Quirky, Collaboration, and the What If…? Conference: An Interview With Matt Murrie
posted ago by jessica
Outside of his role as a Quirky community member, Matt Murrie is an English professor at Westminster College, a social impact guru, author, inventor, world traveler, Peace Corps volunteer, collaborative innovation advocate, and the Cofounder and Chief Curiosity Curator of the What If…? Conference. When he’s not putting his all into making the world a better place, he generously opens his mind to curious folks like me…
Let’s define collaboration. How did you become interested in collaborative innovation, and what brought you Quirky?
I’ve recently fallen in love with the word and idea of collaboration—and I have Quirky to thank for it. Before learning about Quirky, I would define “collaboration” as the act of coming together. Now that I’ve seen and experienced what Quirky is up to, my understanding of the word has grown: it isn’t limited to “coming together”, it also means potential. It was along this search for my personal potential that I happened upon Quirky. I had been kicking around the idea of starting my own business—didn’t matter what, just something of my own—so naturally, I picked up a copy of Entrepreneur Magazine. The cover featured Ben holding a Pivot Power. After reading th article on Ben and Quirky, I came away thinking, “What if the thing I was looking for could be found by collaborating with others, instead of hunkering down with myself? What if it would be not only easier, but more rewarding to connect with other minds in search of new and exciting opportunities?” In many ways, that was not only the beginning of my involvement with Quirky, but the beginning of my interest in the power of collaboration and “what if…?” questions as well.
Considering your experience as a Quirky Community Member, can you elaborate on the various ways you have experienced collaboration using the Quirky platform?
On the most immediate level, I was able to collaborate directly with the immense Quirky community. When I first joined, I spent a good week or three just following along, trying to see how people communicated, and what sorts of relationships existed. After jumping in, I was surprised at how enthusiastically members offered up their advice—advice on everything from profile pictures to engineering problems. I was also energized by how efficient this exchange of information was, compared to more traditional forms of communication. Before long, we were exchanging social information as well, and it was at this point that I was invited to form a team.
This is when Team Lab was formed, and my experience with collaboration really took off. My teammates and I may have been like-minded in our attitude toward Quirky, but we all offered different perspectives when it came to product development. I was now collaborating electronically with all my team members (Justin, Barbara, and Sonia), both on Quirky and on other sites. We would sometimes spend hours a day emailing, posting on our team discussion board, or Skyping ideas for our next Quirky submission. This ensured that a lot more thought went into each idea we posted, more so than if I was just sketching up random ideas in my head. This allowed me to see collaboration as more than just a way to capitalize on multiple perspectives: collaboration can also help to temper ideas, testing and strengthening them before setting them free.
In your opinion, what are the social impact byproducts of Quirky’s product development process?
The first thing that comes to mind is how effectively it can unite people from different backgrounds. There’s something about seeking a shared solution, or sharing a similar problem, that makes all of the extraneous things that typically bother us seem unimportant. I’m also excited about how Quirky’s process can impact education, and challenge the current educational system. This challenge comes from several fronts: it encourages students to look toward each other and seek solutions by sharing perspectives; it leads students to answers by having them follow a process; it reveals the benefit of a systematic approach to problem solving; and it invites students to be creative in confronting problems. These combined facets not only make for a more fulfilling education, but they create more critical thinkers within our shared society, which pays dividends for us all.
How would you improve the Quirky process and why?
I would be in favor of creating more opportunities for team-building. More specifically, it would be great if users had the tools to form not only permanent teams, but temporary “flash” teams as well. That way, users could create and collaborate with a core group of partners on a regular basis, but could also form a team for a single product. One group or individual might have a particular talent or insight that helps with a specific product, allowing them to join up just for that.
My thinking behind this is twofold: it encourages collaboration by making it easier to work together from the point of inception, as opposed to having to wait to comment and offer suggestions after an idea has been submitted. Once people get to taste collaboration as it evolves along an idea’s entire process, its usefulness becomes more apparent, and I believe that community members will start collaborating more freely at other stages of the process as well. The other thing I like about creating these opportunities for “flash” teams is that it puts more emphasis on growing and curating a healthy community, rather than serving as an outlet for random individuals to only pop in and take out. In the short-term, it’s probably fine to have a bunch of Quirky inventors who have done nothing more than submitted an idea or two and then cash their checks. But is that the future of collaborative product design? Is that a global movement? Creating more opportunities for people to not only profit monetarily, but to have their individual ideas validated, will invite a healthier, more productive, and longer-lasting community.
