Collaborating on the frontlines: reflections from the “afterlife” of the Montreal Summit on Innovation
We talk about collaboration all the time, but we talk about it like it’s the weather. It’s like, “We need really nice days.” OK, how do I make that happen?
This question was taken from a User Interface Engineering podcast led by Jared Spool and featuring user experience (UX) designer and author Leah Buley. The Montreal Summit on Innovation (MSI) took place in November, and allowed its participants to not only “talk the talk” on collaboration, but to actually “walk the walk.”
This year’s Summit focused on potential connections between Montreal’s health sector and creative industries. In addition to the more conventional conference presentations, there was a month-long Hacking Health Design Challenge, presented with the cooperation of business creativity consulting firm f. & co. The Summit was created by Quartier de l’innovation, a platform initiated by École de technologie supérieure and McGill University. The conference itself was an outcome of collaboration between the domains of business, education, and technology.
Hacking Health recruited healthcare professionals over the Fall who shared their challenges and ideas for improving the healthcare system. Healthcare professionals have a first-hand knowledge of where the problems are and where patient-centric solutions are needed in Montreal’s healthcare system. They may not know that these issues can be resolved with some creative design.
Hacking Health helped the healthcare professionals design proposals to be pitched on November 5 for potential team members. On November 6, newly-formed teams worked all day to develop their projects with the help of facilitators and mentors from technology startups and firms. Their works-in-progress were presented to conference attendees in the evening. The ensuing cocktail hour allowed for further exchange of ideas. Over the following three weeks, each team developed their project -- including the business model and a working prototype -- in preparation for a Dragons’ Den-style final demo night, where they competed in front of half a dozen angel investors for prizes from FounderFuel, Cossette, and others.
The MSI Sparkboard featured the projects of participating teams (and is still up if any readers want to consult) which included:
a mobile app to enhance continuity of care so that patients could maintain therapeutic routines between visits to their psychiatrist.
an app-based game simulating an MRI exam for children which would help lower their stress levels when the actual procedure took place.
The team I worked with created the Soda Challenge app, to help people develop healthier habits by reducing their sugar consumption. Our team included two primary care physicians, a developer, a coordinator/recruiter, a nutritional coach and two researchers -- myself from medical anthropology, and a doctoral student of experimental medicine. I came to this project because of my interest in consumer practices and health, and for the opportunity to carry out applied anthropology on a pressing issue. On a more personal level, I am quite familiar with soda consumption as I grew up in a family where many two-litre bottles were consumed every week (avoided by the parents, but relished by the kids.) Seeing how pervasive soda consumption is here and around the world, I doubt that I am the only one with such a story.
But what brought people from different backgrounds to collaborate on this project? I asked this question to members of the Soda Challenge team over the past few weeks.
Our experimental medicine researcher stated,
I’m working on a research project to see why certain diabetic patients have difficulty achieving certain standards of care and to see if there is a genetic basis to this. I was really interested in the Soda Challenge because no matter what the impact of my research is, if the patients don’t try to improve their diet, the medication will never be able to do the entire job. I want to complement my project by using different scales – the genetic level, and the human and dietary level.
Our coordinator/recruiter responded that he joined after attending the team’s presentation of the work-in-progress on November 6. He felt the team was strong in important ways: members seemed like they could handle uncertainty and were also good at knowing what they didn’t know. Certainly, in complex fields such as healthcare and technology, one should be comfortable with ambiguity and be able to make the best decisions possible in the face of uncertainty.
The co-founder of the Soda Challenge is a family medicine physician who met our developer at a Hacking Health event earlier in the Fall -- the turning point that got this project off the ground. He became interested in healthy lifestyles after studying nutrition in his first year of medical school. Regarding the benefits of collaboration for this project he stated,
I think in our world today, it’s not good enough to be in only one discipline. That’s why I’ve got a couple of different backgrounds. Coming into medicine from a public health background, I see how things work at different levels. Nothing is that straightforward, especially behavioural change […]
Not only that, but in terms of brainstorming and creative change… I believe we need to have a team of different disciplines come together, much in the same way that we treat patients holistically. For a solution to a complex problem such as this… you need to come at it from every angle.
As for the challenges to collaboration, he said,
First of all, being able to trust… basically it’s strangers who are trying to to work together. Part of that is establishing your boundaries. Also [it can be] very difficult to accept your weaknesses and put your pride and ego aside. The first step is being able to accept what you can’t do, so that someone else can come forward and fill that gap. It’s like a web of skills you know… and we’re just going to fill it in.
Although the November 26 Demo Night came and went, projects continue to evolve in the “afterlife” of the MSI. Team members, many of whom did not know each other at first, remain on the frontlines of collaboration, figuring out how to communicate with different experts, translate insights and map out feasible objectives.
Whether by design or not, the three weeks in between the initial pitches and final demo helped our team create a routine for meeting up and moving the project in spaces that included Google hangouts for checking in, cafés for group work, food courts for customer development interviews, Notman House for support from Hacking Health, and so on.
Like many startups, the teams from MSI’s Design Challenge are “learning by doing” when it comes to collaboration, compelling members to bring in lessons from other parts of their lives. Developing these projects certainly involves an opportunity cost for all participants. This makes the art of collaboration even more crucial for bringing ideas into action.