Collaboration and Nuisance Distance

DtM learned long ago that the best way to have great ideas is to have lots of ideas, and the best way to have lots of ideas is to recruit a big community of volunteers. Along the way, we learned that in addition to a well-posed problem, effective collaboration requires the elimination of “nuisance distance”.

Phone calls and even video conference calls are a lousy substitute for in-person conversations. Given the hands-on nature of our student team meetings, group brainstorming sessions and product design reviews, we have had to make it as easy as possible for people to attend in person.

The idea that communication between collaborators is a function of distance comes from Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language, specifically Pattern #82 on "Office Connections." Alexander was concerned with how distance reduced the frequency of informal communication between groups on different floors of a building. His research found that “If two parts of an office are too far apart, people will not move between them as often as they need to.” Alexander found that offices separated by one flight of stairs connected with each other as often as offices located 100 feet apart on the same floor. Alexander said, "By the time departments are separated by two floors or more, there is virtually no informal contact between [them]" (p.410).

Nuisance Distance

Over the years at DtM, we’ve learned that nuisance is a discrete rather than continuous function of separation distance. If you share an office with someone, conversation is effortless and you even hear each other’s phone calls. You don’t have to make a special effort to keep each other up to date. Consider this a “nuisance distance” of zero. If your colleague has a separate office, the theory is that you’ll get up to visit them just as often whether they’re in the office next door, or anywhere else on the same floor. The same goes for the situation where you have to take an elevator to another floor or walk across campus to another building.

There's a nuisance distance associated with getting on a bike, riding public transportation or driving in a car. There's a nuisance distance associated with long-distance travel. There are day trips: taking a train from Boston to Providence, New Haven or New York, and flying to DC, are all effectively the same "nuisance distance". In terms of an overnight, Colorado, Seattle and the Bay Area are all effectively the same "nuisance distance" from Boston. Europe and Hawaii are the same nuisance distance-- in terms of relative jetlag and travel time. Africa and Asia are similar nuisance distances, in terms of multiple flights and logistics (visas, changing money, buying SIM cards).

When we had an office in Cambridge in a fancy building next to MIT, DtM guests were required to hunt for street parking or pay megabucks for garage parking, then sign in with grumpy security guards at the fancy first floor lobby, then sign in again at the fourteenth floor reception, then cool their heels until we came out to get them. Each delay was a kind of friction, a nuisance that discouraged repeat visits.

In 2011, we moved from our fancy office building in Cambridge to a storefront in a 200-year-old fire station in Salem MA, seventeen miles north of Boston. The building was a five-minute walk from the commuter rail and right next to a giant inexpensive parking lot. Guests could stroll in right off the sidewalk. We also made an effort to make the space a destination: guests could tour a museum of DtM prototypes, crank out a custom t-shirt on our thermal press or pull a mind-alterating espresso on our antique Italian coffee machine. Students teams had room to make a mess during multi-day hackathons, and access to rapid prototyping equipment during crunch time at the end of the semester, when the university machine shops were jammed.

Even though we’d moved to the supposed boondocks, we found that in a single year we hosted almost ten times as many meetings, demos and studio tours in Salem than in Cambridge. In fact, more MIT students came to visit the Salem studio every semester than used to visit the DtM office when we were right across the street from campus.

Who are your most important partners? What can you do to reduce the nuisance distance between you? What incentives can you provide to get people to cross the nuisance distance you can’t eliminate?