Designing for collaboration

So this is a post originally written in the flight home from the Co-operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living’s October Participants Forum. It’s a summary of how we framed two days of presentation and workshops, and how this co-incided with the roll out of a new identity for the CRC, a new blog site, and some graphics we’ve been working on with Pure and Applied, and Jinga Design for a few months.

Designing an event intended to get the most out of 150 really divergent people – many of whom are recognised experts in their field – is something we should always invest in. But with the rise of venue-based event managers, the tailored experience designed to massage the best from people isn’t always achieved. I’ve been working with the CRC team on what we’ve been calling the ‘strategic communications’ for the organization. That’s a combination of strategy (for research, for communicating the research and for connecting up researchers), and communication across the partnership, and outward to a more public audience. What follows is an outline of how graphics, web and physical forum were conceived as part of a integrated strategy and communication exercise we hope will continue.

It’s said that many minds are better than one. We agree. Which is why we’ve brought together a large and mixed group to form a ‘co-op’ for research in to ways we can reduce carbon emissions through innovation.

But how do we get the most out of the truly mixed collection of skillsets and mindsets; linear thinkers and conceptualists, community organizers and subject matter experts? This was the question we asked when planning an annual forum for CRC partners, held in Sydney last week (24-25 October). Can an electrical engineer of 40 years experience really engage with a young researcher on how to shift education practice from K-12 without either of them talking past each other? As a ‘research company’, we wanted to test and share our hypothesis on designing for collaboration.

Over these two days, more than 150 builders, architects, engineers, educationalists, academics, regulators, planners, students and technologists came together to co-create a shared narrative for the CRC, identify potential partners that may be missing from the skills we currently have, and to co-design possible research projects.

We’re asking what direct, measurable action we can take to make carbon reduction a catalyst for innovation in the built environment and we think we’re better placed than most because of that unique convergence of industry R&D, university research, and supportive policymakers.

Forums and workshops with groups like this aren’t uncommon. So we’re not the first to come to this. Models exist. And workshops aren’t new. But what makes us different is that we’ve brought together leaders from each field in to a collaborative research project with a timeline to actually invest in serious thinking and doing. Unlike a single ARC research grant or policy initiative, we have the scale and lead time to develop prototypes and products.

We think Australia’s built environment sector can use constraint as a lever to develop new materials, products and technologies that recast a problem in to an opportunity. Here, we’re defining ‘technologies’ beyond widgets to include the sort of ‘social technologies’ and network-based sharing that often lie behind shifts in behaviour, choice or preference. We’re a mix of materials science, social science, design and practice.

Having said that, the focus on ‘place-based’ or ‘product-based’ results is not incidental but central to the interests of the suppliers, manufacturers and professional peak bodies that represent the components that go together to build the environment around us; windows, linings, concrete, steel, roofing and cladding and the rest. This is critical to physically demonstrating the potential for better housing, better precincts and lower operating costs – essential to moving beyond abstract concepts like McKinsey-style cost curves, or the contested nexus of climate change, extreme weather and natural disasters – a necessary civic dialogue, but one that may be best supported by some real built alternatives.

So with all this in mind, how do you design for effective collaboration?

The form – designing for effective collaboration

The forum was designed as a two day exercise. Day 1 was described as the ‘last day of Year 1’. Day 2 was seen as ‘first day of Year 2’. Of course in practice research spans as a continuum, but it was a useful conceptual device to plan the event.

Day 1 involved workshops led by Ken Maher from Hassell, David Parken from the Australian Institute of Architects, Roger Swinburne from AECOM, Denis Else from Brookfield Mulitplex and Gene McGlynn from the Department of Industry. This combined industry reflections with some of 39 research projects in play. The majority of day 1 was classic seminar format. Lecturn. Seated rows. Death by 10 minute powerpoint.

Day 2 was conceived as a ‘reset’. Not to divorce forward planning from the present, but to ensure we started with an holistic view. To do this we asked participants to ‘park’ their own research project, interest or preconception.

Melbourne strategy group, Collabforge helped us design day 2; taking care to curate the conditions in which conversations between researchers, practitioners and policymakers could harness the natural tensions and make the most of diversity.


