Month: April 2010

design thinkingeducation & learningresearchscience & technology

Structure of Team Science: Opportunities for Design

A space for creativity: Stanford's New D-School Building :

Last week’s conference on the Science of Team Science at Northwestern University provided two and a half days of thought-provoking presentations and discussion (for examples, see here, here, here and here) on the challenges and opportunities of team science and how it has the potential to (and indeed, already is) transform research.

One word that was nearly absent from the conference was design. While much attention was paid to the who (scientists, practitioners, policy makers, interdisciplinary interactions), the why (more productivity, better able to tackle wicked problems), a little on the what (what is the what of team of science), some on the how, and only partly on the where (with places like Northwestern and UBC leading the way). It is the last place, the where, that might be the most important.

As the Science of Team Science conference unfolded, another event was taking place that could be equally as important — if not more so — than what was being discussed at Northwestern: Stanford prepared to open its new d-school (design school) building. The picture above, from Fast Company’s story on the new school’s home, illustrates the look and feel of the place. It’s safe to say this is not something that would be seen at most places of research such as universities and laboratories (at least, not during office hours when the professors are around and the grad students aren’t left alone) .

The Institute of Design at Stanford University is set up to succeed in creating new ideas and transforming them into innovation. Sounds a lot like what universities and scientific laboratories are supposed to do isn’t it? Yet, how many institutions are set up like this? This is not about money — not entirely — it is about vision. Stanford’s dschool’s mission and vision fits on a napkin.  They see themselves as a place to bring together multidisciplinary groups to tackle hard (maybe wicked?) problems and provide space for interactions to take place and interact.

A quote from one of their team members (note, this isn’t “staff”, “faculty” or “students” — its team member)

We couldn’t be more different, except for our shared values. And that makes working together enjoyable

The new dschool building is designed to be “homey” for people who want to create, sketch, collaborate and be what I call artists in the service of innovation. They have designed their space and their program to be in the service of ideas and useful products, not just themselves. Look at the modern university, discussed recently by Seth Godin as an institution ready for a meltdown, and ask yourself if that is a venue for innovation? Are we creating the space for innovation and the structure of buildings and organizations to really promote the kind of creative process that Stanford’s dschool does or that the attendees at the Science of Team Science aspire towards?

It’s time to bring design into that conversation.

complexityeducation & learningresearchscience & technology

Science of Team Science 2

Day two of the Science of Team Science Conference wrapped up yesterday with a lot of energy and enthusiasm (plus some anticipation at today’s 1/2 day workshop on social network analysis). The tell-tale sign that the conference was a hit was the observation that nearly 4/5 of the room was full to hear the convener provide general closing remarks on a Friday afternoon (this after 20 hours of sitting in a hotel ballroom for two days). That speaks volumes about the conference and how much interest there is in the topic.

It is perhaps because of this interest that there is genuine hope that something will come from this beyond just another conference. The question I asked myself is: Why did this conference and this topic yield such interest and a positive response?

What is it about teams that makes this such a compelling issue?

I see three primary reasons:

1. Teams fit our basic need for human relatedness. As the barrier between work and the rest of life (ROL) dissolves further due to changing job structures, information technology, and human mobility the potential to become isolated is high. The gap between connection and community is enormous. We have ‘friends’ on Facebook, ‘followers’ on Twitter, and ‘connections’ on LinkedIn, yet of these many dozens or hundreds only a few really count. Of those, even fewer are ones that we can comfortably relate to. Yet, this appearance of hyperconnectedness provides a false sense of relationships and transmits into a remarkable leveling off of human experience (see Jaron Lanier‘s You Are Not a Gadget, discussed here).

