Collaborative Co-Working at PSFK Conference New York 2008
PIERS: We have an international space agency and a craft website. Might not understand what the similarities are between those organizations. What they have in common is how they collaborate with partners, suppliers and they do this in the real world and online. I’ve asked Greg Verdino to investigate how they do this.
GREG: How many people are familiar with the concept of coworking? Some. How many are freelancers? Working on coworking spaces? 2 guys. I like to throw out Wikipedia definitions because they’re almost always wrong. Notion of communal space where people who normally work on their own, freelancers, no physical space to go to, can come together – work alone but form community and find ways to work together. Makes it very different from the old school model of shared office spaces. You have your cubicle. It’s an interesting phenomenon, gaining a lot of steam and popularity. We have Andrew from NASA – no longer a phenomenon limited to the one man shop. Traditionally it’s been physical spaces like this. Now it’s transcending physical space and blending physical, digital web spaces into virtual. Coca Cola slide, residents of the virtual world we programmed, blended physical and virtual, working together and collaborating without having to be physically in the same space. We don’t only work out of a virtual world. These are just one example of social video application. Crayon allows over the web at no cost to over the web videoconference. Cra yon has no space. We use it strictly for coworking, constantly on video or in Second Life to make sure we can work well as a team. We outsource a lot of work and use a lot of freelancers. I’d like to hand off to Rob, who will talk about how Etsy uses technology.
ROBERT: Etsy is an online marketplace for handmade goods. This is the way it used to work before mass production. If you needed a table, you’d go to market and get a table probably made with wood from that building. We’re doing a lot of the same idea of a local economy with local artisans making things, but plugging into a global market. It’s a community alongside. The marketplaces were the crossroads of the world, see sights and smell spices, find a spouse. We’ve completely lost that with stores like Wal-Mart. The packagers are very shrewd. Used to buy a big barrel of wheat. They found putting a human face on Uncle Ben’s rice, there you go, it’s that face a few times removed. I’m going to take the stance of not understanding what coworking is. We see it as a novelty and say we’re going to give it a name. If you can image what it used to look like with telephone operators, people able to collaborate around the world. It’s just using a new technology. It’s not added on, just fundamentally changes how we do business and communicate. How many people are baffled by second life? OK, I’m totally of that ilk. Suspension of disbelief – you know it’s not a mother or a queen, but you suspend it so you can have the emotion. If you had a real price and queen, wouldn’t be good actors. The way we’ve done is different from second life – represented by two dimensional avatars. You’re represented by this little space and you’re communicating in it. The two dimensional Second Life is a distraction from that. ??? Fuck, Internet and one user, it turns them into a not so nice person. Road rage, someone in a car gets in a rage – inside a vehicle it’s unreadable on the outside of it. How do we keep this playful component and put more of who we are in it. Some people are very meek on line are very aggressive off line. Avatar means ascended from heaven. You have a temporary performative act coming down from heaven. People are different on the phone and on letters. (SHOWS SLIDES.) It’s a new way to comment on something. Shopping is social – I want to bring that to the online space. The medium is new, 10-15 years. We’re still figuring it out. We’re taking idioms form the offline world and trying to transfer it.
ANDREW: Second Life is the best thing ever. In Central America we flick our headlights to say thank you when you pass. I work at NASA in Silicon Valley although I live here half time. I came to NASA in 2006 when we had a new director installed in a new facility. We were faced with 2 problems. 1) People in Silicon Valley didn’t know we existed. We were across the street from Google. To generalize, we were irrelevant in popular culture out there. 2) Internally we had a static culture, things done the same way for decades. It was hard to innovate. We really wanted to change those two situations. We were hired in to figure out how to do that. I had no idea but was brought in to figure it out. The culture we wanted to inject in NASA, caring about people as well as the bottom line, being excited, all that, which ought to be the core values, was abundant in all these entrepreneurial communities about the area. Let’s open a channel between the communities. We had gates, we had security, and we’re on the other side of the highway from Google. Our solution was coworking. We tried it up in San Francisco; I rented a desk in Citizens Space. I learned it’s difficult to open a new NASA facility for legal and financial reasons. So instead, started to have events, conferences, workshops, symposiums. We decided to live together. Opened a NASA mansion. You can throw events at this mansion. This is called “super happy dead house”. Space hat day. All kinds of hacking happened on software that we care about. We Wanted to do it in daytime too. Well, Second Life. We were the first government facility that was open to anyone. We invited people to come, had community meetings – here’s our problems, help us figure it out. More importantly, from all around NASA, the 10 geographies around the country, showing up at these Tuesday afternoon meetings. Formed a community of NASA and non-NASA, started coworking in second life. Cultural change in the agency – identified the change agents. Dressed up as penguins – not where you’re expect to find NASA. People not identified with NASA tended to show up earlier. This work in second life is being carried forth much more by other people at other NASA centers. Learning how to use virtual environments so when we go back to the moon, can collaborate better. We can go for the ride in a participatory collaborative kind of way. We also do mixed reality events – let’s use this virtual environment to not force people to fly as much. People in second life, real life participating. You’ll see some of what we do in second life with coworking. NASA headquarters in second life. We give pods to anyone in NASA who wants their own space, they can have meetings there. We become the consultants for people in NASA to do this. We also have a lot of public awareness. Point is to get NASA to places where you don’t expect them to be. It’s been a real boot to us from that standpoint. There’s the moon – pulled the data from a Mars crater into second life, so you can walk around the crater yourself. They’ve figured out how to simulate being away for 3 years from the earth on Mars. We’re completing the circle and opening a physical facility outside our facility up in San Francisco in collaboration with Yahoo.
