Back to collaborate and cooperate

June 18, 2008

Driving in to work this morning, I was again ruminating on the meanings of collaborate and cooperate. It seems to me that cooperate infers people meeting together so share resources to further their own specific projects or shared goals that are similar, whereas with collaboration, people join together to create something that is completely new and often out of the direct realm of influence or expertise. The sum of the project is really more than the individual parts. This is probably a pretty esoteric distinction, because in the end, it is really about individuals abilities to join forces and expertises.
I also thought a bit about the process of collaboration again and forgot one of the most important components of successful collaborations- a sense of humor.

Apollo 13 and creative solutions

June 6, 2008

In the movie “Apollo 13” there is a great scene that really illustrates creative collaboration and even a project-based learning scenario.  The scientists on the ground have just learned about the problems aboard the space capsule and are given the emergency assignment of finding a solution.  So the scientists are ossed in a room with a whole bunch of objects that are found in the Apollo spacecraft: tape, ducts, pipes and tubes, whatever. There they are- engineers, stuff, a problem and a time frame. Their creativity and ability to cooperate on finding a solution let to their success in bringing back the astronauts alive. Very cool. 


June 5, 2008

I just looked up the definition of “collaborate” on and was surprised on how many negative connotations are associated with the word, such as “to cooperate, usually willingly, with an enemy nation, esp. with an enemy occupying one’s country”, “collude”, “To cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one’s country”. Although there are several more positive meanings such as “to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work” and the etymology states that “collaborator (1802), from Fr. collaborateur, from L. collaboratus, pp. of collaborare “work with,” from com- “with” + labore “to work.”, WWII has left an imprint of  the word as “traitorous cooperation with the enemy,” dates from 1940, originally in reference to the Vichy Government of France.”

What an unfortunate chain of events for such a fine concept. It is time to rehab the meaning so that it leaves it’s destructive past and joins the ranks of it’s more positive and successful cousin “cooperate” , whose primary meanings are :

  1. to work or act together or jointly for a common purpose or benefit.
  2. to work or act with another or other persons willingly and agreeably.
  3. to practice economic cooperation.

How to rise up horizontally

June 5, 2008

I heard an interesting story on NPR this morning about an woman architect in Karachi by the name of Parveen Rehman. She works for the Orangi Pilot Project which helps poor people to build their own homes and even utilities systems. She also works to enhance the status of women in a male-dominated society by teaching architecture in a local school to women.

She said some pretty remarkable things. About “the project’s male founder, who spoke of the power of women. He compared himself to a grandmother — “not your grandfather, because your grandmother gives love … and through love she’s able to encourage and make people grow.”

And of particular interesting to me and my research about the nature of collaboration:
“I feel sometimes — not with men and women — with any group, if you come just upfront and try to be … the person taking credit for everything, that’s where things start going wrong,” she says. Once you rise up horizontally, you take everybody with you. But if you want to rise vertically, you will rise, but then nobody will be there for you.”

Building Collaborations

June 5, 2008

I have been reading a lot about successful collaborations in many different environments, such as businesses, academic, technology, building and more. Most of the articles and books provide examples that are very good arguments for why cooperative projects work. Wikinomics by Don Tapscott begins the book with a great example about a Canadian gold mining company turned around its loosing operation after the president attended a workshop on open source technology. He applied the lessons learned and opened up much of the companied proprietary data about some of its under-performing properties. He realized that the company itself did not posses the human resources to really expand, so he offered a prize for best ideas. His solution worked and he was able to able to increase the value of the company from $100 million to $9 billion. The winning ideas came from a wide range of disciplines.

In his 2005 TED talk (, Howard Rheingold speaks about how humankind has followed a couple different paths. One has been about destruction, the other is about cooperation. He provides many examples how human society is really more of a cooperative endeavor (although I think that sometimes it is hard to see). Nothing that exists today really came out of a vacuum of an individual, but rather out a web of individuals working together. One story that I often think of is about a party that I attended several years ago. It was held at a really cool remodeled Victorian house in N. California. The friend who I went with told me that the owner had done the work. At the time I was working as a carpenter and after looking at the details of the work, I went to congratulate the owner on his fine work. I was not really surprised when he told me that he did not do any of the work, but rather paid a crew to work. I completely understood his (and my friend’s view), yet I could not help but to think that it would have been more interesting to me if he had described it as a collaborative project. This would have celebrated the talents and skills involved in producing such fine work.
Perhaps I made something bigger then it was, but I am always impressed about how individuals with individual strengths and talents can come together to make something that is larger than the sum of their individual work.