David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea , Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness, or Meg Wheatley’s Turning to One Another are works that do a wonderful job of pointing to this problem of disconnection in work and argue for greater integration between one’s personal and spiritual life and their vocation. Seth Godin’s Linchpin (discussed in previous posts) is another book that illustrates the power of bringing one’s “art” to work with others. Science has traditionally been the domain of individual effort, working in small groups at best, but generally alone. This is isolating in itself, but add to the myriad other factors that foster isolation in modern scientific work it is not surprising that any avenue to build connections to others, while continuing to do the work that scientists love, has been embraced.

2. Teams confer genuine advantages in terms of productivity and outcomes. The conference offered a blend of theory, research and strategy, which is probably why it had such broad appeal to an audience that comprised people interested in all three of those things. When the focus was on evidence, it became clear that there is an emergent literature on team science impact. Team science is not a panacea, but it is effective for certain types of problems and provides an alternative option for those wishing to do research, stay social, and tackle complex, wicked problems. Some of the data presented in panels or posters points to teams being more successful at getting large grants, and that, for some, team science can boost productivity. Much more research is needed, but the early results are promising.

Conceptually, this makes sense. Diverse teams of individuals will see problems differently and, particularly with complex problems, complex responses are necessary and diversity provides this complexity. Teams are an ideal structure to addressing a problem that requires new ways of working, knowledge from many areas, and a method of coordinating that knowledge in order to mobilize it.

3. Team science is becoming “hot”. This is the more cynical perspective, but it nonetheless describes reasons why people pursue fields of inquiry. In recent years the creation of funding structures from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation in the U.S. has led a lot of people to consider team science simply as a mechanism to raise research funding. This conference is a byproduct of those decisions. This is not to say that those who pursue team science funding are doing it just because of the money, but it is a powerful incentive. Research flourishes where there are resources to sustain it. It draws in researchers, attracts graduate students and post-docs, and shapes the way many create proposals.

Last night over dinner, a group of us discussed the role that financing plays and whether teams that come together because they want to work together and are looking for funding to support that function differently than those that come together to get funding and then do research based on the details of that grant. Like the conference as a whole, the responses were diverse and no agreement on what would work and why was made. Nor was one expected.

The conference organizers have proclaimed that this is the first annual event, which will mean that we have an opportunity to see where this goes and what a year will do to shaping this field. The conference website is going to be transformed into a community website, enabling researchers, practitioners and policy makers to interact and even create teams. Whether they form based on personal interest, whether we need a ‘coach’ or two, or whether there will be funding to draw people in remains to be seen.
For readers looking for another take on the conference and some insightful reflections on what was discussed, I’d encourage you to visit Stephanie Jo Kent’s Reflexivity blog and read the play-by-play comments on Twitter by searching the hashtag #teamsci10.

education & learninginnovationresearchscience & technology

Science of Team Science

For the last two days I’ve been attending the Science of Team Science conference at Northwestern University in Chicago. It is what I can only imagine is the closest thing to the Super Bowl or World Cup of team science (minus the colourful jerseys, rampant commercialism, and hooligans — although that would have made quite an impact as academic conferences go).

The presentations over the first day and a half have illustrated how far we have come in just a few years. In 2008 a similar conference was held near the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. That event, sponsored by the US National Cancer Institute, was an attempt to raise the profile of team science by highlighting the theories and rationale underlying why the idea of collaboration, networks and multi-investigator applied research might be a good idea. The conference was aimed at sparking interest in the phenomenon of collaborative team research for health and resulted in a special issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine highlighting some of the central ideas.

Although there are many of the same people attending this conference as there was two years ago, the content and tenor of the conversation is markedly different. The biggest difference is that the idea of team science no longer needs to be sold (at least, to the audience in the room). There is wide agreement by attendees that team science is a good thing for a certain set of problems (particularly wicked ones) and that it will not replace normal science, rather complement it or fill in gaps that standard research models leave.

