Procedural Blending for Collaboration

From Iris Garrelfs

At our all-hands-on-deck meeting in Southampton earlier this week I was asked to write a little about one of the other envisaged applications of Procedural Blending: how it may aid the process of inter/cross-disciplinary collaborations. These can, as we know, be fraught with difficulties, especially where concepts of participating collaborators differ widely. At the same time, collaborations are ever more important in all research domains. Procedural Blending offers an approach and a potential structure for fruitful collaborative activities across domains. The diagram below gives a basic graphical overview of the idea, but let me flesh this out a little.

To begin with, we may understand each discipline or participating collaborator, say an artist and a scientist, as a distinct blend field, each of which will come with a set of key inputs or themes, elements of which will need to find correspondence in the envisaged output. As a reminder, an input describes everything that flows into the process in question, from concepts or project parameters to tools or physical interactions. Less important inputs and their elements will also be present, although they might not have to appear in the output at all, or at last not to the same extent.

It’s worth spending a little time on identifying and communicating what these inputs/elements consist of; making these aspects explicit methodically may facilitate connections between even very diverse subjects. We can then ‘drill’ into each input or element as deeply as needed until connections between them are established – or a blend is achieved, to use a bit of jargon.

Of course, as an iterative process, the whole procedure may take some time and joint evaluations are very important before moving on to the next stage. These will allow all participants to reflect and comment on the value of the achieved blends/connections, considering individual perspectives as well as joint goal-oriented view points.

There are a host of established techniques that can be inserted to facilitate making connections at each stage. Two of my favoured ones are what I call the “flipside approach” and the “throwing-the-spanner-in-the-works technique”. Roughly speaking, the flipside approach involves taking one thing, perhaps the first obvious idea that comes to mind, and then trying out its exact opposite as a spring board for further development. It might not sound much on paper but the results can be quite surprising!

The spanner-in-the-works technique is a little more elaborate. Essentially, one takes something completely random and tries to establish a connection between it and key ideas that where perhaps difficult to get to grips with (bearing in mind that both the “key idea” and “it” may be an artefact, concept or process) and see what result that connection attempt yields. In all likelihood, nothing directly relevant to what you are working on will emerge straight away, but this activity does uncover “hidden” values (key meta-elements), and in being fun and overtly beside the point, frees up blockages and changes persepctives.

On the whole, the view embedded in Procedural Blending, where elements from inputs are connected through an iterative process of engagement to arrive at outputs, lends itself to unpacking different concepts, working practices and so on. And unpacking such inputs can ultimately help us finding ways to connect elements that are important to individuals taking part in a collaboration.


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2 comments on “Procedural Blending for Collaboration
  1. Graham Klyne says:

    Many years ago, I was part of a standards process (Internet Fax) that involved bringing together two tribes with very different viewpoints (telephony and Internet email). I recognise some aspects of the problem you describe – it took over a year for the combined team to agree a specification which, in hindsight, could have been written in just a few weeks.

    But a lot of important conversations tool place in that year, and the minimal specification was an important stake in the ground from which further progress was achieved much more rapidly. It was important during that year was that participants from either side came to recognize and understand the fundamental tenets of the other, and that understanding allowed subsequent conversations that actually came together rather than people just talking past each other. This was a very social process.

    I can see that this is something that might be described in hindsight by some aspects of procedural blending, but I am struggling to understand if there is any way in which it might have helped at the time. If it would have helped to uncover more rapidly the fundamental differences in embedded perspectives, I guess that might have helped a lot.

    I guess a question that maybe emerges from this is: does procedural blending work for social (as opposed to creative) processes?


  2. Iris Garrelfs says:

    Graham, thanks for your response and the vivid standards process description! In response, the short answer to your question is: I don’t know!

    I was on the verge of writing that I have no idea, but that is not quite the case. Which makes it the somewhat longer answer.

    The principles of PB did come out of research into a creative type of process, specifically the process of sound art practice. That they could be applied to collaborations dawned on me not all that long ago! I think time will always be a factor, working out to something roughly described as: the more people are involved, the further away “domains” are from each other, the less initial trust there is between participants, the longer everything will take. That said, I do believe PB gives some structure to the process, at least provides a viewpoint that everyone’s minds can swivel around. Hence, it might make the whole affair less daunting and somewhat faster. And, thank you for pointing that out, social interaction may well be a crucial input!

    As to transposing the principle entirely into a social setting, I am less convinced, mainly on the grounds that, personally speaking, putting a structure on social processes goes a little against the grain. “Icebreakers” spring to my mind…

    That said, it might be fun and vert worthwhile trying!

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