Unleashing Creativity With Mass Collaboration

Mass collaboration brings together groups that have never worked together before, revealing valuable connections and complementary skill sets.


In The Orbital Perspective (Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015), author and astronaut Ron Garan describes how he and others are working to apply the orbital perspective here at home, embracing new partnerships and processes to promote peace and combat hunger, thirst, poverty and environmental destruction. This book is a call to action for each of us to care for the most important space station of all: planet Earth. The following excerpt about mass collaboration has been excerpted from Chapter 9: “Mass Collaboration.”

When I first heard about hackathons, I couldn’t understand why people would devote so much time, effort, and resources to what are usually other people’s projects. What would make people willing to spend an entire weekend working for free? According to Brugh, however, participants don’t look at it as work, but more like solving a puzzle. “People like to see how what they do can apply to things they care about and things that matter.” In fact, when people do think it’s work, the model often doesn’t work. At the Space Apps Challenge, some of the visiting senior NASA managers, who were not directly involved with the design of the hackathon, thanked participants for working on challenges that NASA didn’t have the budget to solve, demonstrating a misunderstanding of the event. Luckily, however, this didn’t seem to discourage participation.

“It’s productive when people have a chance to be creative, rather than you giving them a set task list,” said Brugh. “You need to give them creative license or give them a way to learn something new. People want to be creative. You’re there to collaboratively build something; you’re there to try out something that you rarely get to do at work.”

What is really interesting is that prior to this new approach of nonmonetized collaboration, there was a strong push within the federal government for monetized competitions. Competitions with monetary prizes certainly have proven to be an effective model for innovation, but Random Hacks of Kindness, the Space Apps Challenge, and similar efforts have introduced the idea that citizens want to participate not just for a prize check but also for other, even altruistic reasons.

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In fact, one of the things that makes these government-led hackathons work is simply giving the public the permission to do something interesting and meaningful. According to Nick Skytland, who led the Open Innovation team that conceived of the Space Apps Challenge, people are drawn in part by the opportunity to do something no one has ever allowed them to do before— to work with a government agency, to get involved in their local community, or to meet new people.


This is democracy in action, by the people and for the people. Democracy is meant to be participatory, and thanks to technology, it now can be participatory in a whole new way. Citizens can engage directly in their government at many levels. Although governments are focused on national interest, and the priorities of large bureaucratic organizations can be misaligned, they nonetheless can play a role in mass collaborations. In fact, due to shrinking budgets and the rising complexities of issues facing governments, it’s probably more important than ever for governments to engage their employees and citizens in large-scale collaborative processes. Mass collaborations involving the citizens who are affected by government policy are a logical response to the pressure to do more with less and to do it with increasing transparency and openness. Ideally, citizens should have access to government services and information anywhere, anytime, and on any device. Unlocking data and making that data available to the public in a user-friendly way spurs innovation, improves quality of life and workforce productivity, and saves lives.

Although the results of a mass collaboration can make a significant impact, though, the most important results often come from the process of collaboration itself. Mass collaborations bring together groups that have never had the opportunity to work together before, revealing valuable connections and complementary skill sets. In addition to government agencies, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and citizens’ groups all have made use of these powerful forums for innovation, and this trend is likely to accelerate as the reach, speed, and effectiveness of global connectivity increases and more and more people are added to the global conversation.

Mass collaborations provide an avenue for direct civic participation in government, direct stakeholder participation in humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and a direct connection between businesses and their customers. And once platforms for interactions are in place, it serves as a continuous conduit where a community can engage with, assist, and support those providing services, leading to an increase in efficiency and the possibility of rapid implementation of appropriate solutions. Community involvement is also likely to result in a much higher acceptance of and support for resulting solutions. Overall, open source mass collaborations provide a very cost-effective way to supplement the research and development needed to overcome our biggest challenges.

This excerpt about mass collaboration was published with permission from The Orbital Perspective (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015).

Read the next excerpt in this series: Making Use of Wasted Human Capability

Check out the full series from The Orbital Perspective: How Having an Orbital Perspective Can Create a Better World

Image courtesy of Nicola Preti.

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