There is also much contention. Although, unlike other conferences, this contention is less about a clash between established bodies of knowledge, rather it is based on uncertainty over the direction that team science is going and the best routes to get there, wherever “there” is. Stephanie Jo Kent, a communications researcher from UMass, has been live blogging at the event (and encouraging the audience to join in — follow #teamsci10 on Twitter or Stephanie @stephjoke) and wrote a thoughtful summary of the first day on her blog. Here she points to one of the biggest challenges that the emergent field of team science and the conference attendees will need to address: Getting beyond “the what” of team science.

She writes:

Because everyone has their own thing that they’re into, whether its research or administration or whatever, we would have to come up with “a meta-thing” as a goal or aim that everyone – or at least a solid cadre of us – could get behind. What if we decided to answer the process question? Instead of focusing on, “What is ‘the what’ of team science?” which takes as its mission connecting the science; we propose an examination of self-reflective case studies in order to identify “what works” and thus be able to explain and train people in the skills and techniques of effective team science.

This issue of training is an important one. My own research with the Research on Academic Research (RoAR) project has found that many scientists working in team science settings don’t know how to do it when they start out. We scientists are rarely trained in collaboration and teamwork, and those that are, are not in science.

It will be interesting to see where things go from here. I suggest following us all on Twitter to see.


The Artist, The Audience and the Knowledge Translator: The Case of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull

I recently watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on DVD [note: plot descriptions and spoilers about the film lay ahead]. I’m a big Indiana Jones fan. That character represented my first exposure to a professor and likely served as some unconscious motivator for me to get my PhD even if I don’t carry a bullwhip or find buried treasure. However, in this last installment of the movie, the real treasure as Dr. Jones puts it isn’t the ornaments that they find in the temples, but the knowledge that are embodied within the cultures where those objects emerge from.

Included with the DVD was a behind-the-scenes mini-documentary on the making of the movie where George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and some of the people who developed the movie are interviewed. At some point they spoke about the title of the movie and how drafts included things akin to “Indiana Jones and the Giant Fire Ants” or “Indiana Jones and the Aliens“. As a fan who enjoys the franchise for the historical references and creative use of real facts blended with fiction I found the whole alien thing more than a little concerning, but as an ardent follower of George Lucas’ films my entire life I have come to learn what makes him tick. George wanted to recreate the B-movie experiences of his youth as I found him speaking about this I started to think about the role of the artist vs. the audience and its parallels with knowledge translation.

Although Lucas, Spielberg, Harrison Ford and the writers acknowledged the importance of creating something for the fans, it was evident that the creative team behind this were having fun doing something that pleased them and met their needs. As a fan, I didn’t like Crystal Skull much and the reviews online suggest that there were quite a few (but still a few) that felt the same way. The reason I didn’t like it was that it didn’t feel true to the other movies, the ones I enjoyed as a fan. Yet, as filmmakers, Lucas and Spielberg seemed to have a great time.

In health sciences, we have a similar situation with artists (scientists/researchers) listening a little to the audience and then creating knowledge that they think the audience (health professionals, the public, policy makers) will like, but also doing it for themselves.  They take feedback from the audience such as the number of articles downloaded or references as part of an impact factor and make the assumption that past endorsement equals permission to use the same process to envision further research. My question is whether the audience is buying this knowledge (metaphorically speaking) because its the closest thing to what they wanted that they could find, but that still might not be what they would have produced had they the creative abilities to generate that knowledge for themselves.

Would Crystal Skull have been a better movie had the fans designed it? Were those that liked it happy with it only because it was Indiana Jones, the character they love, and the fact that they hadn’t had a movie with him in it for more than 15 years. It might be said the same of some of George Lucas’ other franchise: Star Wars. Fans of the first three movies have been very vocal in their dislike of the “new” movies that began screening in 1999, but that didn’t stop millions of them (myself included) from seeing the movies multiple times, buying the DVDs and supporting the work.

Do we have the same thing in knowledge translation, where people are willing to tolerate knowledge that is incomplete, doesn’t fit, isn’t always appropriate, but is the only thing they have because that’s the only thing that scientists are willing to produce in favour of their art?

