Recently i spent a day at a business incubator in Cambridge, meeting the start up technology businesses and finding out how they collaborate. It was a great environment, glass and steel, deck chairs on the roof, coffee and muffins.
Today I was in a very different collaborative space, deep in the arts quarter of Bristol, surrounded by graffiti, derelict buildings, signs promising regeneration and a thriving creative culture.
I was meeting a friend at The Canteen, a cafe/bar with two floors of heaving creative talent sited above. It’s a communal space where you can rent a desk for less than £20 a month, with internet, heating and hot water. She shares a desk with an artist and rubs shoulders with set designer, clothes designers, a whole range of people from very diverse backgrounds. The cafe, where i sat waiting, had the usual collection of MacBooks and iPhones, but a higher than average assembly of tattoos, piercings and dreadlocks.
There were as many similarities between the two environments as there were differences. Both had energy, both had a slight sense of transience, of a space that was constant, but of a changing population. Bristol felt genuinely edgy, whilst Cambridge felt safer, physically, intellectually, emotionally.
Collaboration is a funny beast. It’s about sharing, but also about secrets. It’s about disclosure, but also about trust. There were similarities in how people seem to collaborate in both spaces: sharing stories, building community, more similarity in fact than either side would probably expect or be comfortable with. But how does this similarity stack up in online communities?
Both the technological and creative communities i visited shared one thing: control of their physical environment, which was set up to mirror their image. They were different stylistically, but similar functionally: communal areas, meeting areas, places to get coffee. Online environments are different, more controlled in terms of architecture, less controlled in terms of moderation. Issues of trust and identity are very different online, leading to different forms of collaboration.
I find the built environment fascinating: it is both shaped by us but also shapes us. We can daub the walls with graffiti (yes, i know i’m graffiti obsessed this week, but you can’t avoid it in Bristol!), but the spaces dictate and shape collaboration. How many times have you whispered something in a quiet corner, found a bench in the sun or struggled to hear in a crowded room?
Online learning environments are different from physical ones. Understanding the physical world and how people interact had collaborate within them may help us to understand the online space better.