Monthly Archives: March 2012

Successful Partnerships

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The idea of creating successful partnerships can be illusive, but it’s power to translate basic research into practical applications is fundamental. It’s often hard to know the difference between a collaborator and competitor, so there is a natural hesitation to share information. However, in today’s world of increasing complexity the necessity for partnerships is greater than it’s ever been. There exists an overwhelming body of evidence that complex problems are rarely solved by one person’s “eureka moment.” Steven Johnston illustrates this point eloquently in his book; The Invention of Air. Johnston focuses on the 18th Century discovery by Joseph Priestly that the air we breathe is a combination of gases, primarily nitrogen and oxygen. Many scholarly sources will credit Priestly with the discovery of oxygen, but the story is much more complex. It’s true that Priestly was able to identify that there was an air purer than the air we breathe through a series of physical experiments in his laboratory in Leeds, but he inaccurately identified this air as dephlogisticated air and had a fundamental miss-understanding of the process he had discovered. Luckily Priestly was well known as a frequenter of the English coffee house where he shared his ideas with a group called the Honest Whigs. Steven Johnson contends that the English coffee house, and the culture created around it, fueled what we come to call the Age of Enlightenment. Priestly was a strong believer the concept of sharing knowledge to advance science, so when he explained his discovery to Antoine Lavoisier at a dinner conversation in 1771 he passed knowledge to a person with a much different skill-set. This transfer of knowledge would eventually lead Lavoisier to more accurately name this substance Oxygen and discover the process we now know as oxidation. Johnston writes: “Discovering that there was an air purer than pure air required qualitative analytical skills – an improvisational style – that Priestly possessed in abundance. But defining the chemical composition of that air took a different toolkit, both mental and technological.” The irony of this story according to Johnson is that by 1779 Ben Franklin, a fellow Honest Whig member, would negotiate to purchase 800 tons of French gunpowder for the struggling Continental Army. This gunpowder was made with saltpeter directly from Lavoisier’s Laboratory which capitalized on the process of oxidation. Johnson quotes Joe Jackson on the Battle of Yorktown: “British solders complained that they could not get close enough to shoot colonials before they themselves were blasted from the garters.” As architects we can illustrate the importance of wide ranging functional space that supports collaboration, but the cultural mindset to share ideas must be encouraged at an institutional level and through actual stories of discovery rather than the eureka myth.