If George Lucas listened to the fans exclusively, would he have generated something better? Folks like Jaron Lanier might argue no, because that hive mind that comes from mass opinion is what dilutes creativity. We don’t know, because George is an artist and he wants to create what he wants to create, giving some, but just some, credence to what the fans want.

(Interestingly, a new documentary (The People vs. George Lucas) will be showing at the upcoming Hot Docs film fest in Toronto looking at whether Lucas’ Star Wars franchise is so part of popular culture that it should be considered a common good.)

Should this same position be taken with knowledge translation or should scientists pay more attention to the needs of the public and end users? Would that improve things?


design thinkingeducation & learninginnovationpublic health

The Tyranny of Text in Creating Innovative Systems

By plindberg via Flickr. Used under creative commons licence

Yesterday I attended another one of the fabulously inspiring Unfinished Business lectures put on by my friends from the Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) at OCAD by Alexander Osterwalder, Ph.D on business model generation.  The talk focused on the methodology developed and employed by Osterwalder and his colleagues (including 470 members of an open online forum who paid to see the project bought to life!) and how it can be used to illustrate (literally!) the business model for an organization. The methodology, described in the book, which was designed carefully to reflect the visual nature of the approach, centres on using art, sticky notes and conversation to help organize firms’ thoughts about how to design their business.

At its core is something fundamentally juvenile – play, drawing, movement and tactile embodiment of ideas. At the end of the talk my colleague and I were chatting with some others about the way in which methods like this — ones that use visual learning and active, arts-based approaches to creative expression — get disregarded in mainstream. I even overheard comments made about the book (which was on sale) that somewhat dismissed the reliance on pictures, sketches and a relatively non-conventional layout (for similar examples of this layout look at two books highlighting Bruce Mau’s work and ideas: Massive Change and Life / Style) .

So even among designers and design thinkers this is still an idea that’s hard to grasp. It’s the tyranny of text.

Yet, it seems so intuitive to use the many tools at our disposal to facilitate creativity. Text is good for some things, but lousy for others. It’s like the old saying:

Give someone a hammer and pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail

We’ve given our health professionals tools and learning methods made up of numbers and letters and they’ve consequently treated their subsequent strategies for learning as ones requiring text and numbers to solve. The hammer is given in school, the public and patients are nails are used in the field.

It’s not like this for everyone. Ask a five-year old to share their ideas and they might offer a story, a finger paint picture, create a play, or get their friends to build something with clay. As a thirty-five, forty-five or fifty-five year old to do the same and they’ll likely offer you a typewritten page and PowerPoint presentation (with lots of text). Why? We’ve been so acculturated into a dominant design culture of text that we rarely consider sketchbooks, art tools, or performance as options, let alone good options when we develop ideas. Our education system, cultural bias towards the written word and perhaps an elitist attitude among the learned societies (combined with a mystery around arts-informed methods of learning) all contribute to this constant promotion of written work over other forms.

Knowledge translation, at its heart, is about generating the data needed to address problems, making sense of it, and ensuring that such knowledge is implemented in a manner that solves the problem.

I’ve heard many times that we only use 10 per cent of brain, which is a myth (note: I was thrilled to find that when you look up this “fact” in Google, nearly all of the first two pages of hits are myth-busters, raising my faith that the collective peer-review system is working — something Laura O’Grady kindly commented on with my last post) . But it might be closer to reality to say that we only use 10 per cent of our available creative tools to solve problems in the health sector.

So at your next meeting, maybe bring a sketchbook instead of your laptop and see what you produce.

public healthresearch

Selling The Value of Research

I recently was awarded a grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), the leading funder of health research in Canada. This was one of those hard fought, peer-reviewed grants that provide the fuel for the engine of research (and look good on a CV to boot). I’ve been fortunate to have had funding from them before, but unlike the other times I’ve received a letter from them (or another funder) this time I received something extra: a pamphlet called “Communicating the Value of Health Research” .

