humanities

Collaboration and Emergent Knowledge at Greenhouse Studios

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Since the 1970s, scholars in fields as varied as sedimentology, ornithology, sociology, and philosophy have come to understand the importance of self-organizing systems, of how higher-order complexity can “emerge” from independent lower-order elements. Emergence describes how millions of tiny mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed form large scale geometries when viewed at a distance, or how water molecules, each responding simply to a change in temperature, come to form the complex crystalline patterns of a snowflake. Emergence describes how hundreds of birds, each following its own, relatively simple rules of behavior, self-organize into a flock that displays its own complex behaviors, behaviors that none of the individual birds themselves would display. In the words of writer Steven Johnson, emergence describes how those birds, without a master plan or executive leadership, go from being a “they” to being an “it.” In other words, emergence describes a becoming.

We, too, form emergent systems. Emergence describes how a crowd of pedestrians self-organizes to form complex traffic flows on a busy sidewalk. Viewed close-up, each pedestrian is just trying to get to his or her destination without getting trampled, reacting to what’s in front of him or her according to a set of relatively simple behavioral rules—one foot in front of the other. Viewed from above, however, we see a structured flow, a river of humanity. Acting without direction, the crowd spontaneously orders itself into a complex system for maximizing pedestrian traffic. The mass of individual actors has, without someone in charge, gone from being an uncoordinated “they” to an organized “it.”

oxford streetEmergent approaches to scholarly communication have long been an interest of mine, although I’ve only recently come to think of them this way. My first experiment in the emergent possibilities of radical collaboration took the form of THATCamp—The Humanities and Technology Camp—an “unconference” that colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and I launched in 2008. Instead of a pre-arranged, centrally-planned conference program, THATCampers set their own agendas on the first morning of the event, organizing around the topics that happen to be of most interest to most campers on that day. Another example is Hacking the Academy, a collaboration with Dan Cohen, which posed an open call for submissions to the community of digital humanists on a seven-day deadline. From the patterns that emerged from the more than 300 submissions we received—everything from tweets to blog post to fully formed essays—we assembled and published an edited volume with University of Michigan Press. A final experiment with this emergent approach was a project called One Week | One Tool. This Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities brought together a diverse collections of scholars, students, programmers, designers, librarians, and administrators to conceive, build, and launch an entirely new software tool for humanities scholarship. Participants arrived without an idea of what they would build, only the knowledge that the assembled team would possess the necessary range of talent for the undertaking. They began by brainstorming ideas for a digital project and proceeded to establish project roles, iteratively design a feature set, implement their design, and finally launch their product on day seven.

The Greenhouse Studios design process similarly provides a space for emergent knowledge making. Greenhouse Studios is interested in what new knowledge might emerge when we allow academic communities to self-organize. We are asking what kinds of higher-order complexities arise when teams of humanists, artists, librarians, faculty, students, and staff are given permission to set and follow their own simple rules of collaboration. This mode of work stands in strong rebuke to what I would call the “additive” model of collaboration that draws resources and people together to serve faculty member-driven projects. Instead, Greenhouse Studios provides its teams with the conditions for collaboration—diversity and depth of thought and experience, time apart, creative tools and spaces—and lets them set their own projects and own roles. At Greenhouse Studios, we’re running an experiment in radical collaboration, exploring what happens when you remove the labor hierarchies and predetermined workplans that normally structure collaborative scholarly projects, and instead embrace the emergent qualities of collaboration itself.


Tom Scheinfeldt
Director, Greenhouse Studios