Wikitecture - Radical Collaboration in Architecture

Many of the precepts that began with Open Source (collaboration, shared IP, crowdsourcing etc.) are migrating from software development into a series of ever more surprising disciplines. Today old-school institutions like Proctor and Gamble go outside of their own R&D teams to innovate new products while Best Buy opens APIs to allow outside developers to build on their catalog data.

Now here comes “Wikitecture” applying these precepts to the very complex process of designing buildings. I want to dig into some of the details of Wikitecture and summarize what I think it has to teach us about collaboration.

My friend Jon Brouchoud is the co-founder of Studio Wikitecture, a group dedicated to bringing collaboration into the architectural process. He and Ryan Schultz have been pioneering “Wikitecture” for the past two years using Second Life as a proving ground.

Recently Studio Wikitecture won Architecture for Humanity’s Founders Award for their submission; a health facility in Nepal. There were over 500 entrants to the contest. Many of Studio Wikitecture’s contributors (roughly 40) were not architects but each brought specific, local knowledge that benefitted the project. A few examples:

  • Adobe and gabion wall construction was suggested as among the most viable design material given the exact (and remote) location and the ability to utilize local labor. Other materials would not only cost more but could even be prohibitive in terms of shipping into the area.
  • In Nepal an odd number of steps is considered inauspicious so all stair plans were designed for even numbers.

Jon told me that Wikitecture achieved a level of depth and detail in research that would be extraordinarily difficult and time consuming for one firm to manage alone. This gets to the first benefit of Wikitecture; it brings local knowledge into the design process. This video shows the building process:

As for how Wikitecture handles the more subjective task of reaching consensus on designs, Jon and Ryan developed a tool they call the "Wiki Tree," a 3D version control and voting system that uses a tree metaphor. As designers create submissions they are displayed as a new leaf on the tree that is then made available to the rest of the community to review. Positive votes on that design "green" the leaf, votes against the design turn the leaf red. Red leaves eventually fall off the tree as the tree prunes itself over time, leaving only the more popular design ideas as options for further development. The result is a visual display of design builds, enabling participants to assess, vote, comment and contribute toward the project's design evolution. This gets to the second benefit of Wikitecture; it uses a structured process to ensure quality collaboration.
This video highlights some aspects of the Wiki Tree functionality:

Many businesses are wrestling with the notion of “collaboration” and its possible benefits. Wikitecture reinforces some important points:

  • Nothing is off limits: Collaboration can successfully occur in the production of almost anything (if architects can do it anyone can…).
  • Diversity adds value: The more people from differing backgrounds the better the information pool to draw from.
  • Structure drives behavior: Collaboration benefits from a clear structure to facilitate results. The wiki tree works in much the same way that Wikipedia does in setting specific rules up front that drive a successful outcome and allow many people to contribute harmoniously.

Wikitecture is first sophisticated tool I have seen in 3D where programmed logic provides a clear structure to facilitate collaboration. Are there other radical examples of collaboration taking place that we should be looking at?

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