NASA: How CoWorking Opened Us Up

NASA: How CoWorking Opened Us Up
Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 23 april 2008

In this out-take from PSFK Conference New York, Andrew Hoppin talks about the moment when NASA decided that they needed to open up and collaborate more with their partners and the community in Silicon Valley, they were faced with the challenges of ‘home-land’ security and red-tape. Hoppin of (pictured right) said that some of them decided to rent a house, go live there and invite others to come by and participate in hacking sessions – but the house wasn’t enough to encourage national and global collaboration, so they turned to virtual worlds.

He told the audience:

“In 2006, there wasn’t a strong culture of innovation at our NASA Center; I and several other young people were hired in to figure out how to help our part of NASA create and embrace rapid change. The culture we wanted to inject– caring about people and our surrounding community, which we thought to be a core value of our work (as well as continuing to care about the bottom line of executing on our missions) was abundant in the entrepreneurial technology communities surrounding us in the San Francisco Bay Area, but largely absent at NASA. We had gates, we had security, and were on the other side of the highway from Google, so we were isolated from the culture of innovation that makes technology development in the San Francisco Bay Area so vibrant.

So we said, “Let’s open new channels for communication and collaboration between NASA and these external communities.” Our solution was “co-working.” We tried it first up in San Francisco, where I rented a desk in CitizenSpace, the epicenter of the co-working movement in the region. As we tried to expand from there to bring other NASA employees to co-work in San Francisco, however, we learned that it is rather difficult to open a new Federal government facility in a shared public space, for legal and financial reasons. So instead, we started to have events, conferences, workshops and symposiums to create more interaction between NASA and non-NASA communities.

My young colleagues new to NASA also decided to live together, renting a “NASA mansion” where we threw events such as community “hack days” on weekends, where groups of developers who don’t work for NASA came together with developers who work for NASA to collaborate on software of mutual interest. But we wanted to do co-working during business hours as well, so we turned to the 3D virtual world called “Second Life,” where we built the first Federal government presence in Second Life that was open to anyone.

We began to hold regular community meetings in this virtual space and said, “Here’s are some of our problems, please come help us figure out solutions.” This NASA community in Second Life grew rapidly, and to date almost all of our work in that virtual environment has been conducted by volunteers. And at least as important, we got employees from all around NASA – from most of the ten NASA Centers geographically distributed around the country – to begin to show up at these Tuesday afternoon community meetings. We thus formed a community of NASA and non-NASA space-interested people and began co-working in Second Life. We’ve seen the pace of cultural change at NASA accelerate over the past year, and Second Life has helped us to identify the change agents internally who we otherwise would have had no way to identify let alone to begin to collaborate with as fellow change agents…

Best of all, today, NASA’s work in Second Life and other virtual worlds is being carried forward by other people at other NASA Centers even more than we are at our NASA Center. What began as a stopgap solution to the problem that we couldn’t actually experiment with physical co-working in San Francisco has now taken hold as a key new technology and methodology for our work at NASA. We’re learning how to use immersive virtual environments so that when we go back to the Moon and Mars, we’re be able to remotely collaborate better with the astronauts who actually go– and most of us will be able to go along for the ride in a participatory collaborative manner rather than just passively watching a video feed.”



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