Collabforge uses a suite of techniques they describe as a kind of ‘social technology’ focused on getting the most out of the expertise at hand. In this case, we borrowed from a mix of methods common in serious gaming and sci-fi plot development. Not because of its ‘science’ or its ‘fiction’ but because we had a similar challenge; to project forward to an imagined future scenario – in our case a dramatically lower carbon future by 2030 – then backcast the steps required to successfully complete the plot. And instead of internalising the process or synthesizing contributions after the event, we designed a day to make the synthesis visible so many could share in crafting it.

Collabforge take collaboration seriously. Founder, Dr Mark Elliot distinguishes collaboration, co-operation and co-ordination like this;

Collaboration is co creation by granting add, edit, delete rights

Co-operation seeks discrete contributions made by many

Co-ordination is about aligning in order to surface ‘patterns’

We were seeking collaboration.

In essence we designed an extended role-play exercise intended to draw people out of professional silos to engage at the level of broad thematics to co-design some key research projects for further development. At the same time, it was about building visibility between project ideas to better link up research interests and promote better integration across our 3 research streams; integrated building systems; low carbon precincts and engaged communities.


The structure for the day was outlined early in workshop handbooks – a simple A5 booklet with diagrams and brief explanations of the steps and tasks for the day. Six phases neatly guided the group through divergent, analytical and convergent thinking.

Broad themes emerged as we imagined impacts of the CRC’s work – by crafting ‘headline from the future’ which were posted on the workshop wall within a general chronology. Headlines like;

“Australian cities go zero waste by 2040”

“Design is used as a tool for strategy in policy and programs”

“Australia’s low carbon sector takes off; exporting more low carbon goods & services by value than mining in 2019”

“Bluescope realises $50bn market cap with low carbon product by 2022”

The aim was to project heroically forward, and then backcast the steps we need to get there. This is where twitter started to act as a means to connect people from outside the event.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 3.42.13 PM


After some general reflection we shifted to an Open Space technology format to identify which themes to explore at a deeper level. Ten themes emerged, including;

  1. Living laboratories to shift the focus from ‘liveability’ to ‘thrivability’
  2. Harnessing low carbon levers; a ‘green sticks’ approach to performance disclosure
  3. Taking a consumer-demand focused, evidence based campaign to accelerate uptake of better products (creating demand in the market to support better speed to market)
  4. Economies of tomorrow to promote a circular economy and boost local involvement in economic transition
  5. A ‘procurement code for co-design’ to embed community co-creation in procurement models and project scoping
  6. Low carbon materials to reduce carbon across all infrastructure providers – promoting practical shifts through material choices
  7. Decentralised, low carbon water systems to go from drought proof to water positive communities
  8. Education transformation; guides and resources for schools and workforce to build capacity in low carbon living
  9. Institutional redesign to encourage a broader ownership model to drive low carbon infrastructure investment (through tax, regulation and legal channels)
  10. Social networking for low carbon living. Community-based social marketing for better living through better housing.


From here, projects started to emerge. Some projects shared characteristics and possible partners.

The platform – story capture

In parallel with event design, we’ve been expanding the means by which we communicate the progress of the CRC. Working with digital strategists, Pure and Applied, and graphic designer Jinga Design we wanted to do three things;

  1. capture the enormous content generated by the CRC partnership
  2. communicate progress in a more dynamic way, and
  3. promote interaction (including with a broader community than just paid up members of the co-op)

This involves a mix of soft and hardcopy, and a mix of graphic devices to illustrate our emphasis on place-based results (full bleed, full colour photography), technical solutions (an abstracted PV panel forms a structured backdrop for printed collateral), and a human-centredness through hand illustrations (which describe our 3 research streams, but also the integration of each in the whole).

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 3.49.01 PM


But again, a fresh suite of ‘brand assets’ combined with a better web presence isn’t especially new. What was new, was how we gave these ‘assets’ a physical presence on the day that gave them a central role in the event.

The Recording Desk

At the centre of the event breakout space, a mobile plywood recording desk brought people together to capture brief reflections on the workshops and forum. The desk – conceived and built by Pure and Applied – was a hub for phone charging, image upload to screens hung in the space, social media streaming, video production and general hanging out with this humming content-generator.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 3.41.40 PM


Taken together, we see this work and the workshop outcomes as the beginnings of a new ‘platform’ for knowledge transfer and exchange between the CRC partners, and wider community. An exchange that we hope will continue to grow.

Our task now is to document, sort and post workshop materials which we’ll do in later posts but for now, the new infant blog site gives us a more dynamic channel we haven’t had before and can start to play with.



1 Comment

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