From Buenos Aires to Biloxi, architects anywhere can design emergency shelters for those who lost their homes in Sri Lanka. They may never meet in person or tour buildings they designed yet they can now see each other and their creations online. Their ability to share building designs is world-changing, especially for the poor.
Why? Because, from Mumbai to Rio and western China, by the year 2020, “one-quarter of the earth’s population will live in so-called slums.”
What if  you could meet online or in person to cross-consult and co-create with your peers around the world? Imagine, for example, that high school math teachers collaborated on class plans and projects? Or lawyers and lawmakers joined forces to craft model legislation? Or scientists conducted joint research from different locations?
Such online peer2peer, collaborative communities (unlike “simple” yet valuable support groups) are not simple to design, especially when they involve licensed professionals, such as architects and landscape designers, as the groundbreaking folks as Architecture for Humanity (and their partners) discovered. Yet their still-evolving online Open Architecture Network provides valuable insights for the many other peer-based communities in the world.
For example, as Kate Stohr, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, finding a way to actually share CAD-based designs online is complex (Autodesk is working on a solution) and, since the profession is licensed, architects can face legal challenges when someone wants to use the plans they placed online. Creative Commons and six lawyers are helping solve that issue. And choosing a platform and software that can be updated by non-geeks is not a simple decision – even with an expert from Sun. Scott Mattoon, from Sun, chose Drupal, the open source approach supported by the biggest online software community in the world.
Before you get daunted and quit reading, consider how the way has been paved for you, in part, by Architecture for Humanity – and the amazing volunteer team that came together to create this first-of-a-kind community site. Perhaps, with peers, you can adapt their model. At every step they sought the wisdom of the crowd, partnered or otherwise collaborated
Now we come to the extraordinary turn of events, the Me2We center to this saga. In 2006, Architecture for Humanity won the TED prize. After giving his 18 minute speech (like all other 60 speakers during the four day conference), Cameron Sinclair, as a prize winner, gave his wish to change the world: “to develop an open source humanitarian design network to provide a global platform for designers to collaborate and develop projects to solve humanitarian issues.” (Currently less than 4% of the world buildings are designed by an architect.) Their goal? “To improve the living standards of five billion people.”
To do that he needed an online way for professionals to share and compare their designs.Immediately, people in the audience volunteered their specific talents and resources. Later, that day, as is the TED custom, the volunteers met to hash out initial details. Months before the prize announcement, winning teams are counseled by Amy Novogratz, director of TED Prize, on how to craft an actionable wish that can gain traction so that next year’s conference attendees see solid progress.
During the first meeting of volunteers and throughout the year, resourceful, upbeat Amy facilitates the group’s progress. She finds more volunteers to fill in the missing pieces. She helps people find a common language for the diverse technical experts to use and, most of all, embodies the collaborative behavior that keeps a project on track. Inevitably, the project evolves and changes with the considerable input of so many people. Just before they were to speak at The Commonwealth Club of California on a panel designed by Kevin O’Malley, I met with Amy and one of the early volunteers who contributed “hundreds of hours”, Maria Giudice, CEO of the design firm Hot Studio. In this podcast interview you’ll gain insights about the art, the science and the spirit of mass collaboration.
Soon the panel discussion will appear on ForeaTV. Here’s O’Malley’s description of the session: “How can well-designed Web access to open-source architectural plans support sustainable development, help communities rebuild after disaster, and create safer and more innovative structures with partners around the world? Learn how a diverse team of engineers, designers and social activists worked together to create a collaborative design community to help raise living standards around the globe - and allowed a worldwide team to respond to the immediate needs of disaster victims, including the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the recent fires in Southern California.”
Also on the panel see canny and dry-humored Scott Mattoon, that volunteer from Sun Microsystems and Kate, who gave a captivating and quick visual tour of some of the sustainable buildings connected with their project.
You’ll see the obvious camaraderie and respect amongst this hardworking team. You may be inspired to attend a TED conference, see past winners and other speakers online – and read the book by Cameron and Kate, Design Like You Give a Damn.