The power of cooperation and comedy to make useful products.
As much as we may love the romantic idea of creativity as a solo, heroic activity, the truth more often is that innovation requires collaboration. We need other people to refine, develop, and test our ideas; that's one of the reasons we do so much work in teams.
But we live in an age that celebrates outsize individuals, putting CEOs and founders on magazine covers with the clear implication that they—and they alone—are responsible for their mesmerizing and frankly incredible success stories. This is almost always wrong and it's misleading: The people and the places that excel at collaborating are writing the big success stories of the future. That said, collaboration is hard: hard to do and, frankly, hard to write about. So bear with me.
Cooperation happens at TechShop
One of the most inspiring collaborations I've encountered for a long time centers on TechShop. Founded in 2006, TechShop brings together the hardware, the software, and the people anyone might need to turn an idea for an invention into reality. As the cost of prototyping machinery has fallen, and the software for running it has gotten simpler, TechShop opens its door to anyone who wants to make something. Inventing no longer has to be the exclusive province of the engineer but, instead, a land of opportunity open to anyone with an idea and the talent to find and work with great collaborators. CEO Mark Hatch has added to that a spirit of openness and collaboration that means the members of TechShop get lots of advice and encouragement from mentors and fellow members: an open source model that is real, human, and takes advantage of the great spaces in which TechShop resides. With facilities in Menlo Park, California; San Francisco, San Jose, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Detroit, in essence, TechShop is a platform for innovation. It's where Jack Dorsey prototyped Square and it's where the Dodo case was born.
Innovation is strengthened and enriched when others pitch in. One organization collaborating with TechShop in this way is Dr. Mike North's Reallocate, a non-profit that brings engineers together to help humanitarian groups to solve design problems. North is best known as one of the hosts of Discovery's 'Prototype This!' but he founded Reallocate to help engineers find more meaning in their work and in their careers.
"Something's happened in the last few decades," North told me. "If you are a good engineer, you get promoted, and become a manager and never do engineering again.
"And young engineers have a burning desire to make something—not just to project manage. So we find them great projects to work on—and we can do that using TechShop facilities."
"Their sense of community is really important. Younger engineers may not have expertise, but we have retiring communities of engineers and they have all this expertise and don't want it to go to waste. So they get to be mentors for the younger engineers and they're an invaluable resource. And then we have mid-career engineers and professors from major universities who want to take time off and work on a meaningful problem."
Collaboration on a humanitarian project
One of the first major collaborations between Reallocate and TechShop entailed working on a project for Miraclefeet, a non-profit with a mission to help the one million children in the world who are born with clubfeet. Miraclefeet came to Mike North at Reallocate because it was searching for a product that could treat clubfeet in Nicaragua. The product had to be simple, cheap, and robust.
"The kid in Nicaragua comes in to see the doctor," North told me. "He's 11, he's traveled with his dad, and that meant riding a horse for three hours and a bus for six hours. When they see the doctor, he says you have to come in every week for six weeks. Well that won't work! You need something he can take away, understand, and use by himself. You can't go in and impose technology; that never works."
So North put together a consortium of TechShop, Reallocate, Autodesk (which helped with software) and Objet (which has 3-D printers that are used to make product prototypes). With the combined expertise and facilities, the team went through 20 iterations as they prototyped a new clubfoot brace that can correct a child's feet.
"It's really important for people who are going to use the thing to see it, touch it, try to use it," North said. "They have insights and ideas they'd never get from looking at a design. They have to hold it and try to work with it. The final, working Miracle Brace is a 20th generation product! But that's why you need facilities like TechShop: the old big, corporate engineering model is too slow, too expensive, and it doesn't use the expertise of the people who are going to be living with the final product. Talk to people, understand what they want, prototype as fast as possible, and see what they say. That's how you find your road."
When they thought they were done, North traveled to Nicaragua to test the Miracle Brace prototype in real life.
"It didn't all hit me until I was there and something happened and I had this magical moment," North said. "You realize life is greater than your own. Here are all these tools I have access to and I've been able to access them to help this person I never knew existed. This is truly life changing, it brought my whole life crisply into focus. Having access to these things means I can make things to help people!"
In some ways, the physical creation of the Miracle Brace was the easy part: the facilities of TechShop, the resources of AutoDesk, and Objet made that feasible. Truly the hard part of any collaboration is getting everyone generously and selflessly to contribute to the shared mission. That, I think, is where the partnership between TechShop and Reallocate is so inspired.
But, as North told me this story, I was struck by the complexity of relationships required to make a collaboration of this kind work. It's one thing to bring everyone together. What had he needed to provide, or to teach, his team in order to get everyone to work together so effectively? How had so many disciplines, working together voluntarily, managed to communicate well enough to make a product that actually worked?
Where comedy fits in
"We run a program—sort of a bootcamp for designing for developing countries," he told me. "You have to understand the engineering constraints, the cultural sensitivities. One part of the workshop is how to be a clown. It's more Cirque du Soleil than red noses—it sounds weird, right? But, you have an engineer who is a little stiff but they really want to help. And maybe there's a language barrier—so you can't go in with a PowerPoint presentation and communicate! So part of communicating as humans—that's what we're working on—is you have to be able to open up as a person. That's what a clown workshop is: Open up, be vulnerable, draw in your audience so you can communicate on an emotional level. Community, a sense of communication: that's everything."
North is clearly a highly inventive individual. He invented Reallocate, he was one of the inventors of the Miracle Brace—and he has a day job making toys. But what strikes me is how inventive he has been in his thinking about collaboration. Without a shared sense of language and risk, collaborative projects mostly descend into compromise, conflict ,or chaos. Developing instead a shared sense of vulnerability is a powerful starting point.
Watch a video about the Miracle Brace project:
Read more recent articles by Margaret Heffernan: