Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

Storytelling: Scientist's Perspective: John Seely Brown
Virgin space and wired coffee pots

    But to make this really work, you have to think about the shaping of space, the role of place. And for the source of inspiration, Iíve gone back to Peter Brook, the famous director of the Royal Shakespearian Company. I want to read you a quote from him, which again is a evocative quote for me personally which has shaped an awful lot of my thinking in the last couple of years now.

ďIn order for something of quality to take place, an empty space has to be created. An empty space makes it possible for a new phenomenon to come to life for anything that touches on content, meaning, expression, language, and music can exist only if the experience is fresh and new. However no fresh and new experience is possible if there isnít a pure, virgin space ready to receive it.Ē [Peter Brook]
And in fact you take that, and now add to it: how do you take it to something like this, and then think about architecting a work-scape, a place that actually brings the physical, the social, and the informational spaces into a kind of creative tension and alignment. Because the challenge for all the people in this room, is not just information, itís not just social, and itís not just physical for a few designers, I donít think there are any architects here, But itís a question of how you bring these three things together, in a way that it actually creates virgin space.

Creating spaces
   Let me give you a quick couple of examples of some spaces that weíve created to bring people of different disciplines, who, in the formal spaces would just throw these metaphysical spitballs, but informally, where they would actually be able to have a conversation. 

Wired coffee pots

   One of the things we did. These are sociological facts, we wired the coffee pots to the internet. Which meant that any time that anyone created a fresh pot of coffee that signal went up on the net. Anyone on that floor would know that a fresh pot of coffee was being brewed. They would come streaming out of their office doors from various parts of the building so that they could come and get a fresh pot of coffee, and would of course collide in front of the coffee pot. And so this signaling mechanism actually brought people of different disciplines together, because usually the coffee pot was in one particular area of the building where one discipline would of course be camped out so to speak. And this was a first step. 
   But we didnít stop there. Around the coffee pot, as a next step as a new kind of space, we installed ceiling to ceiling white boards, huge white boards, so that you actually start a conversation around the coffee pot. The context of the whole conversation could be laid on, like work in progress, as an architectís studio, that laying out the whole context, the evolution of this conversation, this would enable some other people to walk by, from the periphery, look up here and see if they were interested, and if they were interested, they would seamlessly join the conversation, and be able to pick up the context of the conversation.
   That was step number two.
   Step number three was: these conversations socially, physically jump-started by this mechanism, but they could continue on and build through time. We didnít want to tie up that physical space, we wanted to find a way, to get from wall to web, so we constructed cameras in the ceiling that would take sixteen snapshots of this whole wall, digitally stitch that together, with an ultra-high-resolution image, and put that up on the web. Then you could browse that, you could zero in on any kind of tiny, tiny content, and you could add to that white board, if you wanted, and so on; it fostered the continuation of the conversation.
   And then the final step was which is an experiment just now in progress, see if you are doing all this, now can we actually wire together, a commons area, coffee pots in our place in San Francisco, and our offices in New York City, you can fax something that seemed ridiculously expensive at the time, but is now costing almost nothing. We rented our own fiber optic, we had our own 100 megabit line between the two buildings, and we just have these two spaces, up on the air, all the time, 7 x 24, and so you can actually participate 
   This wired line, full time line, cost about a thousand dollars a month, absolutely nothing. Fifty thousand dollars last year, one thousand dollars now.  Of course, if you put some quick servers on here, you could screen this stuff, you could record this stuff, you could index this stuff, any way you want. You may not want to do that. These are just some of the experiments that we are starting to play with. 

Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 John Seely Brown 
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