The first chapter

How can shared settings facilitate collaboration?

13 February 2024

Research by Femke Coops
Text and editing by Alexandra Szwaj & Kornelia Dimitrova

Collaborations for Future is a design research program in which 10 designers and 10 scientists get the opportunity to collaborate 1-on-1 for a period of 9 months, without predefined roles or outcomes. 

In this research, we hope to collect and learn from these stories. Chapter #1 of this exploration is focused on creating a common setting, making ourselves familiar with the other person, and creating a shared and nuanced image of what ‘design’ and ‘science’ are all about. Chapter #1 is published in four thematic parts. This is the first instalment, and we focus on what fostering a curious attitude means to us, and how interdisciplinary collaborations start with curiosity for the other person.

The first step of cross-disciplinary collaboration is curiosity.

As we eagerly step into the worlds and work of others, we become keen observers, intrigued by their methods of collecting and interpreting information, fascinated by how they weave it into narratives and knowledge. To truly embrace this openness, we must suspend our assumptions about the meaning, value, or attitudes of our collaborators’ work. Donna Haraway’s essay, A Curious Practice, resonates with this ethos. She speaks of the art of polite inquiry and the act of visiting with a curious mind, devoid of haste in drawing conclusions or clinging to assumptions. 

In Haraway’s words, “Visiting is not an easy practice; it demands the ability to find others actively interesting, even or especially others most people already claim to know all too completely, to ask questions that one’s interlocutors truly find interesting, to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity, to retune one’s ability to sense and respond—and to do all this politely! What is this sort of politeness? It sounds more than a little risky. Curiosity always leads its practitioners a bit too far off the path, and that way lie stories”.

We’ve set up the Collaborations for Future project to test whether we can enable this kind of curious practice. Three weeks after the 20 participants formally began their collaborations, we held the first community meeting. We were curious to see how the collaboration pairs were setting off, and how their ideas of ‘science’ and ‘design’ are informed by encountering each other’s work and world. This article digests the themes and concerns discussed during the first meet up, and reflects on what the group setting does in this context of interdisciplinary collaboration.

 

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Practices and disciplines develop over time. They contain a culture of working, rely on norms of doing things, languages of communicating about things, and criteria for ‘doing well’. Practices and disciplines have communities, in this case – designers and scientists. The creative and science communities each have their culture of working. A curious practice requires us to confront and let go of assumptions both about our own work and that of the other person. In this meeting, we wanted to create a common ground as a group. We wanted to enable a more nuanced understanding of both fields of work. 

We invited the participants to note down their answers to 6 questions:  How would you define design? How would you define science? What makes design design? What makes science science? What is the role of design in society? and What is the role of science in society? Looking back at the cards used during the exercise, some remarked that the qualities and notions associated with design could also apply for science, and vice versa, highlighting several perceived differences and commonalities between the disciplines of ‘science’ and ‘design’. In this first encounter, as we discussed how and why designers and scientists do what they do, some stereotypes were dismantled and some shared concerns were found.

 

Visiting the other’s professional practice can show the lived experience and suspend assumptions. This was especially effective in a group setting with diversity in the work, background and practices of both the designers and scientists. The group dynamics played an important role in identifying and acknowledging different perspectives and experiences from fellow designers or scientists. It brought nuance to the discussions, by seeing the different discussion topics through the eyes of different people. If anything, we can move on from this first meet-up by letting go of the generalisation of ‘scientist’ and ‘designer’. The community meetings are intended as a space to meet each other outside of the familiar boundaries of ‘design’ and ‘science’, where roles, agencies and expectations can be temporarily suspended, so that people can reflect on why, how and for whose sake they need to work. This is essential in a project like Collaborations for Future, and might prove to be what is needed to open up perspectives into what a collaboration between a scientist and a designer truly might have to offer, beyond conventional definitions, expectations and role divisions. 

In the next three parts, we’ll dive into shared themes and concerns, in which the 10 designers and 10 scientists met each other. Tune in as we talk about the effect of disciplinary communities, the value of talking practically about how we work, and the role of societal and personal values in professional contexts.