Collaboration is Today’s Steam Engine

Published in Accelerate Magazine, 2016

If you transported a typical American man from the year 1900 into the 1950’s, he’d be amazed by the changes brought on by the industrial revolution.  Cars, highways, skyscrapers and airplanes flying overhead, electricity and its children—washing machines, refrigerators, televisions and TV dinners—would astound him.

Now take a man from the 1950’s and transport him into the 2000’s.  This man wouldn’t have nearly the same hurdles to overcome in terms of navigating the physical landscape; he could take a car or train home and, with coaching, he could soon enjoy reruns of I Love Lucy on an iPad. But the real differences in our lives today would probably give him great pause because our very culture has changed.  

As Richard Florida points out in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, our time-traveler from the 1900’s would find normalcy in the 1950’s culture of business suit-wearing white men working in America, getting married young, starting families and working consistent hours until they’re ready to retire.  

The second time-traveler would eventually realize that the game of life has changed in subtler, but shockingly significant ways.  Men and women of all races and ages now embrace their careers, work together within flexible hours and environments, and choose to start families later in life, or not at all. Commerce is global and businesses can now offshore just about everything from bookkeeping to design and order-fulfillment, and people work in comfortable clothes from coffee shops, yet serve clients around the globe.  

Eventually our time traveler would notice a giant, yet somewhat elusive shift in our business world: this creative society embraces a “collective” working environment based on collaboration and innovation.

In the past, corporations grew through mergers and acquisitions and smaller entities didn’t share, they assimilated.  Seemingly endless natural and human resources were devoured and size mattered. As Alexandra Samuel reports for Harvard Business Review, “we’re now doing less consuming and more producing in our collaborative economy.”

Startups like Airbnb and Etsy offer platforms for individuals to share back-office benefits formerly enjoyed only by large corporations. Upwork is a one-stop shop for freelancing “anything that can be done on a computer,” and Fiverr is a clearinghouse of freelancers who will deliver services ranging from useful to quirky for $5.

Here in Hawai‘i, ProtoHub, Box Jelly, and ROC (Real Office Centers) provide communal workspace and big office niceties like conference rooms, kitchens, and social mixers to sole proprietors and small businesses.  The ARTS at Marks Garage offers community, space, and amenities for several arts-related organizations.  Hawai‘i TechWorks brings tech and design professionals together.  And The Cut Collective is a productive gathering of Hawai‘i’s clothing designers.  All of these organizations offer things formally unheard of in business—support and collaboration—not for the finance or glory of one single entity, but with an eye on growth and betterment of our industries, economy and society.

He may be shocked and doubtful initially, but our time traveler would eventually have to agree this cultural shift works.  Our figurative steam engine accomplishment of today is collaboration.