I once had a conversation with Brian Condon, one of the people behind the Centre for Creative Collaboration, where I asked (more or less) “what do you mean by ‘creative’? What do you mean by ‘collaboration’?” [I must have felt I knew what ‘centre’ meant…] Brian neatly sidestepped my question by telling how he’d had a similar conversation with someone who had been trying to build such a space for several years; they were still stuck on their definitions, refining the semantics but being neither creative nor collaborative. It is better to start something and see where it gets to rather than get tied up in what it actually is, Brian said.
I remembered our conversation when I was at C4CC last week to take part in a discussion led by James Wilson about what people actually involved in the C4CC thought it was and what it did. James, a former
inmate resident of C4CC, had carried out a piece of research by asking other projects what the C4CC did and how it worked. It was a fascinating, thought-provoking presentation. Brian and his colleagues have clearly made something quite special at the C4CC – a space for seed-projects to work, experiment and collaborate.
James’ respondents had similar semantic difficulties to me in defining ‘collaboration’: they couldn’t! It was all about the context – the serendipitous conversations that cross disciplines without specified goals. It is different from teamwork. There was talk about “real collaboration” and “true collaboration”.
Whatever it is, they felt the C4CC helped it happen: setting up different projects in close proximity in a neutral venue helped promote the serendipity; people working on the projects believed that their openness, trust and willingness to communicate helped create the right mindset to overcome barriers to collaboration. An openness to unpredictability within an unstructured context – allowing for improvisation contingent on the situation and need. It was all about the context – and highly social. For some this was due to a change in the power dynamics, part of creating new structures and ways of organising with shared values – an openness to experiment. Some described C4CC as an ecosystem.
They were a surprisingly positive set of people: there was little about the C4CC that they wanted to change, though having more communication between projects – through more formal presentations, for instance, or specific “problem solving” sessions – seemed to be desired. This was interesting given the views that the unstructured, serendipitous approach to collaboration was beneficial.
Making C4CC more sustainable was one thing those working on projects desired: “making sure it’s still here!” C4CC is funded by several London-based academic institutions; finding a business model that would promote rather than stifle the collaborative environment is difficult, and in times of austerity, funding may be at risk.
Measuring the outputs from somewhere like C4CC is difficult. How would one define success? The space clearly works, and the positivity of people involved – perhaps self-selecting – was apparent. (I wonder if positive, open and communicative people are by their nature more collaborative? Hermits need not apply…) C4CC clearly evokes strong, positive reactions.
We discussed whether it were possible to recreate C4CC – the extent to which there is a recipe for such a venture. There are clearly some things which are necessary – a suitable space, a bit of management and selection of projects – but I believe much of what Brian and his partners have built down to the social mix of the projects – the people that work in the centre itself.
(You can see James’ presentation here.)