We are a collaborative species. No single perspective could possibly cover every aspect of an issue, but together through the collage of our collective experience we wage war on the challenges of our reality. This is collective intelligence, an emergent characteristic of life that we see in many other social species like honeybees, ants, and migratory birds. At every level of complexity an individual's best efforts could never compare to the magnitude of the seemingly intelligent behavior of the swarm.
On October 8th, 2009, the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, hosted an international cast of social scientists, information systems engineers, venture capitalists, innovation consultants and designers for the first-ever Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs) Conference. The substance of the conference centered around measuring and visualizing the emergent patterns of communication within social networks, identifying and tracking trends as they ripple throughout a social system, then pulling out the social and anthropological meaning of what we observe, allowing us to better understand and perhaps even forecast human behavior. This creates a unique opportunity to enhance the productivity and effectiveness of collaboration, and to find the trendsetters, thought leaders, and gate keepers within any given network. "Bleeding edge" doesn't quite do this stuff justice; this is the blade that precedes the bleeding edge.So, what in the hell does any of this have to do with design? For that answer I had a quick chat with Peter Gloor, lead research scientist at the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
Dustin Larimer: A recent post on your Swarm Creativity Blog speaks of putting the topics covered at the COINs Conference (social network analysis, group dynamics, design and visualization, information systems and the psychology and sociality of collaboration) into a solid scientific framework. Based upon past and current collaboration with designers, and reflecting upon the recent conference in Savannah, how do you envision Design's role within this new framework?
Peter Gloor: Based on my experience so far, it seems to me that designers just take naturally to Swarm Creativity. In that regard, particularly for the visualization aspects of social networks, designers are the natural partners and collaborators of businesspeople and academics likewise. As applied artists and engineers, it is impossible for designers to work in isolation. Rather designers need to collaborate creatively with members of many other professions. The science of collaboration that you refer to above lays a solid scientific foundation to analyze, study, and improve these collaboration networks among designers and between designers and members of other professions.
Peter and several colleagues from the University of Helsinki and the University of Cologne have developed an incredibly powerful program called Condor. This software crawls the web for any number of queries and then aggregates, analyzes and visualizes the content that is pulled back. It can also be used to analyze and map the communication structure of email archives within an organization. Condor is essentially a diagnostic tool for virtual communication. Imagine having a time-lapsed view of exactly what people are saying about your gizmo/business, where that conversation is happening, what attributes and features actually matter, and who the most influential people are in those particular communities.
During the conference, attendees had a chance to install Condor on their own computers and participate in a series of crash-course training sessions that were offered throughout the first day. Now, I need to qualify myself quick to create the proper context for what comes next. I'm a web guy. Not just a pixel-pusher, but a coder as well and I really lose my mind on grids, leading, markup, semantics, information architecture; the whole bit. I am a gigantic nerd. So believe me when I say that this software is fairly complex and really takes some time to figure out. Condor is designed for researchers by researchers, and while it certainly meets the needs of its core user base, the less savvy newbies in the room had their work cut out for them. But while it wasn't always easy to gauge how well people were grasping the software, there was no mistaking that "ah-ha" moment when a participant, staring down at their screen, eyes cold and focused, abruptly drops their jaw, widens their gaze, rolls back in their seat, breathes deep, pauses and smiles, "ohhhh, sh*t.." Everything suddenly clicks and they realize they're looking through an open window into the thoughts of the web itself.
As the training sessions rolled on I decided to try to take a snapshot of the "collective consciousness" of the crowd. Post-it notes were sent out to each participant, along with the simple encouragement to write whatever was on their mind regarding the software, the afternoon, the conference, lunch, whatever. I collected dozens of Post-it notes and copied the text into Wordle, which returned a nice tag cloud of the thoughts and reflections of the moment.
Larimer: Many of the designers and students I've spoken with since the conference were absolutely blown away by the ideas of swarm creativity and the science driving social network analysis. What would you say are the biggest obstacles or challenges for greater collaboration between design and the sciences?
Gloor: Honestly I don't think there are any big obstacles between design and the sciences with regard to swarm creativity and social network analysis. These are principles and tools that can be used very well by designers to find and nurture collaboration with their partners from other professions. Designers can use coolhunting to find inspiration for their design projects, as well as to find the right attributes for a new design object. At the same time, they can identify hidden relationships and external influence on their current work objects. Coolfarming, applying the principles of swarm creativity and self-organizing project management, is a model of working together that is suited extremely well to the projects and personalities of designers. Social network analysis will identify the collaboration networks among designers, allowing them to optimize these networks.
Christian Madsbjerg of Red Associates believes there are more general obstacles that must be addressed for greater interdisciplinary collaboration, and offers some advice for designers eager to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd.
Madsbjerg: Arrogance is the biggest obstacle. I think we need to learn to listen to each other. I have seen MBAs trying to define the design strategy of a car company without talking to designers. And designers trying to create channel strategies without understanding how complex such a field is. And so on. I think there is a lot of hollow ideology about collaboration our there. Consultancies who market the collaborative nature of their firm - when it is still 90% designers working together. Listening is also about being honest about the limits of your own capabilities. And I am quite sure, that the clients will call the bluff of such companies in the long run.
Larimer: What was your initial reaction to hearing that a Design school would be hosting the first-ever Collaborative Innovation Networks conference?
