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Uncommon Ground: Uncharted Territory


Uncommon Ground

— ​Promoting innovation between higher education, media labs and business sounds great in theory. In practice, stumbling blocks abound — which is why the Virtueel Platform’s Uncommon Ground expert meeting has just launched an initiative to identify the cross-sector strategies that really work.

Report by Jane Szita

The setting of the former industrial terrain of Amsterdam’s Gasfabriek, converted for cultural and commercial use, bore more than a passing thematic resemblance to the subject matter marked out for the VP’s one-day conference on Uncommon Ground: namely, how the once exclusive spaces of a specialised knowledge sector can be opened up for use by other disciplines. Focussing on the increasing importance of “the dialogue between academia and the professional sector,??? the event brought 50 international experts (mainly academics, cultural practioners, and commercial coordinators) to the Gasfabriek, to begin the process of identifying the most creative strategies that have emerged from their own practise of cross-sector cooperation. Common Ground therefore marked the beginning of an investigation that will continue through further discussions, meetings, and publications.

In a relatively short time, shared initiatives between higher education, media labs and companies have become a vital part of the “innovation motor??? said to be driving our economies, and a substitute for sponsorship and other funding for cultural and academic institutions. They are also part of a paradigm shift that is seeing society begin to abandon its time-honoured cult of specialisation in favour of holistic approaches, not only across sectors but also within them. Only this summer, a group of Harvard professors publicly complained that their university was hampering its own scientific progress by obstructing their multi-disciplinary efforts. The ability to build bridges is essential to survival; remaining an island, however knowledgeable, now looks suicidal.

Rich strangeness

Via a process that is painful for some and exhilirating for others, we are all supposed to be seeking what David Garcia, in his introduction to the VP event, called with a Shakespearean flourish the “rich and strange spaces??? at the interfaces of specialisms and sectors, that shadowy realm labelled “uncommon ground???by the organisers. Uncommon ground of course designates a place, with its own presumed ecology, rather than the simplistic one-way action implied by the overused corporate/academic terms, “knowledge transfer??? and “knowledge acquisition.???

Just as thinking in terms of “transfer??? or “acquisition??? implies the passivity of one party in the process, so when different disciplines come together to discuss how to come together, abstraction is inevitable. This became clear in much of the event’s floor discussion, and particularly during the afternoon round tables. As the BBC’s Matt Locke put it, in talking about his own organisation, “You have these great conversations, and then nothing happens.??? As an antidote to nothing happening, VP had programmed seven concrete case studies to begin the day by showing what could be done, rather than what could simply be discussed: they indicated what uncommon ground might be — and predictably, it was different things to different people.

Under the radar

The first presentation illustrated the partnership between Hewlett Packard Labs and the Watershed arts centre in Bristol, UK, who have collaborated on projects such as Mobile Bristol, with both HP’s Eric Geelhoed and the Watershed’s Clare Reddington taking the podium — although each gave an independent presentation rather than presenting a joint view. Eric Geelhoed stated that it was probably a unique working relationship; his own department of HP has the luxury of having no responsibility to develop products, but only to look instead at the big picture five to ten years down the line (Clare Reddington described him as working “under the radar???). Nevertheless, “since the advent of the ‘experience economy’ the whole world of industry is convinced of the need to employ artists and creatives,??? he said.

So much so, apparently, that, as Clare Reddington added shortly afterwards, one artist on a residency found that everyone in the company was a willing collaborator, and that his role was the opposite of the “outsider???one he had anticipated — a comment which raises some interesting questions regarding expectations and the potential tendency of business to “corporatise??? cultural practise. “HP has pushed the Watershed far beyond our original arts remit, “ said Reddington, into what she described as a broker role that could subsequently be adapted for other purposes. “A lot hangs on personalities and trust,??? she said. “Building relationships is essential.??? The challenges in carving out uncommon ground, she added, are developing legitimacy for the role of broker, devising new models of governance, and supporting SMEs in continuing their research activities, despite commercial pressures.

Not invented here

Yanki Lee, of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre (Royal College of Art), which is devoted to innovation in inclusive design, presented a number of projects, including a student award sponsored by the Future Foundation and a ‘power tools for all’ concept for UK DIY retailer, B&Q — a company that had lacked a design department at all before its contact with the centre. For Lee, the big issues that emerged from her own experience included the question of how to solve the ethical and logistical issues around consumer research, how to maintain long-term relationships, and the thorny problem of confidentiality and design ownership. “We have a problem called NIH,??? she said. “That stands for ‘not invented here’. It means that businesses don’t produce competition products, because the companies don’t own them.???

In another view from the other side of the fence, Gerard Hollemans stepped up to present a project conducted by Philips with students from the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU), involving designing games for Philips’ concept electronic tabletop gaming platform, the ‘entertaible.’ “Philips has the technical know-how but misses the creativity of games developers,??? said Hollemans. “That’s what we were looking for in HKU. A bit of the ground we covered was common, but most was uncommon.??? A team of five HKU students worked, he said, with energy and enthusiasm, and Philips tried not to interfere in the early stages — with the result that the initial difficulties the students experienced with the project came as an unpleasant surprise when the company became aware of them. A further difficulty emerged when the students found it hard to accept the reimplementation of their ‘baby’ by third-party software developers.

