Friday 31 December 2010
Joel Gethin Lewis: the group dynamic
Technology-supported collaborative techniques have become an accepted part of the creative process, particularly when they concern large, dispersed groups of people. Used correctly, such collaborative techniques are fast, reliable, and extremely cost-effective. They are the rocket fuel for what Seth Godin and other commentators desire of creatives and entrepreneurs – the ability to ship fast and ship often.
Experiential creative agency Hellicar & Lewis was founded on the principles of open source and collaboration. Its co-founder, Joel Gethin Lewis, is a passionate advocate of collaborative techniques, with the agency using them across its processes. Although many of these processes and concepts have, of course, some relationship to technology (in terms of the development and support of the network), Lewis is quick to point out that it is not the technology itself which ships – it's the people.
“The thing that is magic is not the software. It's the people. That's something that sometimes gets missed in all of this – it's all about bringing us back to collaboration between people. These technologies are never a panacea; you still have to be able to communicate effectively. As well as being able to get rid of geographical problems, it enables us to get rid of time problems, because people can collaborate across timezones within a 24-hour cycle, and turn things around a lot faster and more efficiently.”
One of Hellicar & Lewis' recent projects was Night Lights, an interactive installation to support the rebrand of NZ Telecom.
The project used software created with OpenFrameworks, a C++-based open source toolkit. From start to completion, Night Lights took three weeks. Lewis points out that such a speed of development and delivery was only possible with the right blend of person-to-person meetings, and the support of collaboration tools like GitHub. Not only had this successful formula shipped the project at a rapid pace, but it also allowed filtering throughout its development: it was possible to mistakes in a collaborative environment that became “naturally” filtered out when it came to supporting and capturing the project through online tools.
The capturing of collaborative ideas and information for group dissemination can speed up processes, although the very act of doing so in front of a screen - to a digital interface – is a process in itself. Content is captured in the language of the machine: abstract thoughts and intuition are encoded into concrete information that can be clearly communicated into other people. The act of transcribing and encoding that information can often be a creative act in itself; and the distillation of ideas can force one to go down new paths.
Technologies such as GitHub and OpenFrameworks have clearly been very useful to the agency. It has enabled Hellicar & Lewis to quickly create new projects, as well as derive value within open source community, through the forking of others' projects. As Lewis himself points out, “the best way to prove that you're going to be a willing collaborator is by doing something, and letting the work stand for itself.” Collaborative and open source technologies are also advantageous from a reputational perspective, as the agency is finding out – it gives potential clients confidence through the open availability of the company's products, as well as allowing for the building of a portfolio of work.
“The democracy of ideas and innovation is something that we are very excited about. Whenever there is a new paradigm: the telegraph, the printed page, or the Internet... there is a resistance from the established world, that has built profit structures around their enactment. You can see that now; in the political world with WikiLeaks, and in the economic world - with spread betting becoming the biggest money-mover in the financial markets, democratising access to shorting and other things that were previously only the reserve of esoteric banking outfits in Mayfair. Now, anyone with a laptop can go ahead and try to be George Soros."
Collaborative tools also give Hellicar & Lewis the ability to work on projects where openness becomes a feature of their development. Where this is clearly not appropriate to every project from every brand, it is noteworthy that particular brands are now demanding an increased level of openness and use of open source, in order to ensure that the project is delivered on time and on budget.
Of course, not all businesses can easily lend their model to this level of openness and collaboration. Lewis cites Steven Johnson's four-quadrant model from Where good ideas come from as important and useful in business development and growth, commenting that there will always be a place for businesses which occupy all quadrants, tempting though it may be for the harbingers of new technologies to naïvely proclaim that they will destroy all that has gone before them.
As Hellicar & Lewis occupies has its feet in both the third (idea-sharing) and fourth (open source) quadrants of Johnson's model, Lewis is wary of developing a creative businesses that becomes taken over by administration. “The more time you have just to think, the better. That is where the real innovations come from. A lot of people in modern business and society spend a lot of time dealing with the other things that don't actually make any difference. It's about trying get to that point of time – the greatest thing that any of us have – as efficiently as possible.”
The lever of the crowd
Crowdsourcing and related concepts have a role to play in society. They are not a panacea for collaboration and openness, but they can help to facilitate them, and therefore make it easier for organisations to become more open, more quickly. Lewis hopes that crowdsourcing represent a true shift in decision-making from organisation to a more collective responsibility, with the “opening up” of Government through instruments such as FOI being critical to the development of a better relationship between state and citizen.
However, it is WikiLeaks which is the dominant – and most topical – example of the change that can be driven through openness. “WikiLeaks has held up a mirror to the world, in terms of the quality of US diplomatic prose – which is impressive. It's very easy for people to forget that the real source of the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks, was that there was such a difference between the public statements of these groups, and the private machinations of state, that were laid bare. To describe it as a dangerous or terrorist act is nonsensical. They didn't write any of the stories, they just told them. If you've got nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear. Governments have trotted that out against the people for many years; it's refreshing to see that being inverted back onto governments themselves.
Lewis goes on to argue that WikiLeaks also demonstrated the use of experts; that editorial distillation, in his view, is something that crowdsourcing cannot replace. However, and with some irony, the daily envelope which intelligence agencies provide to senior politicians, has turned out to have little differentiation from any publicly-available news source. Increasingly, such agencies have found themselves overtaken, because there's a limit on the number of people that these agencies can employ, and they will always be beaten by the collective intelligence of services such as Twitter.
WikiLeaks also provided something chunky for a dispersed community to pull apart, dissect, interpret, and discuss. This, of course, now happens on a constant basis, with Lewis citing the opening up of Microsoft's Kinect platform as a recent example: “I sat there on Twitter, watching people innovate – bouncing ideas back and forth across GitHub, various forums, email, chat, SMS and everything else.”
When definitions of terms and concepts change, it becomes easier to put something into a category to which some may argue is technically inappropriate. A recent example is Saatchi's “Welcome Back” ad for T-Mobile, which adopts flashmob techniques but is debatable as to whether the planning and staging behind it makes the crowd at the arrivals terminal a de facto flashmob.
Lewis sees real challenge occurring in less creative environments. “It's an easy sell to talk about collaboration enabling and brands enabling communities to come together. It's every marketer's wet dream to think in those terms. [However,] the way in which true change comes around is not in their attention-grabbing stunts from marketing agencies and the like, but it's the banal, little changes that people find in their lives through these techniques, that make the long-term difference: being able to find out dangerous areas of the city through open information, and trying to do something about that.”
There is no doubt that Lewis is excited about the prospects of where collaborative technologies will take him and his agency, both in terms of its internal processes, and the work that comes out of it.
However, his concern from the wider vista of society, is not in the nature of community and participatory change, but in the “meta idea” of the acceleration of the change. The pace of change is going to continue accelerating, and could end up becoming too difficult for conventional structures to deal with.
As change becomes faster and the forces of change become more dynamic, the journey itself will be exciting and invigorating, something that Lewis is looking forward to.
“There are obviously a lot of interesting philosophies about what happens in those moments, but it's certainly a very exciting time to be alive.”
Joel Gethin Lewis is Partner at Hellicar & Lewis.