GREG: Notion of whether these technologies based environments is disintermediating, person a off line and person B in a virtual world. Does that hinder the ability to cowork? From your perspectives, do you find, able to foster better with people?
ROBERT: Don’t’ see it as dis-intermediating, I see it as re-intermediating. There’s no distinction, people over 20 or 25, it’s a novelty to us. Imagine our grandparents when TV was first in your home. You might interact with people who you’d never interact with in person. You learn a new way to communicate. Depending on what you’re focusing your time on, the virtual side can dictate how you’re acting in the real world as well.
ANDREW: It’s useful in a clear way to track age and rank, all the things that go alone with having a bureaucratic organization. You show up and the power of your ideas is what holds sway, not how you look or where you come from or how old you are. It’s been useful for us because we want to have the power of our ideas. That had not been available even in a coworking facility as much as it has been in a virtual one.
GREG: Physical coworking spaces – a lot of lone workers finding a lot of advantages in coworking spaces – human contact, ability to collaborate. As for different mindset, can’t put up the walls that traditionally companies put up. Putting stuff on white board, knowing another competitor is sitting two desks away. How would you describe the risks inherent in that kind of environment?
ROBERT: Physical environment is pretty well documented. Coworking in a physical space is thousands of years old. My favorite part is the ambiance. That’s why I don’t’ like to wear headphones. Touching so much more of your senses. That’s what I want to carry over to the office, make it a human environment. My favorite part would be hearing people’s ambient laughter and watching them interact in person. Online, a lot less fidelity, your mind makes up for it by projecting things.
ANDREW: In physical coworking, there were tangible issues we needed to deal with, which is why we transferred to virtual. Identifying the issues at hand in a new mode of working: it’s an opportunity to have conversations with people about how it ought to be. The result in itself is constructive for change. We view those risks as an opportunity. Virtual coworking, we addressed the perceived risks that have kept NASA’s site very 1.0. in the context of working together, and the context of events. So there’s less perceived risk in this virtual world of second life. And we have rules of conduct. It would have been very difficult to do in a 2.0 website.
GREG: Can someone get fired?
ANDREW: Pretty hard to fire somebody. Haven’t had any incidents that have raised any concern? A lot of the senior people feel boxed in from the culture internally. We welcome things to help them. We all want to do profound things.
GREG: How has the community outside of NASA received your moves into collaboration?
ANDREW: Every year we deal with thousands of people we direct into our program. Feels like we struck a chord. Got lots of good press. Just the idea that we’re inviting people to get involved with us in the way 2.0 people are inviting their customers to also be their creators. There are people outside of NASA who know how to do a lot of stuff better and more efficiently than we know how to do it. We need that help. It’s a source of both national and military pride to do things that humans have never done before. We get contacted by many agencies to ask how we get things done. We’re blessed and cursed by having like 85% name recognition.
GREG: When I look at Etsy, seem to be some clear tangible benefits to buyers and sellers as well. Seemed to be a spirit of collaboration between buyer and seller, about product, how to run a business. What are some key advantages you deliver in your community, business involvement?
ROBERT: Create a space like that – can shoot email off to anyone you want. What’s admirable about what Andrew’s doing, allows access through what people perceive as walls. It’s like a permanent focus group from the community. Etsy was literally born on the web. We take these things for granted. We don’t see them as something new. The human to human side of buying something on Etsy – even if you buy something it feels like gift. It comes with a handwritten note. There’s emoting magic about what you get. You are what you buy and what you surround yourself with and it’s a connection you made on line. It wasn’t just a virtual connection, it was a real connection
GREG: These are significant investments, but there are collaborative opportunities even for the one man or woman shop. What are other tools for digital space?
ANDREW: Satellite isn’t very expensive. It’s free to go in. PB Wikkie, confidential platform for what we do. Google Camps, we Twitter: metaphor for cultural change. When we first told people inside about Twitter it seemed like a strange idea, and that was a useful conversation to have.
ROBERT: It’ really fun to send faxes and get handwritten notes back. Nothing trumps email in my mind. A program we’re calling spacecraft – going to have a contest where SC sellers can make things with NASA on it and the two winners can go into outer space. I’m not entering.
GREG: Thank you very much