya drink with requisite umbrella, was a professor at another, comparable, American university. As we started talking about academia and I told her about what i do for a living, her immediate reaction was, "Can you please come to my school and do the same thing? Please?" I hear this all the time.
COLAB Costa Rica.
Fortunately, in recent years Syracuse University has fallen under new, forward-thinking leadership, who understand the importance of cultivating a creative, collaborative educational model. Nancy Cantor Syracuse University's Chancellor, arrived six years ago alongside Provost Eric Spina, with the mission of Scholarship in Action. Theirs is a vision of a university working across disciplines, colleges, industries and communities. COLAB was created as the landing place for this to happen. A conductor of projects and ideas, problems and solutions. A deceptively simple task with great implications.
Chris McCray, executive director of COLAB.
Implementation: Successes and Difficulties
"Collaboration isn't always easy, but it's important," McCray said. "Trying to create a cross-disciplinary space where students, faculty, staff, business and community can come together and solve problems is complex. Having the resources of a larger university where collaboration is central is a rarity and visionary."
The COLAB space.
COLAB is dynamic. It is housed in a newly renovated warehouse in downtown Syracuse, which is the new home to all of Syracuse University's design programs--some 400 students who are now officially off "the hill," and, at least physically, in the community. Located on the fourth floor, COLAB has an open floor plan filled with neon beanbag chairs, graffiti, original objects and games of every kind. The space fuels endless creativity. Last week, on a Wednesday around noon, there were fifteen non-painting majors painting murals on the walls; a group of student entrepreneurs meeting with a mentor from the Sandbox, a local student business incubator, and their attorney to discuss intellectual property concerns for their start-up; a group of industrial and interaction design, interior design, and engineering students working in collaboration on "The Future of the Service Station," a course in partnership with Corporate Design Foundation (CDF); a class working on branding COMTEK, a test kitchen that works to turn local cooks into commercially viable food entrepreneurs; a visiting designer being interviewed for our ongoing video series; and, as everyday, AdhocSU, a design firm housed in COLAB and run by visiting designer Garth Roberts to bring international design to students at SU.
An interview with designers Sarah Sandman and Melissa Small, produced by Sarah Zimmerman for COLAB's Visiting Designer Series.
COLAB is, as Visual and Performing Arts Dean Ann Clarke says, "a complex organism."
And, it's this complexity that makes COLAB both wonderfully limitless and sometimes difficult. It has been a learn-as-you-go process, and the last 10 months have been spent communicating, refining and developing structures for repeatable models--most importantly fostering partnerships with students, faculty, colleges, organizations, individuals, corporations and the community at large. There are many challenges to setting up any effective collaboration, especially one with the complex equation of bringing seemingly disparate entities together. Each carries with it its own agenda, needs and strengths. For COLAB as an academic institution whose primary goal is to connect students to those three entities through collaborative efforts, it is imperative that we create structures that support and enhance the educational process for the students. This means that not all collaborations are a good idea, not all are successful, and that there is great importance to expert processes and ownership within that structure.
As we move forward with corporate partnerships, we are ever cognizant of the benefit to students of working closely with the industries that they will one day define as consumers, clients and CEOs. But we are also in constant conversation about when partnerships are appropriate, ensuring that faculty--who own curriculum--continue to be the guardians of the education process, guaranteeing freedom of expression and exploration of ideas that is, in many ways, only possible in academia.
Video recap of the Social Media Futures charrette.
We have found charrettes to be a particularly effective method for collaboration. COLAB has facilitated charrettes in partnership with every college on campus, as well as other schools, including Cornell University and the University of Rochester. The platform of the charrette offers flexibility in legnth, depth and scope. Social Media Futures, our most recent charrette produced in partnership with SU's School of Information Studies, spanned a weekend and included 36 students from freshman to the PhD level, deep-diving into the possibilities and implications of what they considered the future of user-generated content. Upcoming charrettes will exist on many levels, from a one-weekend-for-one-credit class, to ongoing small and large experiences in partnership with entities as diverse as Green Team USA, a marketing and branding firm, to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Playing foosball. Bottom: the COLAB team, Chris McCray, Shoham Arad and Carlota Deseda.
COLAB's physical space is open to all. We invite students and community members to come experience and utilize the space. Student monitors keep the space open after hours with the possibility of students creating their own agendas. We host regular design and art film screenings, and I am doing my damndest to get airhockey, foosball and wii tournaments going. We are always flexing to meet the needs of our community.
As our economic and environmental concerns grow and evolve, our design approaches and methodologies are shifting to meet our changing needs. These values are being instilled and reinforced academically. COLAB continues to build our structure, programming and partnerships because, as our Dean says, "what we can't yet imagine is where we are going."
All photos taken by Studio Mercury.
Shoham Arad is a designer, a maker and COLAB's Programming and Innovation Consultant.