Playing on the Edge
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this aging drama queen would find herself speaking to an audience of engineers. I have learned, however, that unless you are willing to play with different people on unfamiliar playgrounds, you will lose your creative edge and life isn't nearly as much fun. This evening, we’re going to spend a few minutes considering the importance of playing together with others who see the world differently than we do as a key to increasingly successful innovative and creative design processes. We’ll look at examples of two key aspects of this phrase, “playing together.” One is that play is serious business. The other is that the inevitable conflicts of collaboration that occur in play are worth the effort.
Several years ago, Lee Fleming reported in the Harvard Business Review about the value of creative teams from disparate and diverse disciplines. In studying more than 17,000 patents, he learned that while teams made up of people from closely allied fields produced many more patents, the unusually high-value, innovative breakthroughs came from teams made of people from very diverse disciplines.
This has been a year of giant steps in creative collaborations among artists, scientists, and engineers at Penn State. Last week, we had the opportunity to see the results of students and faculty from architecture, engineering, dance, and landscape architecture engaged in a two-year Creative Campus project funded by the Doris Duke Foundation and led by our Center for the Performing Arts in conjunction with the Diavolo Dance Company in Los Angeles. Diavolo Dance has built its reputation on taking risks, as dancers literally move on the edge of structures that are in nearly constant motion on the stage. Over the past academic year, students and faculty met in a weekly “IdeaLab”— where they brainstormed, developed and “tried out” structures for potential use in the project. And last week they were performing all over campus in machines and structures they had designed while the Diavolo Dance company presented the world premiere of “Transit Space,” a piece inspired by the collaboration with Penn State students and skateboarders in Los Angeles. The exuberance of the dancers who used their bodies as human skateboards on a stage full of moving ramps and bridges created audible gasps from the audience. It was exhilarating.
Creativity requires play. The flexibility of thinking that we learn in play is one of the most important factors that allows us to operate in a world of constant change. There is no test for the future to which we can teach. There are no jobs that won’t evolve and change over the course of one person’s career. Our workplaces and our educational environments need to foster play because playing is serious business.
One of the greatest insights I had while working on the character of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello a few years ago occurred when Tina Packer, the director, had us “crack the scene open” by playing it as three-year-olds. It’s a technique I’ve used many times since as an actor and coach and sometimes wish I was brave enough to try it when we get stuck in executive leadership meetings.
Because creativity and innovation require play, those of us in leadership roles must create safe playgrounds for people. By a “safe” playground I mean, a place that encourages risk; a place that tolerates and sometimes celebrates failure; a place that promotes process as well as product; a place that acknowledges finding the right question leads us to a better answer.
With modern technological and communication advances, such playgrounds may be virtual. In the recent bestseller, Imagine, Jonah Lehrer describes how the InnoCentive website grew out of a pharmaceutical executive trying to address the unpredictability of the drug-development process. Eli Lilly and Company created the InnoCentive website to publish a thorny problem they were working on and let anyone try and solve it for a reward. The website now features hundreds of problems from corporations and nonprofits in a variety of categories. According to Lehrer, “more than 200,000 solvers have registered on the site” from a wide range of disciplines and from more than 170 countries.
We’re most fortunate at Penn State to have the Learning Factory with generous sponsors. The Learning Factory provides a playground space where people work on a wide variety of problems. On behalf of the College of Arts and Architecture, we appreciate the leadership of Dr. Simpson and Dean Wormley, who understand the value of having artists and engineers on the playground together.
Another playground at Penn State is the StudioLab, co-directed by professors Brian Orland from Arts and Architecture and Nilam Ram from Health and Human Development. StudioLab’s goal is to support collaborative research projects that span across disciplines. Click here for a video about StudioLab*.
