Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Opportunities of Technology Driven Creative Collaborations

Written By: Dr. John Cabra

A few months ago my seven year old daughter learned of a trip I had scheduled to New York City. On the date of my departure she handed me two sheets of paper. On one sheet was a picture of an American Girl Doll eye wear product. It listed the price, varying styles, and a description of the product. The other sheet contained a map of Manhattan with tags of all the American Girl Doll stores located throughout Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs. She wanted me to bring her back this particular souvenir. Surprised, I asked her if mom had helped her find this information. My daughter Anna said no. I then asked her if her brother had helped. With a puzzled look, somewhat with a hint of annoyance--more like sassy to be quite honest--she also said no to my second question. “Wow! That’s my girl,” I proudly danced in my head in reaction to my seven year old daughter’s ability to navigate the web. Yet immediately following my glee, I could not help but feel sobered by what she was able to do at such a young age. I pondered, “If she could do this at age seven, what will she be able to do when she reaches college age?”

Technology is growing at such an exponential rate that it’s dizzying just thinking about it. We all know this to be true. I am sobered because as an academic, I have 20 more years of teaching left in my professional life. I reasoned that if I do not change how I teach now, I will be pathetically and miserably disconnected from my students. I saw myself as a dinosaur, more like Barney the dinosaur lecturing to an audience that get their lectures from a podcast created by a more technologically disposed younger academic; this audience I foreshadowed would come to “class” expecting to be coached, advised, facilitated, not lectured with content-saturated PowerPoint slides embedded with cheesy clipart.

To be honest, I feel vulnerable. I am anxious at the thought of trouble shooting an uncooperative software program. I fear learning curves that are too steep to master. By any measure, I am not a technologically savvy academic. Yet many peers and students think I am. To be fair, I admit that I am technologically aware. I keep abreast of as much technology news as possible. And because I must, I plan on immersing myself in more technological ambiguity despite the pain it produces. That said, my post elaborates on the underlying trends that give rise to these opportunities of technologically driven creative collaboration and to the extent they will govern how creativity and innovation will emerge and manifest in areas of organizational life such as business, education, science and design in the next 20 years.

Because I am limited with what I can cover in one post, I included a prezi presentation I gave last month to the Consortium of Colleges and Universities Media Center’s annual conference. Please see the link to my presentation at the end of this post. This blog also contains excerpts taken directly from an article I co-authored with a colleague (Uribe & Cabra, in press).

Take a minute to think about a typical day in your life. You are unlikely to find a day when you had no interaction with some sort of digital technology. On this day, you may have worked on your laptop computer, purchased something online, taken a picture with your digital camera and then uploaded it to a social media site. You certainly called somebody using your smartphone, listened to music on your mp3 player, interacted with a digital vending kiosk, or played a videogame. In all likelihood you did all of these things and more on that same day using only the smartphone you carry. Although these technologies are in their infant stages with no more than a few decades of existence, their influence and pervasiveness in modern day life have been remarkable. As of 2008, the average U.S. American between the ages 18 to 55 have consumed between 500 to 570 minutes of digital information per day through means such as TV, mobile phones and computer technologies. This is the equivalent of 8 ½ hours of our daily lives (Council for Research Excellence, 2008). It is yet to be seen and difficult to imagine the extent to which we will continue to integrate these technologies in a seamless and frictionless way. The thought of what lies ahead is evocatively exciting and frightening as we ponder the integration of technologies such as intra-body nanotechnology, sub-dermal radio frequency identification tags -- just to name a few -- with our psychological, sociological and even physiological being. Here are three trends we see unfolding at a rapid pace.

Trend 1: The 3 W’s: Whatever -- Wherever -- Whenever
Moore’s Law, which predicts an exponential increase in a microprocessor’s power, while simultaneously decreasing its size, has made it possible for us to live in a ubiquitous and omnipresent reality, a now-reality (Tapscott, 2009). In the now-reality the constructs of need and satisfaction collapse in the blink of an eye. Whether it is through smartphones, netbooks or any other networked device, we carry the world in our pockets and therefore can access this world of information wherever we are and whenever we want. From a sociological perspective we now expect and demand that information, communication and transactions are instantaneous. As these forms of technology continue to improve, they will become more ubiquitous. As organizations become more internationalized, organizational members will be expected to interface with overseas partners. As such, we anticipate organizations will engage in live and remote creative collaborations whenever, wherever and on whatever.