Reflecting on these and other examples of successful collaboration (open source software, farming, movie making, just about everything), I wonder about the basic building blocks necessary to make cooperation work. I think that one of the most important components is for individuals to check their egos at the door when working on a cooperative endeavor. This does not mean that I feel that there is no room for individual creativity. I think that each person has a place to really shine in what they do. But more often then not, one person cannot do everything at the same level.

When I began working in new media in 1990, it was called interactive multi-media. There was no web (Internet-yes, web- no) and one talented person could do just about everything. But as the technology developed (as well as user expectations), specialties also developed for video, audio, data base, graphics, content development, subject matter experts, and more. Each task and discipline has its own tools, process and language. It really is like a huge jigsaw puzzle- it really does take a lot of pieces to make it complete.

As individuals understand this, they can begin to see how their strengths are all necessary and vital to a project. They can possibly begin to learn to trust the other experts and professionals to do their parts and that the complete project and process only benefit from this cooperation.

Creativity, Collaboration and Learning- 1

April 29, 2008

My approach to creativity is pretty broad. It is funny, during the passover seder there is a reading about the four sons and their approach to asking about Passover. The last son is described as the one who does not know how to ask the question. For several months now I have been reflecting on my interests and trying to understand the question. It is only in the past month or so that it has become more clear. I am really interested in the relationship between creativity, collaboration and learning. Although I have been thinking about all of this for awhile, it is only recently that I am putting the three together in some sort of pre-coherent way.

I am not completely sure that creativity is something that can be taught- especially in post-secondary education. It may actually be too late. Learners can be guided and encouraged but it seems to me that there is a certain ability to step out of one’s comfort zone when being truly creative. Sometimes I think that it is not so much as a comfort zone, but that the comfort zone of a natural creative person is much broader than a person whose style may be more circumspect. My own heuristic research has showed me that truly creative people are more willing to try things- to mix things up. They (we) learn formal theories and practice and then ask “why” and “what about” or “what if” in very broad terms. Of course there may be (and probably are) psychological explanations for this, but I’d rather look at it possessing an insatiable curiosity of things. Richard Feynman wrote a book of essays called “The Pleasure of Finding Things out”, a title that I love. Seymour Papert has also written about his love of learning.

This is connected to my interest in collaboration. It also seems to me that creative people are always collaborating- with styles and ideas and with people. There are different types of collaborations, which I think is good. But many collaborations are within the same discipline and style of thinking. This creates many types of advances in that particular discipline, which is good.  For example, different types of psychologists or historians who share research topics.

My interest lies in broader types of disciplines- where different styles of thinking (or as Gardner would say, different types of intelligence) are used. The arts and science and engineering are really of interest to me. I am working on projects involving dance and computer engineering, and biology and history now. In the former, I have found that engineering students are really good at what they do, but they get bored designing light circuits and dancers want to use their movement to trigger projectors and lights and sounds. Bringing together the two groups creates some very interesting learning adventures where each group can learn from the other about things they would not know about and can only make their own work a richer experience. In Biology and history, a team can examine a period such as the Black Death and gain a greater understanding of the social, and historical consequences surrounding  the biology and pathology of the disease.

Learning adventures are what ties the two previous ideas together. Though collaborations (internal and external) ideas and concepts are born when exploring the similarities between stuff (technical word). In periods described as “classical” there has always been fewer boundaries between disciplines and ways of thinking. Plastic arts, sciences, music, crafts have always been components of a “complete” education and learning (even though there have been other restrictions placed, such as religion). DaVinci studied arts mechanics; Kandinski wrote about painting and music; Feynman the physicist was also an expert in Tuvan throat singing (of Mongolia); The Talking Heads were art students; Mick Jagger was a student at the London School of Economics.