The pamphlet provides a short outline of how as scientists we can better share what we do with not just the usual places (peer-review journals, academic presentations), but also the wider world. It fell short of advocating for science blogging, or posting results on Twitter, but went beyond the usual to discuss ways in which scientists can better explain what they do the public and why that is a good idea in the first place.

In any other venue this might not be so strange, but for CIHR — or rather, academic health research more generally — this was something of a surprise. One of the biggest problems we face as researchers is that there is an air of mystery about what we do to the public and frankly, I think most researchers are content with that.  Much of what we do is unknown to the rest of the world for very good reason: we are the one’s who invented the very thing we are studying. This is pretty handy when that invention is something that has the potential to change people’s lives for the better, but much less so when that ‘thing’ is a new way of expressing something we’ve done over and over again or something that has no obvious benefit, but might a long way down the road. Sure, we like the attention that comes when people actually use our work for something, but the prevailing idea for most of the 20th century held that the work had its own merits and therefore should be valued by the public because of it.

No more.

The dawn of the era of knowledge translation; active promotion of research and consideration for how it is presented, potentially used, and the role of the audience, participants and intended beneficiaries of research outputs is here. And CIHR is determined to ensure that we researchers promote what we do, hence the little pamphlet I received with my acceptance letter.

The concept of the socially active researcher promoting his or her research without the filter of peer review is something that scares a lot of people. Those fears are not unfounded. There is a lot of research that is not well-grounded, potentially confusing, and overtly misleading, incomplete or inaccurate. Gunther Eysenbach has pointed to some of these glaring problems in his discussion of the concept of infodemiology.

Yet, the idea of the researcher as a stand-alone generator of knowledge is outdated. It implies a system of knowledge generation that is divorced completely from its effects, which flies in the face of what we know about innovation and applied research. This is not to argue that there is no place for the “pure” scientist, focused exclusively on research, but that is only one role within a larger spectrum that ought to reflect a diversity of mixes of research and application. On the other end should be those who’s role is to exclusively translate knowledge into action, much like the Canadian Health Services Foundation’s concept of the knowledge broker (PDF).

Regardless of the position taken in this spectrum, I believe that we researchers all need to take some responsibility of arguing for reasons to do research, communicating to the world about its value (and demonstrating this), and ensuring that its application and funding is done responsibility. Otherwise, we leave its fate to a public unaware and constantly bombarded by other messages touting the value of other activities, both beneficial and banal. It is because other groups have been so good at communicating their message that science and research has been so hard hit. Last year, the federal budget for research was cut. This year, the increase barely (if at all) kept pace with inflation.

In both cases, the public outcry was non-existent. The reason, I believe, is that the public has little idea about what science means for them, why it is worth investing in, and what it would mean if it disappeared. It’s also because we researchers, programmers, and policy makers have done (collectively) a lousy job of translating what we know into what we do. As a researcher, I need to take responsibility for the part of the equation that falls within my sphere of influence and that means communication.

My message to my scientific colleagues is this: if research and its value is important to you, read the pamphlet and take action. Communication is the future of our profession.


Designing for Resilience


A recent post on the environmental sustainability site Worldchanging caught my eye and reflects what I see as a growing connection between design and systems thinking and supporting a greater need for new ways of handling complexity. The post, by Worldchanging staff writer Alex Steffen, argues that we need to re-think our views of sustainability by redefining the concept and focusing on resilience and adaptation. This is not always a popular position to take because it focuses on the potential negative consequences of past actions that are expected to arrive in the future, rather than emphasize prevention on its own. Consider it a secondary prevention messsage rather than a primary prevention one. But while it is not the most optimistic position, I also think its the most realistic. Anyone who has been paying attention to the environmental discourse and the data behind has to be thinking the future isn’t going to be all rosy. But, as Steffen argues, it can be something we can save and adapt to in the process of making the world better.