Face-to-face collaborations often involve the use of flipchart paper and post-it notes, which are cumbersome and sluggish. We predict these platforms will fade. There are platforms now that can mind-map and visually tag data into more meaningful themes in a matter of minutes (Puccio & Cabra, 2009). Now let’s take this further. Imagine that these software programs can be executed to create endless iterations of digitized prototypes, models, or simulations. It now exists. A software program called the Data Visualizer, in concert with another program called Catai, can perform thousands of iterative checks in seconds to examine the interface possibilities among component widgets. The implication here suggests that reliance on non-digital technology (analog technology) so often used in creativity meetings, such as flipcharts, whiteboards, and post-its will no longer be practical.

Trend 2: The Hyper-Reality
The vision of a seamless digital landscape has been the inspiration and fascination of many movie directors, who have anticipated some of the most incredible immersive technologies decades in advance of their commercialization in real life. For example, in George Lucas’ 1977
Star Wars movie, R2-D2 relays a 3D holographic message from Princess Leia to young Luke Skywalker; that scene planted the seeds for Cisco’s telepresence technology into the collective
unconscious and into the R&D labs of major players in the computer and communication technology business. Today telepresence, when coupled with Musion’s holographic technology, is now available as a commercial product to organizations worldwide providing an enhanced and immersive remote collaboration experience. Telepresence, Virtual Worlds, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Tangible Digital Media (technologies that we have seen in many of Hollywood blockbusters) are all byproducts of the seamless and frictionless integration of what
we hold to be part of the natural world and that of the digital world. This gives rise to a Hyper-

Hyper-reality blends layers of digital information into our field of perception to heighten our experience of life. There are two kinds of technology that come to mind. One technology invites us to get immersed into digital realms such as Virtual Worlds. This technology recreates vivid and immersive realities for us to explore and are detached from our physical reality. Another technology brings the digital world into our physical reality such as Augmented Reality or Tangible Media devices. This new socio-technical landscape, which is made out of a rich blend between matter and bytes, offers significant opportunities to harness creativity and innovation.

Opportunities within Virtual Worlds
Virtual Worlds offer one of the most immersive platforms among remote synchronous collaboration technologies. Individuals feel like they are in close proximity to each other. In terms of specific activities and subprocesses within the creative process, we see two core areas where the use of virtual world venues and the manipulation of digital data will increase creative effectiveness. First, virtual platforms allow us to enhance ideation initiatives. Our ideas now can be expressed digitally and in 3D, which add a new layer to the traditional mechanisms of ideation comprising the use of scribbled post it’s and quick sketches. 3D models convey a more vivid picture of an idea than a 2D image. As such, it easier for team members to fully grasp a concept and then build on it thus further driving ideation. In addition, ideas can be expressed in a myriad of digital formats like video footage, pictures, and sounds for richer creative expression.

Opportunities within Augmented Reality
While virtual reality requires donned equipment that facilitates the creation of a simulation not
of the real world per se or in real time, Augmented Reality does not. Augmented reality (AR) is
a technology that permits live, direct or indirect examination of a tangible setting comprising the
real-world. Reality can be augmented with audio, and someday, with a sense of touch. For example, imagine a football trading card, which is a physical element. Then, the football player
emerges as a 3D object. It is also interactive as you can study the performance statistic of this
football player, page to the next informational bit, and so on. AR, in short, merges 3D objects into video (real and virtual) in real time.

Opportunities within Tangible Media
Tangible Media is a technology that makes information tangible. For example, blocks that look
like LEGOs can be joined, enlarged, colors changed through hand gestures. These blocks can be copied and the process used to construct some sort of prototypes can be replayed for analysis and further insight. These forms are not limited to blocks. Tangible landscapes or surfaces permit simulations of natural climate phenomena such as hurricanes. Typically TM is operated on a table top. Back, Matsumoto and Dunnigan (2009) designed a Tangible Media technology to simulate the use of Post-Its™ called Post-Bits. This media form provides groups with the ability to flex, move, sort, stack e-paper in the same way as seen in the real world. These Post- Bits were also designed to capture digital information. They explain how this form of tangible media can be used for stages of the creative process to tackle all kinds of challenges.

