This is the hypertext version of a TEDx talk I gave a few weeks ago, you can watch it here.

Imagine going back to the town where you grew up. You walk through the centre and find the shops boarded up, the streets are desolate, the shops where you used to buy candy or books – even your local post office is now gone – replaced with wooden boards and graffiti. How would you feel, what would you do – what you want to do?

Let me introduce Eric, he was born in Detroit, and grew up just outside of the city, and moved to Boston when he was 19. He settled down, got a job, and then last year he decided to go back to his hometown.

This is the scenario and the question he faced. Instead of getting upset about it, he turned that emotion into action and he did something about it. He didn’t do it alone, he had help from an online creative community whose sole purpose is to collaborate on social problems and create completely new solutions to them. He learned from people around the world, and together with a team of people he’d never met in person, they created a solution that focussed on helping people like him transform the disused space around them into something good.

This story is about the power of the digital community – people like Eric and the thousands like him who would otherwise never have met, getting together online to improve the communities they live in and those they’ve never been to. It’s about the tools they are using, and about how you can do this too.

Whether those problems are in their own backyards, or an ocean away, this group of people is designing some pretty amazing solutions. And I particularly want to talk about how they’re doing that, because what this digital community has learned is how to collaborate and compete in ways that work and that anyone can use, whether they’re designing local community solutions in Detroit or Dublin.

I’m a designer, that’s my background and in my career I’ve gone from designing really tangible things that I would use myself, to hoping that one day I would design things that would live on shelves that people would buy, and other people would use, things that I could point at and say I designed that, to designing on collaborative teams, where it’s harder to say who did what but the idea is that we’re all smarter together. The design company where I work now is called IDEO, and it pretty much lives and breathes collaboration.

Collaboration is something that I’ve been passionate about throughout my career. I was part of a team many years ago that designed this game called Collabolla and it was an experiment in collaboration. Anyone ever played Pacman here? So you’ll remember that you have this little yellow guy and you have to control his movements. But what we did is split his controls and share them between two people, giving the up and down to one and the left and right to another. Just to make it even harder, we said you don’t have the joystick anymore, but you have this giant haptic interface. Anyone here ever bounced on a spacehopper? Great so we’ve got some 60s and 70s kids in the house today. So those were the controls. As you can see from the videos here, it’s pretty fun… Funnily enough no one ever completed a single level. In fact the notion of collaboration was so foreign in this context – their brains and their bodies were sending different messages – even though they knew they should be working together; they wanted to compete instead. The only ones that came close were these twins – someone should probably do a study on these twins. They just sat down and played silently and were in perfect sync. All those other players had to push each other, shout, and gesticulate wildly. In a situation like this we expect to compete, our culture, our work environments are often geared up to make us feel like we have to compete.

In some contexts competition is very useful. It’s something that helps us to get the fastest or best result. E.g. Sport. In other contexts, like Collabolla or families, let’s say, collaboration makes more sense, competition just seems wasteful or weird.

But sometimes you need both. Historically, you see collaboration and competition occurring at the same time a lot in science research, wherever people are pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge to try something new. A good example is what happened in the 60s when NASA was trying to be the first to put a man on the moon. NASA just put the engineering teams into great big hangars, where the teams could all communicate with each other – they were trying to come up with things like the best nose cones or landing gear. The interesting thing about this was it was transparent competition – the progress was viewable in real-time. One guy might look over at the shuttle next to him and say ‘what’s the funky ceramic stuff you’re using on that nose cone there?’ and they’d share materials and resources. So they were competing but also collaborating, competing and collaborating.

And it turns out that when competition and collaboration work together well you get really amazing results. It was shown that the efficiency of those NASA scientists working in that way saved huge amounts of time and money, even though on first appearance it might have seemed wasteful and redundant to be building 5 spacecraft at once. It’s something that’s been repeated in modern industry – major auto manufacturers do this now with their innovation teams. Simultaneous development but incredibly transparent teams creates very fast product cycles for new ideas.

So when it comes to innovation, do you go with competition or collaboration? Which is best? I think you have to have both. But you have to have the right conditions for these things to be successful. So where does this kind of cooperation work really well? Well the world of open source software works like this. Programmers have resources like Sourceforge – a library of software, problems that have already been solved. You can borrow bits of that code – it’s a fantastic way for developers to piggyback on the success of people who have gone before them.

But that rarely happens in the social innovation space. We don’t have that kind of sharing – those kinds of kernels of wisdom, tools, or even learning.

This was one of the reasons why we created OpenIDEO… we thought, rather than just having a bunch of hotshot designers at IDEO working on these problems, why not opensource the approach, open up to the world to take part in the process? If one of the premises of how we do this kind of work is that design isn’t just about guys with designer stubble and trendy sneakers who have been to art school, but about what Tim Brown and David Kelley and others have talked about on the TED stage before – Design Thinking – the idea of how design gets done and that mindset being something that really anyone can use in problem-solving. If that’s true then why not create massive teams of people working on these problems – that was the premise that we started with on OpenIDEO.