To do this, Steffen focuses on four key points: The starting point is acknowledging the complexity of the issue and making the messy stuff visible.

1. Defining the scope of resilience is critical.

One of the defining characteristics of post-industrial capitalism is that it hides its backstories. Because branding is so important, and consumer choices are made often on completely intangible perceptions, most of messy destruction and systemic oppression that support our lives happens in places obscured from our view. This is why it’s so critical we work on making visible the invisible, doing supply chain transparency and backstory activism. Sunlight does wonders for sustainability.

But there’s a second side to this coin that we rarely address: because so much of the harm we do indirectly is hidden from us, we have really profoundly distorted ideas of how our lives work.

This focus on making the invisible visible is critical. Whether it is the harm we do or the organizations we’re a part of, we are often ignorant of the true impact of what we do and the unintended consequences of our actions. Systems dynamic models and social network maps are one ways in which we can methodologically address these issues by showing visual representations of the causes, consequences and actors associated with a given problem.

2) Sustainability needs to be a systemic effort.

If we want to live sustainable lives, we need to make sustainable places, and in the modern world, where metropolises drive the economy and culture, that means making sustainable cities. We may not be able to do that everywhere in the time we have; but the idea that we can thrive without doing it many places is delusional. Fail to make cities resilient at a broad scale, and we’re talking the breakdown of social order, which means all other plans are pointless.

In order to make cities sustainable, we need to understand the proper scale of urban sustainability, which is regional. The same mistaken vision that leads us to focus on problems close at hand often leads us to define the solutions as small-scale and immediately local. This, again, betrays the fact that larger systems are often hidden from our view.

Scale is the important word here. By understanding the appropriate boundaries of the systems we wish to influence, we are far better equipped to deal with the problems at a local, global and ‘glocal‘ levels. It means employing social innovation in a manner that creates opportunities to scale up things that work well, but also avoiding the scaling fallacy that befalls many designers and social planners by assuming that something that works at one level can simply be created larger or smaller and produce the same result.

3) Ruggedness is something we don’t talk enough about.

Because sustainability thinking has largely grown out the environmental movement, there’s still a mental dichotomy between natural and fallen; that is, we often think the point is to save the green places, save virgin nature, and that anything that has been incorporated into the human world is lost, and of secondary importance at best.

One problem with this thinking is the entire planet and every corner and crevice within it has now been incorporated into the human world. Wild, “virgin” nature doesn’t exist anymore. We’ll be needing to manage the consequences of our interventions in nature to extents few of us are prepared to think about, for centuries to come.

Another, even bigger problem with this thinking is that it has tended to make us into all-or-nothing thinkers. We have been warning for decades about the need to prevent catastrophe, coloring everything on the other side of catastrophe “unthinkable.”

Most of what we interact with on a daily basis is designed by humans in some capacity. With rare exception, if you live in an urban area, nearly everything you encounter has been designed — even parks and greenspaces. Acknowledging this is the first step towards to working with the world we’ve created, rather than aspiring for something that doesn’t exist independent of those places where humans don’t reside. Just because something is of nature (like a tree) doesn’t mean its context is natural as any observation of a tree-lined street should attest.

At the same time, recognizing the place of trees and the like also helps us reconnect with the natural world, but in doing so requires integrative thinking, the ability to hold two differing, but related (and perhaps opposite) ideas at the same time.

4) The future demands new thinking.

We need to have the capacity to change quickly, to reinvent, to distribute innovation and explore new realities: and we’re going to have to do all that while the world gets weirder and many places crumble into chaos from time to time. We have to be built rugged enough to fight our way through the future’s troubles, strong enough to serve as bulwarks that can help and protect the more vulnerable.

This last point is the crux of the argument and fits with what Einstein observed many years ago:

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them

That thinking is looking increasingly like it needs to consider design, systems and integrate together and work to create more resilient, not resistant communities and organizations.