Now we are cross-pollinating the playgrounds of StudioLab and the Learning Factory with groups of students from both working together on three of the projects in this Design Showcase. These projects demonstrate Albert Einstein’s maxim that “Play is the highest form of research.” One project works on developing new devices to study the human nervous system in ways that may impact understandings of autism. Another involves creating unobtrusive sensors for electrodermal analysis that can aid in monitoring patients. Yet another is developing fuel-efficient stoves for villages in Tanzania.
As Nilam said in the video, as we work together on the multiple layers of a complex problem, new possibilities emerge. I am part of a trio of theatre faculty who are working with an NSF-funded project related to adult science education in the context of Marcellus shale gas development. Our work as theatre artists with experience in community theatre involves presenting stories and scenarios from real-life incidents in conversations that involve artists, scientists, and people from across the community.
Our goal is to bridge the gaps between the science, the emotional human responses, and the need for effective public communication surrounding natural gas exploration and extraction. As artists, we are comfortable dealing in the realm of feelings; that’s not always the case for scientists. As one investigator noted, “The apparently erratic behavior of artists drives engineers bananas. The artists’ decisions seem arbitrary and risk everything with no guaranteed benefit.”
Another example where play may lead to innovative results was developed in the StudioLab. Up to 40 percent of the energy load in modern buildings can come from the things you plug in. Energy Chickens is an example of a “serious” game designed as part of a strategy to change human behavior and complement energy-efficient product and building design. Again, a video is worth more than a thousand words: Energy Chickens*.
I conclude this evening with a project in this Design Showcase that demonstrates how collaborating and learning to “play” together can make an impact in ways we never imagined.
The project originated with a student organization, Students for Environmentally Enlightened Design, or SEED. For the last two years, design students in the Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture have been working with the African Book Project on the design and fabrication of a shipping container that can provide a library for refugee camps in Kenya. A key factor to consider was a system for shading the library in areas near the equator.
Teams in structural and electrical engineering joined the SEED project this year as part of the Design Showcase. I spoke with one of the architecture students and asked what he had learned. First, he said he learned that the architects needed the engineers to figure out how to build the structure they wanted. And he said he thought the engineers learned that architects could be demanding in insisting on design ideas, not just for aesthetic, but for practical reasons as well.
This was the original design idea, and the arc form was challenging. The collaborative teamwork made all the difference. Team meetings made sure that by addressing one design problem, they weren’t creating another. To create a mock-up, everyone had to “check their egos” at the door. My guess is that lesson alone will make every one of these team members a valuable employee to a future firm that prizes collaboration.
Another parameter of the design was that all parts could be shipped inside the container for easy assembling once it arrived at camps. While the arc was hard to build, it was an important design feature, because it reduced the number of joints in the final assembly and it would better accommodate the adjustability of the solar cells.
In the final mock-up, the team found a solution using a different type of steel and finding a way to bend it that achieved their shared goals.
From dance projects, to Marcellus shale gas, to energy chickens, to container libraries for Africa, students and faculty at Penn State are playing at the edges of their fields in order to address the global issues that face us all.
Jacques Heim, director of Diavolo Dance Company, has also choreographed for Cirque du Soleil. When I asked what he had learned through the Creative Campus process, he commented that he understood that collaboration with such a wide range of disciplines was like moving to an island country where everyone spoke a different language.
“And what surprised you most about this project?” I asked.
His reply: “That taking the time and effort to learn other languages was worth it and allowed us to create something we never imagined.”
We cannot solve complex problems with isolated perspectives or narrow fields of expertise. We must mix it up with each other. We must play. And we must learn to play together, even when it’s difficult. Thank you to the industry partners who have helped create some space for artists, designers, scientists, and engineers to play together. To students and faculty here, I encourage you to persevere in daring to inhabit the “Island of Collaboration” and learn the language of other disciplines. By playing with others, you will lead us to a better world than we could ever have imagined.
*Thank you to Cody Goddard, multimedia specialist in the College of Arts and Architecture, who produced the StudioLab and Energy Chicken videos.
 Lee Fleming, “Perfecting Cross-Pollination,” Harvard Business Review, September 1, 2004
 Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 120