So my reading is a bit eclectic. Some of the books that I read over the past year include: a couple  by Oliver Sacks -“Uncle Tungstan” and  “Musicopheloa”(brilliant at brining together disciplines and interests), “Thinking in Jazz” (a wonderful ethnomusicological study on jazz improvisation  and how the process can be interpreted and reapplied to other disciplines); The Children’s Machine by Papert; The Playful World: How Technology is Transforming Our Imagination: by Mark Presce; “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”; “Out of Our Minds” by Ken Robinson. I am beginning to think that  that the underlying theme is applied change and creativity. I also have read some fun things by Christopher Moore, a comtemporary novalist whose work includes “Bloodsucking fiends” and “You Suck” (both about vampires in San Francisco, and “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal”. His books are fun, funny, irreverent, sexy and do contain little morsels of clarity. For example, in  “A Dirty Job” Moore writes: “Jazz wasn’t something you planned. It was something you did. You practiced, you played scales, you learned your chops, then you brought all your knowledge, your conditioning to the moment…Like the archer, the poet and the painter –it’s all right there- no future, no past just that moment and how you deal with it. Art happens.”

A Rave on Collaboration & Learning

April 21, 2008

Lately I have been working on several interesting collaborative initiatives here at work involving dance, engineering, animation, biology, anatomy, physical education, physics. The seeds of these projects came out of several experiences. readings and observations. When thinking about the power and potential of collaborative projects, I cannot help but to think of the story of the blind men and then elephant. Each individual feels one specific part of the elephant, and describes the elephant based on that feeling. But none of them can actually feel the complete beast. I can also think of other relevant models, such as building construction. It is very, very difficult for one person to build a multi-story house completely by themselves. Foundation, framing  are possible,  but  raising a roof  really requires assistance. Also, if one thinks of the specialty trades involved- framing, electrical,  plumbing, cabinetry, etc. one begins to see the strength of the collaborative effort.

The same is true in academia and private sector workplaces. When I first became involved with Interactive Multi-media (now ofter referred to as “new media”), one person could do everything- design, graphics, programing. Interactive projects were able to fit on a disc. Within a relatively short time, projects became more complex and began to require specialists in video, audio, graphic design, interface design and of course programming (Macromind’s “Lingo” for Director was one choice). The same process happened with the Web. In 1995, one person could build and design a web site. Although still possible, Web development now requires a host of technical and design skills- database. back end design and taxonomies, GUI, image, video, audio, etc.

Rather that look at this as being a daunting enterprise, this is really quite exciting. The need for collaboration creates richer rich-media, with better quality graphics, audio, video and interface that really can engage the visitor in an interactive experience. The social network of Web 2.0 that has evolved out the growth of this technology and process continues to promote collaboration and cooperation.

This spirit of cooperation is (or can be) reflected in both academia and the workplace, Blackboards are often interactive whiteboards, research is done online using tools like GoogleScholar as well as databases of articles from  professional journals. Cut and paste is digital that does not require scissors and glue (tell the digital natives about these thing sof the past). Not only the tools are new (and rapidly changing), but the approach to the process of research and creativity reflects the tools. Cross-discipline is not only interesting, but required. In some ways, it harkins back to some of the ideas developed in the Bauhaus, where form and function were promoted as necessary and important. All good design required communication between the artist/designer and the fabricator. This required the artist/designer to have a basic understanding to fabrication and the fabricator to understand basic design theory. Many of the designs and objects are still in use and produced today.

Later- More on learning and web 2.0 as well as links to a couple of fun sites.

MOW 2008

April 20, 2008

Here it is a week after my return from the 2008 Museums on the Web conference and I have not written (yet). First- the location. Bonaventure Hilton in Montreal. The entrance to the building is on the street level, but the lobby is somwhere above 8- it was difficult to tell. There big piles of snow all over and the weather hovered around 40 degrees. It was cold. But, Montreal is a neat town to wander about it- all sorts of surprises, like murals, good graffitti and a child’s wading pool, filled with ice, sitting dejectedly behind a chain link fence in a lot on a busy Montreal street corner.

