Technologies of Collaboration
By Ng Huiying
Imagine it’s cold outside and you’re holding on to a bushel of potatoes, the last of the food staples you possess. There is a ring of people you don’t know gathered around a campfire, and you need their help to pass on the potatoes. If they help you, you can get them to a friend on the other side of the campfire more quickly; if they decide to keep them instead, you’d run out of all your future food supply. What do you do? What if there isn’t a clear line of people? How do you prepare the next few in line to know the value of, and pass on the potatoes?
These potatoes are an analogy for how we think about ideas. When do we pass on an idea, and who do we entrust them to?
Pass the potato: A glossary of words about food, sharing and mistrust
The first thing I’d need to think about, to solve my dilemma, is to ask what “technologies of collaboration” might look like—go to Point 1 if this interests you. The larger question (Point 3) would be: What facilitates informed trust, especially between teams and across sectors?
Put differently, what do we collaborate on, where do we collaborate, and what does it feel like?
1. Technologies (How)
Technology is not merely about machines or even artificial intelligence, but the relationship between man and nature, and the tools, habits and practices we have developed over the years. Technology includes our approach to, and technique of interfacing with the world
Technology is the transformative alchemy linking human society and our environments. This ranges from the technology apps, to the simplest of our daily rituals: A coffee/chai break, a siesta, regular gatherings with neighbours, sorting organic vegetable waste for compost — which become part and parcel of our life and work culture.
2. Objects (What)
What do we collaborate on?
We may collaborate on a project, product or vision. One person or team might do the first phase of a project, followed by another team completing phase two. Or it might be one team holding the fort while another comes in part-way to lend ideas and strength. Many good collaborations like this have arisen; think of the recent Geohackathon organised by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) with One Maker Group and Sustainable Living Lab, the sustainable development organisation, Forum for the Future, that supported Ground-Up Initiative, a non-profit, in exhibition content for a mini-exhibition on SG100—Singapore in 2065—and the opportunities that Open Farm Community has given to Foodscape Collective to play a role in its Social Market.
Photo from Sustainable Living Lab
But collaboration between organisations becomes tricky when the object (and objectives) over which we collaborate is not clear. Who shares the objects? Are these objects being shared of finite value and use to teams, or is there potentially something more that might grow out of it?
We often stop at the immediate value of the objects we work for and around, without thinking about the intrinsic value that lives within each object, or what else might be produced, if we work together.
Sometimes this happens because procedures require clear documentation. But if we practise it to excess (as we often do in Singapore) the more we are boxed in by these habits and this ethic. Over decades, bureaucratic efficiency becomes unreflexive, inefficient thinking.
Working together without staking lines — monetary or legal — around the boundaries of the work I do has helped me and the people I work with do more than could be possible. We become more than the sum of our parts when we share transparently and openly with one another.
3. Trust (Where)
Trust means showing your cards, not knowing what you will receive. The vulnerability you experience in this moment offers the potential for something new to build on it, and is something competition rarely allows for.
But while trust is something organic — it grows through our contact with one another — its growth can be nurtured in our social environment.
Our daily lives are punctuated by encounters with one another — a Facebook message, a handshake, a 2-hour meeting, cocktails at a conference. Our social situations are supported by rules and habits that govern our behaviour. We negotiate these rules all the time in our moral judgments about whether someone was sexually assaulted, whether politicians played fair, whether we were impolite to our host. Our emotional and rational sides interact to form such judgments. These rules of encounter in a commons are different from those of the capitalist world.
In her work on community management of natural resources, the political economist Elinor Ostrom explored these rules through decision-making experimental trials and game theory. She found that cooperative use of common pool resources — like a garden of potatoes and mango trees bearing delicious fruit — arise when individual players communicate well, the reputation of each stakeholder is clear, there is a high marginal return, high entry and exit capability, a longer time horizon, and an agreed upon sanctioning mechanism. These factors increase the likelihood that stakeholders gain trust in others while reducing the probability of being a sucker (you can watch her eloquent speech about this in her Nobel Prize Lecture).