We’ve been going almost two years and we’ve been running challenges – a bit like projects – they always have an organization behind the challenge who is serious about making a dent in some of the social challenges we face as a planet – we’ve been honored to work with some great people – folks like Jamie Oliver to look at how to help the next generation of kids eat more healthily, we’ve worked on things like illegal detention and maternal health.

In the time the community has been going – it’s now around 35,000 from 170 countries participating – they’ve helped a group of students at Stanford increase the US national bone marrow registry. One participant actually found a life-saving bone marrow match because of this work. And in Columbia they’ve prototyped ultrasound services for expectant mothers that make it easier for people in low-income communities to benefit from the technology.

The community recently finished a challenge that was focussed on communities that are depopulating – a problem that I know that Michigan is well versed in. Strangely, although most of the world now live in cities, many industrial cities are depopulating – in fact Detroit has gone from its peak from 3m to 300,000. So this challenge looked to boost the efforts that are happening to revitalize these communities. And there are some fantastic things happening already – some of which have been shared on this stage before – CEOs for cities for example. We worked with the company Steelcase and asked the question: ‘how can we revitalize struggling cities so they can get out of the situations they are in?’ I’d like to use this example to show you how thousands of people regularly work together to collaborate on an international scale to help work on and boost problems like this.

The community starts by sharing stories, examples of revitalization efforts that are happening throughout the world – community member Meena shared an example from Australia – Permablitz communities. These gardens are communities of people who get together and say ‘let’s transform our disused backyards into growing spaces – and let’s grow our own food again. Let’s create communities of people who can teach others the skills to grow their own food.

These are just a few of  literally hundreds of examples – from small acts, to larger scale projects. By asking the community to share these stories, it’s a way for them to empathize with the specific local community or context we’re designing for, in this case, places like Detroit. The challenge process is like a timeline – and people are adding all these stories -the community is like an ant colony – it’s learning as it goes – it’s amassing all this collective knowledge in those precious few weeks of what we call inspiration. The next thing that happens is the community builds off the rich stuff that they’ve learned. After a few weeks they start a new process – they share their ideas and concepts. And in this challenge they came up with some incredible ideas – 329 in total to help improve struggling communities. Let’s have a look at two of the winning concepts that are in the process of being turned into new ventures to improve different parts of the US.

The first one is called Decode the Codes. Imagine you see a vacant lot where you live and you think ‘why isn’t that being used? I could turn that into a kids playground or a mini park’. But how do you get started? What Decode the Codes does is provide people with a community who has already tried to do similar things and shares their stories of success and what they’ve learned as well as the tactical steps to get started such as legal procedures.

Mike who is the author of this idea is now working on the website and has managed to sign up some successful entrepreneurs in Phoenix who will be sharing their stories on the site.

Another concept is called CityAPI. I mentioned the open source process before and this borrows from that world. Using your phone you can tag locations that need to be worked on, which registers the space on a website. A sign is then erected on the space so that the people who live nearby have the opportunity to offer ideas or help. Then local people share ideas, discussions, and make decisions using the website and volunteer time, skills, and material on the mutually agreed project to make it happen.

Here’s is a presentation of the concept. Matt, one of the concept authors grew up in Detroit, now lives in Sweden and has identified the city of Landskrona, a post industrial city where he is planning to pilot this concept and is developing the website. The bigger vision is he wants to create a platform that can be open sourced to revitalize communities anywhere, and he plans to return to his home town of Detroit and start an office there within the year.

Each concept is moving forwards in its own way, but I’m also pleased to announce that a wonderful organization called Venture for America that transforms graduate students into entrepreneurs will be asking their five teams of fellows to take one concept each back to the struggling US cities they focus on and they will compete over the next two years to create the greatest impact they can in their local communities.

So what does this all mean? My hope is that this trend of collaboration and cooperation will continue and that the tools for smart competition will improve. My experiment with pacman tells us that if we only change the interface, people still want to compete. But OpenIDEO and platforms like it show us that when we change the context and create the right conditions, we can combine that desire to compete with smart collaboration tools to get some inspiring results – large communities of people from all walks of life collaborating and cooperating to help improve the social problems that we struggle with as a planet. Their stories show us that we do have it in us as a species to be more altruistic, to empathise with one another, and to succeed together. I believe we’ve got a really timely and unique moment to capitalize on this and do something that James Lovelock once prophesied in a book called GAIA. He believed that one day we’d create a global brain that harmonises this planet’s natural layer and human layer to solve problems that we face on both a social and environmental level. I’m optimistic that with these digital communities improving local issues, collaboratively, we can do that.

I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts, feel free to get in touch or add a comment below.

Thanks, Nathan