Collaboration Fail

David Stairs of the Design Altruism Project argues that many collaborations aren’t actually collaborative. In a sobering post, he notes that people want to set up a project to be the hub for collaboration in their field… often without checking who’s doing the same thing, or even using the same name. We’ve observed similar behavior.

Partly it’s about wanting to be at the center of things – and that’s natural. And partly it’s about not realizing just how much work is involved in making an online community. I’m not sure what the solution is. One possibility is the Wikipedia experience: perhaps what happened with Wikipedia is that it was a single project which gained a good reputation, gave a good experience to many contributors, was a clear concept to grasp (a free encyclopedia), and a broad enough scope to be of interest to many, many people.

This hasn’t happened to the same degree in architecture, design or sustainability, though we’ve made good progress on Appropedia – especially as we’ve come from a number of different projects and chosen to collaborate rather than compete.

Another key element in collaboration is a recognition of our limits. As Wes Janz noted (quoted in the same blog post)

“…And, you know, it’s all good, an orphanage in Sri Lanka, house inspections in Mississippi post-Katrina, a community center in Kenya… But I just got sick of it and had this idea that you should change the name of DWB to Designers With Borders. As in, maybe there should be some boundaries, some active awarenesses that we are unqualified, or unfit, or unable to work borderlessly.”

Not that we need to be changing names – just recognizing our limits. I can’t recall who said it, but it is our weaknesses that make us great, not our strengths, for our weaknesses lead us to work with others and create something greater than ourselves.

Pardon this meditation on failure. There are many encouraging successes to dwell on, support, and learn from, and we’ll continue to do that. A cautious recognition of where things go badly pear-shaped is one side of the coin of success, and we do well to keep both in mind.

Reinvention: Good for us, bad for wheels

We in the Appropedia community frequently talk about the value of sharing sustainable solutions. “Let’s not reinvent the wheel” is the cliché that often pops up. Meanwhile, I’m keenly aware of the need for humans to reinvent they way we do things. We talk about reinventing just about everything (and usually it’s said like it’s a good thing): energy production, health care, government, transportation, and even international aid. We reinvent ourselves as individuals. My wife has written a book on reinventing strategy creation in business.

So why is one reinvention “good” and the other “not good”? I expect someone’s answered that already. If so, do please leave it in a comment.

My off-the-cuff answer is that reinvention to a new better never-before-seen thing is good, in theory. But inventing is risky – success is not certain. Reinventing things that already exist, like wheels or slow sand filters or solar vaccine refrigerators, is a poor use of resources when you can find a proven solution easily.

In the ancient history of, say, 15 years ago, it was a lot harder to uncover someone else’s clever idea, even if the inventor wanted to share it. Nowadays the sharing and finding have been solved (yay!). We can take advantage of that and reinvent our patterns of behavior away from reinvention and toward sharing and leveraging proven solutions.

So what useful invention, adaptation or optimization have you invented? Can you share it and save someone else the time in the weeds?