The conference was amazing. Of course, I am a fan of the conference, but there seemed to me a lot of electricity in the air. This year. There were about 660 people there from 27 countries and most of the people that I spoke to all agreed that this is not so much as a conference as a community. Newbies, oldbies, museum folks, educators, designers, and lots of geeks shmoozing and sharing. I heard some and some some very interesting things and people this year, including (this is a selected list from what I remember right now, sans-notes):

  • Michael Geist of Canada, the opening plenary speaker who spoke about “Hands on the Web”. I do not have my notes nearby, so will have to write about him later.
  • Patrick Schmitz and Michael Black from UC Berkeley doing really interesting work with taxonomies and real language searching tools for the Hearst Museum at UCB. They have created this neat searching mechanism in a faceted browser that allows the user to go through the collection in a way that promotes serendipity in discovery, like in a library.
  • Ray Shaw of Think Design, always a pleasure to meet and hang out with him. Always good ideas.
  • Other Web 2.0 papers by Gail Durban, Jonathan Bowen and the gang from the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation- we are all describing the elephant (reference: the story of the blind men and the elephant)
  • Michael Wilson’s  (Natural History Museum of LA County) neat little interactive hologram where the user chips away at a virtual rock that reveals a dinosaur bone. When the bone is completely revealed, another hologram of the dinosaur with the found bone is displayed. Very cool.
  • Dina Helal’s stuff at the Whitney
  • David Schaller and Steven Allison-Bunnell and  eduweb who did a great workshop on developing educational games and demonstrated their game “Wolfquest”
  • The folks at the Exploratorium always doing cool stuff
  • Paolo Paolini’s talk about creating an international Web 2.0 type collaboration for students –
  • Shelly Bernstein’s great work with Facebook at the Brooklyn Museum
  • Allison Farber’s Living History project at Museum of Jewish Heritage (done with Ray Shaw)
  • Bruce Wyman of the Denver Art Museum showed me this cool project that he built involving a horizantal, flat screen monitor that emulates the multi-touch input screens being developed in New York and Microsoft (and I am sure at other places). Really clever and fun.

There were lots more interesting conversations and fine people, but that is what remember now. Oh yes, my own presentation “Now that we have web 2.0 tools, how do we use them” also went well. I was expecting 20  people, but had over 100. It was pretty cool- it was really SRO- there were people sitting in the aisles and standing in the back. I gave a short presentation on my ideas about specific learning theorists (Papert’s Community of Learners, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence, Schank’s Narrative as Intelligence and Robinson’s work with promoting creativity in schools and the work place). I look at these ideas as  being directly related to the social network of web 2.0 and promoting collaboration by engaging learners of different styles. I then opened up the presentation for discussion. We had great dialogues about practice, theory, application, technology and  issues of intellectual property. It was really encouraging to see the liveliness of the discussion and to receive such good feedback.

Metaphors be with you

March 31, 2008

The other day my sister called me to complain about a Photoshop class that she is taking. She said that the instructor catered to a few students, went too fast and used a lot of jargon and geek-speak. Now, I know that my sister is no slouch and that she should be able to succeed in this class. I began to ask her what and how he is teaching, which got me reflecting on the use of metaphors in learning. Howard Gardner writes about learning and multiple intelligences and how each type of intelligence has its’ own nomenclature and dialect, such as the dialect of art, the dialect of music, or the dialect of science. Metaphors can act as translation devices for translating and interpreting an idea from one type of intelligence to another. Photoshop for example is a complex and powerful application with tools and processes that may seem familiar but are unique to this application and can be confusing to the novice user and learner. The use of metaphors from other disciplines can help build bridges for understanding the icons, tools and processes of the application.Perhaps this is like inserting poetry into the science of technology. I began to review the class material with my sister using metaphors and descriptors that were fairly jargon-free (or at least jargon-lite), such as comparing the layers palette as overlaying layers of glass, each with a portion of a complete image. She got it. It made me think of how the instructor was working. There may be good intentions, but he may be more in love with his words rather then the learners grasp of the material. But to give him the benefit of the doubt, he may also be so enthusiastic with the material that he overlooks the primary goal, which is to empower the learner to learn.

My visit to BACMA

March 31, 2008

I finally made it to the new BACMA wing of LACMA yesterday. It is pretty fun. There is a room dedicated to Jeffery Koons that seems to be channeling Warhol (in the next room), but his 15′ metal sculpture of an inflatable balloon dog is pretty happy and the large, shiny easter egg is very beautiful. There is on Tansey in the exhibit ( a long time favorite of mine) as well as a room of a couple  Richard Serra’s that are really delightful. You really need to be inside of it too. Also, there is a fun Chris Burden installation of city lights that you can wander in, but the 40′ long (more or less)  Koon’s toy fire truck has a fence around it, which I think is a waste of sculpture. I mean, it is just crying to be climbed on. Oh well.