Lost in translation

A second phase of the project involved 15 students in adapting existing games for the new platform, and went more smoothly: “Now we had a better idea of what to expect,??? said Hollemans.Three viable adaptations resulted, and Philips was pleased with the result. “You do need time,??? said Hollemans. “Collaborations need mutual freedom and respect.??? He was aware of the dangers of cross-sector insights being lost in translation: “Within Philips, we need a person who understands design school culture, and now I’m trying to be that person.??? Regarding copyright, the HKU accepted Philips’ terms, and although students were allowed to show the project in their own portfolios, they were not allowed to divulge how it works.

While Philips is busy learning to speak the language of higher education, cross-sectorism is built into the DNA of ACID (the Australasian CRC for Interaction Design), which combines funding from the government with shareholdings by six universities and nine companies. Sam Buccolo, its Development Director, called ACID “A celebration of uncommon ground, a celebration of difference.??? He presented a project on diversionary therapy for child burns patients, who have to endure painful dressing changes. A technological solution was requested by a Brisbane hospital, and then devised by a multi-disciplinary ACID team, all working remotely via an online repository with the mediation of a central design team. The resulting product reduced pain in 60% of children, clinical trials showed.

ACID has an obvious advantage in its industrial shareholders, who help to bridge the infamous ‘valley of death’ between research prototypes and commercialisation. “Our work represents a balance between common and uncommon ground,??? said Buccolo. “It takes strong leadership to find this balance.??? He defined the many creative diversions in research as the uncommon ground; while “making the dimensions explicit when required??? was the common ground.

On sheep-dipping

“Try again, fail again, fail better,??? is the Samuel Beckett phrase adopted by Garrick Jones as the motto of the Ludic Group, a company he set up three years ago to work between academia and business: “An experience I have found both wonderful and disheartening, “ as he described it. “It takes about three years to learn about academia and how it works,??? he added ominously, before launching into a typology of cross-sector contacts. ‘Sheep-dipping’ described the situation of calling experts in ad hoc; ‘labtastic’ referred to “creating experience-rich contexts???; ‘café culture’ inevitably means informal social groupings; ‘research osmosis’ designates more formal programmes, ‘bus course’ denotes creativity through shared experience (eg, taking the same bus journey), and ‘cash academy’ is when — what else? — a professor sets up in consultancy.

Jones outlined an outcomes-driven Thai handicrafts development project. It featured 10 designers collaborating with tribal crafts practitioners, rapid prototypers, and buyers, resulting in product lines to be launched shortly by two retailers. Like other Ludic projects, mobility was an important element (the designers travelled to gather ideas), but Jones later stressed the importance of a “stable core??? supplied by a framework, model or wiki. He argued that knowledge exchange should be analysed in terms of five polarities: process or content; instrumental or informative; one-way or inclusive; open-ended or goal-oriented; and process or outcomes driven. The VP experts, he added, should consider the issues of trust and a common language, of enabling a sense of community and creating reciprocity.

Social software

A sense of community is central to the Design of the Times (DOTT 07) project, based in the North-east of England, described next by John Thackara of Doors of Perception. This is essentially, “A redesign of daily life, in response to the question, how do we want to live???? The eight themes (mobility, town and country, energy and environment, health and wellbeing, housing and home, food and nutrition, and sustainable tourism), are applied in ways that put the community (the end-users) central in the design process; for example, the energy and environment project takes an actual street and explores issues of energy consumption with a specific group of people. Another project discussed is still under embargo, but concerned those two huge growth areas of ageing and wellbeing.

Thackara recommended the design principle of the “unique assembly of tried and tested components. We do not want to reinvent the wheel.??? His perspective sees design more as a kind of social software engineering process than mining product innovations: “This domain does not belong to designers,??? he admitted, “But they can help here. You try to create a place where everyone can find the solution, and this means engineering relationships.??? The DOTT projects are accordingly put together by “senior producers.??? Assembling a team, as he pointed out, is itself a form of design. So the question he left the audience with was one regarding the ideal mix of functions and people. Plus, he wondered, what metaphor could be applied to the process under investigation?

Dangerous abstraction

An entirely different scenario was evoked by the presentation of Matt Locke, of BBC New Media. He noted that the BBC, as a well-established institution, has a tendency to be shortsighted about the future, even though it is guaranteed funding ten years ahead. Encouraging innovation is this context requires breaking out of the inward focus of the organisation. The laboratory is the ideal format for doing this, he said, pointing to the new media prototype applications researched by each of BBC’s ten regional innovation labs. The BBC also collaborates with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which facilitates its joint initiatives with academia, which are “audience-facing??? projects (going from the drawing board to production in six months to a year).

Universities, said Locke, can provide the answers to questions such as what location-services might mean; or what people want from searches; but then the source should not be a single institution, but should represent an overview of academia. Again, the knowledge available should not merely be passively digested. BBC New Media is organising a series of summit events, in order to move information consumption (for example, on user-generated content), into active engagement: “We tried to take generate an active, dynamic discussion and see what happened,??? said Locke. “We asked the question, what shall we do next? How can we do something in three months???? A summit pattern has duly emerged: a day is spent in discussion, then the summit teams immediately tries to turn the discussion into a real project: “The idea here is to avoid abstraction, which is always a danger. We try to get stuff done as soon as possible,??? he said. “The biggest issue for the BBC, after all, is to get value out of the relationship.???

Getting value out of the relationship, the prime objective for any organisation involved in cross-sector collaboration, had been the central point in all the case studies, and had uncovered a variety of approaches and goals. Further investigating and deriving strategies from these will be the next step, explained the VP’s Cathy Brickwood in conclusion, and she stressed that the terms of this work should be down to the practitioners themselves. An exploration of uncommon ground had been begun; how to map it remains, for now, an open question.

Uncommon Ground is also presented at the 2009 Paralelo meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil.



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