In other words, to grow a commons, we need to consider the role of these factors:
1. Reciprocity and personal accountability, social bonds and less governmental regulation
2. Emergent modes of organisation
3. Information gathering and the presence of structures to acquire reliable information
Finally, what is the experience of the commons for most people today? Have we ever come across it in our lives?
4. Commons, experiencing its substance
The idea of the commons goes against the grain of the world we are immersed in.
As opposed to the world of capitalist accumulation, where things and people have a time, place and price fixed to them, a world of the commons has more fluid boundaries around property, time and work. Things may be shared; users learn to sort out a sharing system for themselves. Along the way, with information available everywhere, it becomes less important to be highly specialised at just one thing, and more important to adapt, to think creatively, and think between and across disciplines, in order to communicate better.
So how do these technologies of collaboration apply in Singapore?
1. Realising that sharing is fruitful takes practice. Informally, we are flexing our muscles more with our time with one another: through informal sharings to learn new skills, exchange information, facilitated by things like meetup, Facebook, even Couchsurfing.
2. We are seeing more examples of common pool resources being created and used, and more collections and techniques of managing these collections arising from their use (such as open source code repositories like GitHub, apps that make use of shared resources such as Food from the Heart’s shared pathways app (where Food from the Heart’s volunteers can see what food needs to be picked up and delivered, where, and how close they are to these paths) and licensing systems like Creative Commons and the Open Database License, ODbL). Uber, GrabTaxi and related apps tap on similar ideas of sharing resources and are challenging our legal definitions of work and the commons — their approach to splitting profits has raised a legal storm over the definition of contractor/employee.
3. The communities that give rise to these are also independently creating new, emergent ways of learning and organising: The ethic of the open source community has spread beyond programming and coding, to fermentation, brewing, repairs and maker culture, urban farming to name a few.
4. We are also seeing more instances of collaboration in projects that span the transient and the longer-term, in art, “biohacking”, hobbyist gardening. They are typically participatory and inclusive, based on personal connections with an ethic of personal accountability (to the extent that anyone wants to be seen in a good light), reciprocal, and enable new practices to emerge independently of rules or established ways of working. Innovation arises with more voices actively involved, becoming all the more resilient, and useful as a result.
In these collaborative projects, participative thinking occurs, where a working system forms through practice-in-reality. As Thomas Kuhn, the American physicist, historian, and philosopher of science said in 1970, “nature and words are learned together”.
Changing the rules alone are not enough; concrete examples are needed before a practice develops because as Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, “Our rules leave loop-holes and practice has to speak for itself.” In order to teach others to carry the potatoes the way I want them to, I cannot create a new rule that tells them they would be penalised if they dropped them. I have to practise the right way of carrying them, together with them, in a space for learning. And I have to be open to being challenged.
So what’s my solution to my dilemma with the potatoes? How can I ensure the language of collaboration spreads and sustains, to create a stronger, more vibrant Singapore?
I believe part of the answer lies in helping others to learn messily by emphasising participative thinking, and by ensuring opportunities for good communication and reciprocal norms to develop. Diffused networks of learning play a large role in collaborative, freeform projects. Deliberately “messy” — though not always consciously chosen — these projects change the ways of seeing from one that focuses and narrows on specific outcomes and the utility value of objects and things, to one that perceives the shared meanings of objects
Perhaps with this, instead of seeing the potatoes as merely, potatoes, the next few in line for the potatoes might see them for their various possibilities and forms, understanding the incoherent, precious and infinitely incalculable value of the future not yet formed.
Huiying explores links between urban agriculture, open/welcoming spaces for new imaginations of urban life, and community resilience. She is involved in non-profit and research work (Ground-Up Initiative and NUS respectively), and is developing an approach to community-based research.
Top photo from thinkstock