Madsbjerg: I think it's great. I like that we all try to test the limits of our specialities and try to collaborate, as long as we respect each others capabilities, history and background. Anthropologists are not MBAs and designers are not Anthropologists. We need to respect that it takes effort to become an anthropologist and that just because you have a video camera doesn't make you one. As well as MBAs need to understand that they can't devise a design strategy, etc. Collaboration is about listening to each other, and far too many are arrogant and don't really listen to the capabilities of others. But at this conference we all try.
Jon Campbell and Beth Johnson from Continuum's Boston office dropped in to host a packed afternoon "Design Thinking" workshop.
Larimer: Please tell me a little about the workshop you led during the conference. Do you use creative session models like these directly with clients, or just internally?
Jon Campbell: Our workshops were developed to provide people with an opportunity to experience design thinking and the power that key principles, such as user-centered research and experiential modeling, can provide in creating new solutions to problems regardless of category or objectives. We started with a product-focused workshop and continue to develop new ones such as for services and the Health & Medical space.
We've conducted these for all types of groups - professional associations, clients, university classes, non-profits. The response has been really fantastic and I think that speaks to the super interactive nature of the workshop. We're not talking at you. We're not just telling you about it. You're up out of your chair and experiencing a taste of what we do every day. It's really energizing and opens a lot of eyes with regard to the potential design thinking can have on various audiences.
Larimer: The word creativity isn't solely reserved for what we would inclusively call the creative industry but is in fact a central force in every profession. So how do we get professionals from such divergent disciplines as design and science to collaborate and create in the same conceptual space? Do you feel creative sessions like the one you facilitated at the COINs Conference help engage people in this way?
Campbell: We look to involve as much of a client organization as we can throughout a project. It's not just a design lead or brand manager we interact with. It's the packaging engineer. The R&D team. The programmer writing code. The frontline employee answering the phone. But that can only take the design community so far. To your question, there is a larger shift that's needed to tap into the creativity within every profession. Obviously we're biased, but we do believe that the design community can help encourage and facilitate this systemically in a meaningful way. Our workshops are certainly one method but we also look broadly beyond those to customized curriculum, organizational innovation and innovation processes. Remember the old saw about teaching a man to fish? That's what we're looking to do. We have dedicated teams focused on helping educate and internalize innovation, which in turn unlocks and drives creativity. If we can all get there, then the scientist, the MBA, the computer programmer will be as likely to seek out designers as we are to seek out them.
SCAD Industrial Design student Austin Brown participated in Continuum's creative session, and had really positive things to say about the experience.
Brown: By the end of the three hour session, I was absolutely blown away that we had dissected an out-of-box experience, identified key areas of opportunity to improve the experience, related those to a core brand metaphor, laid out a service architecture, designed a new package with experience at its core instead of marketing or construction, and prototyped and presented a finished model of our concept.
One of the concrete ideas that I and my fellow students walked away with was the idea of a "parking lot". This is a place to store ideas and potential design solutions that emerge during the discovery phase - ideas that can cloud this phase, but may be useful later, and that you wouldn't want to lose before then.
When everyone puts up post-its on the wall in the discovery/mind dumping phase, there are two benefits. There is one additional team mate involved in coming up with ideas instead of writing everyone's post-its. There is also a natural grouping/ranking system in place by counting the number of stickies that fall into one theme.
As we cross paths with the high sciences of dynamic social network analysis, information systems modeling and the social psychology of collaboration we find communication at the heart of nearly every challenge facing humanity today, and as we all know, communication is design's reason for being. These are exciting times for designers, as our particular methods for deconstructing problems are in high demand. There is cause for caution, however. New innovation consultancies open shop every day, pushing the practice into the ranks of SEO, Social Media and Sustainability consultation. There's a lot of snake oil out there. Christian Madsbjerg shares his views on the matter.
Madsbjerg: My clients say the following: Innovation consultancies coming from the design world have deep issues. They do not have a systematic way to deal with data and the research they do is more about inspiring the design process rather than trying to understand business problems in a rigorous way. Since the core of these companies are not academic they don't have the training to deal with the truly strategic problems of companies and end up doing design work. Some of the design driven innovation consultancies have tried to hire people from academia, but in the end its not their core capability. My clients talk about them as design firms rather than strategic consultancies. The issue is, that some of these companies think of themselves as strategic when they really are advanced design companies.
It's absolutely true we need to work hand-in-hand with folks from all disciplines to uncover the communication breakdowns buried in the catastrophes of our day. Before we can face these obstacles, however, we need to focus on bridging the gap between design and the professions already on the front lines. I asked Jon Campbell what he felt are the biggest obstacles or challenges for greater collaboration between design and the sciences.
Campbell: In the last few years the business world's drive for innovation has created a need for the world of the corporation and the world of the designer to speak a common language. Business people are learning more about design, its value, its processes. Likewise, designers are learning to better understand the needs of, and barriers within, the corporate world, and how best to create on-point, strategic design, socialize it within a client company, and tie design's impact to business results.
The same could be said for designers and scientists. For the science community, broadly speaking, to understand the value that design can provide, we must be able to articulate that value on their terms. We emphasize and practice empathy, user-centeredness, relevancy and collaboration on every project. In order to work effectively and gain the trust of other disciplines, it's imperative these same principles are used to understand and engage them.