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A Petri Dish

by Peter D on January 5, 2017

This is the next installation of our series on designing a “Creative Collaborative” with a number of partners in our new building on Hamilton Avenue.  The first installation is here.

As the early partners of the Creative Collaborative we have stood in front of a spectrum of choices.  Under what model of collaboration do we proceed?  On the one end of the spectrum loomed the model under which so many urban collaborative spaces across the country have formed.  It is big vision; it is centrally planned; it is well-financed.   It means creating the entity that is bigger than the sum of its parts. It means creating an umbrella organization that is, in turn, well-financed in its own right.  This organization would “see” the whole web of potential and begin to orchestrate that potential’s realization through strategic plans, board meetings and white papers.

On the other end of the spectrum lay the “co-habitation” model.  No larger vision, necessarily, just the internal value to each collaborator of co-locating with like-minded businesses with whom we have track records.  It is the “just make a start” model of entrepreneurship.

We all have big vision.  And thus, on the front end, this latter model seems to us impotent and narrow.  We all have extensive networks of movers and shakers, and opportunity in a grand new space in which to activate large ideas.  And thus, on the front end, this latter model seems to leave too much on the table, failing to activate the full value of what our collaboration was capable of.

Yet, despite the fact that we are a group of exceptionally capable visionaries, we have regularly run into ourselves, or rather, run into the realities of our own individual business needs and growth.  We are all upstart newer companies, just beginning to realize our own individual potential and scope.  None of us were founded with a large pocket-book.  We all know, viscerally to our bones, the meaning of “sweat equity.”  More often than not, we simply cannot afford – in time or money – the luxury of developing this umbrella organization whose mission was based in, but far larger than, our individual companies’ missions.

Perhaps we need to take on the second model – the “mere” co-location model – out of pure necessity.

In fits and starts, we have begun to discover that our choice isn’t an “either/or” and that the linear “spectrum” of models is a false premise.

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In 1943, MIT built “building 20” – a ramshackle, tossed up building to house work being done specifically for the war effort. As such, it was predominantly science departments located in the building.  The school presumed it would be torn down after the war.  However, shortly after the war, Congress passed the GI Bill, massively expanding the incoming population to the university.  They couldn’t afford to tear down a building already built to accommodate this growing population.  And so, MIT simply started tossing into the building the “extras” from a vast array of departments.  In addition to the science departments already located there, it soon housed the newly founded linguistics and philosophy department, as well as residual offices and classrooms for English and Computer Science and several others.  This departments began inadvertently to interact, and soon, to collaborate.  Over the course of the next 50 years, Building 20 proceeded to development some of the biggest innovations of the 20th century.  Radar was perfected there. The science of modern linguistics took shape there under Noam Chomsky. It housed labs in nuclear science, cosmic rays, and food technology. Control terminals used by the Tech Model Railroad Club became the computers on which early hackers tinkered in the early 1960s.

It wasn’t centrally planned.  It was by happenstance.  But it forced a curious interaction that central planning could have never foreseen.  It was an accidental petri dish.  The luxuries inherent in academic research allowed these newfound co-habitators to brainstorm and collaborate in ways they never would have envisioned, motivated simply by the accidental co-location combined with the luxury of open lines of experiment that attends academic research.

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Our Creative Collaborative is not a well-funded academic building.  But what if it could be an intentional petri dish?  It would not simply be “mere” co-location, but rather a co-location based on a shared vision and ethos.  The collaborative efforts would not be the product of strategic plans in a board room, but rather a
strategic outgrowth of organic interaction, shared mission, and bold ideas.  A centrally planned enterprise wouldn’t necessarily put into the same space a 3D printer and a community access motorcycle garage.  It wouldn’t necessarily intersect a woodshop and a composting company.  A school and some architects.  An architectural salvage operation and an arts and technology incubator. Or rather, it wouldn’t do so for a purpose beyond real estate benefits, with each organization living in a silo within the building.  But what could happen if we did so with intent of shared vision and ethos of business practice?

We embrace the unfolding, passionate both about our shared vision and the potential in the unknown possibilities.

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