What are the benefits of collaborative innovation? How do you feel it pertains to building a more healthy society?
I’m amazed at what could still be done with Quirky’s process. Looking at all of the amazing consumer products that Quirky’s community and design staff have come up with, I wonder: What if this energy were turned toward solving (or resolving) a pressing social need? What if the same ingenuity that went into squirting juice from a lemon could design a product that provides cleaner water to people for whom getting clean water is a full-time job? What if the same problem-solving spirit that went into a flexible power strip could be converted into creating a renewable energy source for people without any power outlets at all? What if a solution to domestic unemployment, drug abuse, violence, or any other social challenge we face isn’t holed up in the head a single politician, but scattered about in bits and pieces within the minds of this global community that Quirky has assembled? What if the only limit to the power of Quirky isn’t in the amount of products it can physically produce, but the types of questions it asks?
What is the future of collaboration?
The future of collaboration is limited only by our imaginations. I truly hope it starts to squish out into other sectors (e.g. social movements, education, government, medicine, etc.), but as we’ve seen so often in the past, innovation typically happens in the private sector first, before trickling down to other areas of society. There’s already a growing movement to bring collaboration into publishing. I’m excited by the idea of collaboratively writing stories: I’ve collaborated on all six of the books I’ve published, along with the one I’m currently working on, and I’m not sure if any of them could have been written otherwise.
I mentioned education before, and I really hope collaborative tools start creeping into both secondary and higher education soon. I’ve been badgering the administration at my school (Westminster College) to scrap our current system of juggling Mircosoft Outlook, Moodle, and MyWc (an ineffective grading/attendance platform) in favor of one, unified platform similar to what Quirky operates on. This way, emails, grades, assignments, resumes, and teacher-teacher, student-student, and teacher-student could all be maintained in a single location. We could also bring in a forums panel to allow for a more efficient exchange of information. This would improve our campus’ ability to communicate immediately, but I’m convinced that this would quickly evolve into a greater ability to collaborate as well. That’s when things would take off: professors, students, administrators, and staff all finding common ground through collaboration? Think of how quickly problems would be identified and resolved. Think about how much more effective the educational experience would become.
What if I asked you to tell me about the What If…? Conference? (see what I did there?)
What If…? LLC, is a startup that democratizes critical thinking and question-asking, by creating a community that’s driven by our collective curiosities. Of course, ideas aren’t the end point; we’re in the business of using ideas as resources to fuel disruptive, transformative change — change that can’t be found through the standard question-and-answer approach. What If…? sets out to democratize ideas by engaging equals and non-equals alike, and providing them all with a platfor(u)m to bring this change into individuals’ lives, schools, and communities.
“What If…?” was started in a small, windowless office at Westminster College by myself and student, Andrew R. McHugh. It took a year of collaboration between other faculty, staff and students within our small community to get our first conference off the ground. However, Andrew and I have always had a vision that projected far beyond the small, liberal arts college that brought us together. We have global ambitions, not for us as individuals, but for What If…? as a movement. We believe that the larger this community grows, the more thoughts that can be connected, the more actions that can be inspired and the greater our collective existence on this planet will be. We started in 02010 with an idea for a Conference. Now, a few years later, we are working to create multiple platfor(u)ms to ask, share, change. We are working on the following awesome projects, The What If…? Conference, Film Festival, Consulting Workshop, Weekend, City, Book, Toolkit, Walk, App, and several others that are still being defined.
First and foremost, “What If…?” is about connections and fulfillment. But we’re here for more than that. We’re here to discover our potential. What if “what if…” questions were a way to tap into our unlimited potential? What If…? facilitates this process by pointing us in directions that challenge our thinking, encourage learning, and allow us to grow from the experience. It’s a serendipity collider concealed in a community of people, connected through their shared curiosity in what could be, instead of merely what is.