Trend 3: The Superorganism:
Technology has leveraged a human trait, and this is our tendency to embed ourselves in social structures. For that reason, networks have expanded exponentially to change the social landscape from a few geographically concentrated networks to a massively distributed global social fabric, the Superorganism. Today’s creative discoveries are byproducts of a distributed collective effort rather than that of the individual genius. With the aid of computer mediated social networks, individuals are constantly sharing ideas, perceptions and opinions. They comprise a very rich melting pot that fuels creativity and innovation in varied domains. As the visionary thinker Alvin Toffler predicted in his book the Third Wave (1980) we are transitioning to an age where boundaries that were once established in the industrial revolution between producers and consumers are fading away to gradually give rise to the socioeconomical archetype of the Prosumer. Thus a new social contract has been established in which it is not enough for people to be passive recipients of goods and services, but where there is a participatory dialogue, articulation and co-creation of value between different individuals and sectors of society (Brown & Katz, 2009).

Opportunities within Open sourcing
One of the clearest and earliest manifestations of this new socio-economical order is open source collaborative projects. Open source phenomena emerged from the software development discipline. Later, software development evolved and began including a process of remote collaborations. Potential users and developers were give access to program code and freedom to independently modify software. Examples of open source products and services are
Linux based operating systems (e.g. Ubuntu), Wikipedia online encyclopedia, and the Mozilla Firefox web browser. Open source collaboration has transformed and revolutionized collaborative creative work. Sourcing practices foster creativity because its participants come from different cultures, domains and backgrounds. They reflect many personalities, cognitive styles, and various approaches to creative problem-solving. When managed appropriately, diversity can serve as a rich resource for novel and valuable ideas. When managed effectively, diverse groups can neutralize toxic personalities that prime dysfunctional group dynamics. People who gravitate toward open or crowd sourcing initiatives are passionate and intrinsically motivated, as these endeavors typically do not offer remuneration or even public recognition.

In these more porous structures, organizational life will be deeply affected by openness and mass collaboration. Leadership will be less and less determined by power structure but by merits of ideas and contributions to the network; as soon as an individual’s idea usefulness or contribution declines, leadership will migrate to other network nodes on the rise (Hammel, 2009). This notion of leadership by merit is still quite new and only few organizations (e.g. Design firm IDEO) have adopted such loose and fluid leadership practices. The scope and extent to which individuals exercise creative leadership, which involves in part the role of building an environment that nurtures the emergence of novelty that is useful (Puccio, Murdock & Mance, 2007), will also shift. Fulfilling this role is already made difficult for leaders working in close and relatively small organizations; it will certainly prove even more challenging in a remote collaborative environment that is also expansively distributed and dauntingly massive.

The Superorganism is by far the most important and pervasive of the discussed trends. The massive sharing and presence in social network engines as seen in Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter are examples of how we have decided to take our social entrenchment to a larger scale with the support of computer and communication technologies. As discussed above, this new socio-technical landscape opens vast collaborative creative possibilities that will be a core driver of technical and social innovation. Citizens of the 21st century are no longer bound by the scope of their geographic location and therefore they can now collaborate in creative endeavors locally and globally.

Open source creativity is expected to move outside the software industry into areas such as manufacturing, services, health and education. It also anticipated that organizational life will be deeply affected by this phenomenon. For example, leadership will not be determined by a power structure but by merits one’s contributions to the network; as soon as an idea loses its appeal, leadership will then migrate to other network areas in search of new and improved ideas. Crowd sourcing practices we expect will be commonplace and as a result, the once clear cut boundaries between producers and consumers, firms and customers will blur.

As exciting as these trends are, one sobering obstacle remains and reminds how easily we can get carried away with the next technological introduction. As Cerf and Schultz (2007) compassionately asserted, “Let me pause to point out the obvious. For about 2 billion people today, the Internet is NOT a reality; it is yet a distant dream or perhaps entirely unknown. Electricity is still unknown or unavailable or unreliable. Sanitation, housing, food, water and education are in limited supply. For those parts of our global society, the Internet and its benefits seem far beyond reach. We must not give up pursuit, however idealistic, of access for all. (p. 2)


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Uribe-Larach, D., & Cabra, J. F. (in press). The opportunities and challenges of technology driven collaborations. In Mesquita, A. (Ed.), Technology for creativity and innovation: Tools, techniques and applications. Hershey, PA: IGI Publishing.

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