more test

Supporting Social Creativity: Promises and Pitfalls
Gerhard Fischer and Hal Eden
Center for LifeLong Learning and Design (L3D)
Department of Computer Science and Institute of Cognitive Science
University of Colorado
Boulder, CO 80309-0430 – USA


In our research we are developing and assessing conceptual and technological frameworks for understanding, supporting, and enhancing social creativity by democratizing design. We exploit the opportunities and explore the challenges of the fundamental transformational shift from an industrialized information economy (specialized in producing finished goods to be consumed passively) to a networked information economy (in which all people are provided with the means to participate actively in addressing personally meaningful problems). This paper describes success factors as pitfalls and promises derived from three application areas (collaborative design environments, course information environments, and Wikis) that we have explored over the last few years.


social creativity, socio-technical environments, Envisionment and Discovery Collaboratory, course information environments, CreativeIT Wiki


Although the creative act is often seen as the result of an individual working in isolation [Sternberg, 1999], the role of interaction and collaboration with other individuals is critical. The idea of social creativity [Fischer et al., 2005] emphasizes the belief that the heart of creativity is not the individual human mind, but groups of minds in interaction with each other and in interaction with materials, tools, and artifacts.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

NSF CreativeIT Workshop "Success factors in fostering creativity in IT research and education", Tempe, AZ, Jan. 18-20, 2008.

Creativity and innovation are being democratized [von Hippel, 2005]: users of products and services are increasingly able to create and innovate for themselves. To put owners of problems in charge, we have developed meta-design [Fischer & Giaccardi, 2006] as a new design methodology. The methodology and its supporting substrates are focused on an approach to design that does not get rid of the emergent, but rather includes it and makes it an opportunity for more creative and more adequate solutions to problems.

Although new tools are necessary to support meta-design, tools per se are not sufficient to democratize design and support social creativity. Access to these tools is a first step, but socio-technical environments are required that allow people to acquire the technical knowledge, reinforce social skills and provide the context necessary to use and adapt such tools to their needs.

In this paper, we first summarize some of the rationale for socio-technical environments to unleash social creativity by expanding boundaries and redistributing control in design (Section 2) and then describe three application domains (Section 3) that we have explored in our research over the last few years. From an analysis of these applications and other research efforts, we identify pitfalls and promises for fostering creativity. We conclude by proposing some actions derived from our analysis and from the discussion among all participants during the workshop (Section 6).

The Opportunity: Unleashing Social Creativity with Socio-Technical Environments

Socio-technical environments [Mumford, 1987; Trist, 1981] have the potential to unleash social creativity by integrating computing infrastructures and participative processes supporting collaboration not only about design artifacts but also about the goals of the design activity. By allowing users to be designers, socio-technical environments offer the possibility to achieve the best fit between systems and their ever-changing context of use, problems, domains, users, and communities of users. They empower users, as owners of a problem, to engage actively and collaboratively in the continual development of systems capable of sustaining personally meaningful activities and coping with their emergent needs. Socio-technical environments evolve as a result of a flexible and collaborative development process, which in turn modifies the terms of participation itself.

The rationale for creating socio-technical environments as a means to unleash social creativity by expanding boundaries and redistributing control in design comes from many sources, including the following prescriptive objectives and empirical observations:

The technological foundations to make these objectives a reality are provided by a powerful infrastructure for collaborative efforts. The Internet allows people to share their efforts, and the increased digital fluency [National-Research-Council, 1999] of the population in general, will make owners of problems independent of "high-tech scribes’ in personally meaningful tasks [Fischer, 2002]. Emerging success models, such as open source software and Wikipedia, have provided evidence of the great potential of socio-technical environments in which users can be active contributors.


In this section, we will describe three application domains that we have explored for several years in our research to gain a deeper understanding of creativity, specifically social creativity. These domains were chosen because we are familiar with them and because they are focused on different aspects of social creativity. The first domain, the Envisionment and Discovery Collaboratory, brings different stakeholders together around a computationally enhanced table to discuss, design, and assess problems and decision making in urban planning. All stakeholders contribute to the creation of one complex artifact. The second domain investigates course information environments to study approaches in education allowing students not only to be passive consumers, but active contributors by making creative extensions to a seeded environment. The third domain explores new generation wikis for supporting the research community in Creativity and IT. The unique challenges of this specific distributed scientific community are that people working in interdisciplinary projects or in niches of their disciplines are often isolated in their local environment and not aware of relevant work in other disciplines. The wiki complements face-to-face meetings (such as the ASU workshop and others) and it serves as a living organizational memory to create and sustain the community working in this topic area.

Application-1: The Envisionment and Discovery Collaboratory (EDC)

The EDC [Arias et al., 2000] supports social creativity by creating shared understanding among various stakeholders, contextualizing information to the task at hand, and creating objects-to-think-with in collaborative design activities. It is applicable to various domains; our initial effort has focused on the domains of urban planning and decision making, specifically in transportation planning and community development. Creating shared understanding requires a culture in which stakeholders see themselves as reflective practitioners rather than all-knowing experts [Schön, 1983]. Collaborative design taking place in such a culture can be characterized by a "symmetry of ignorance" [Rittel, 1984]: even though each stakeholder possess relevant knowledge, none of them has all the relevant knowledge, as well as "asymmetries of knowledge"; and [Arias, 2007]: expertise is context dependent and in specific situations different knowledge is more relevant to the task at hand.

The EDC transcends the "single user/single computer" interaction model. Crucial processes supported by the EDC that can be considered as success factors for social creativity are:

This is closely related to motivation and the question of "…am I willing to make the additional effort and time so my voice is heard?" Within the context of the CreativeIT Wiki, if the effort required for individuals to make contributions can be held to a low level as the benefit of shared information and resources grows, the potential of reaching both an individual and social tipping point increases. Our goal is to apply metadesign principles to both the social and technical aspects of system design to move in this direction.

PM-5: Supporting Reflective Communities

Social creativity needs the "synergy of many" [Bennis & Biederman, 1997]. The objective of educating "Renaissance scholars" (such as Leonardo da Vinci, who was equally adept in the arts and the sciences [Shneiderman, 2002]) is not reasonable in today’s world [National-Research-Council, 2003]. We need to invent alternative social organizations that will support "collective comprehensiveness through overlapping patterns of unique narrowness" [Campbell, 2005] by integrating different interdisciplinary specialties which are partially overlapping with each other. Such architectures will provide a foundation that people can understand each other based on common ground but at the same time their expertise will be complementary because they will know different things. In doing so, we will move beyond the isolated image of the reflective practitioner towards the sustainability and development of reflective communities.

Reflective communities are social structures that enable groups of people to share knowledge and resources in support of collaborative design, working, and learning. Some characteristics of communities being reflective are: avoiding entrenchment in group think (see PF-5), support for reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action, critiquing, establishing common ground and shared understanding, and maintaining group productivity with joint attention [Fischer et al., 1998].

Putting Insight into Action

One of the areas of discussion during the workshop was focused on how we create and maintain a community space and the role of artifacts in such an endeavor. The needs that were discussed included:

There is a need for socio-technical environments to share tools, artifacts, information, discussion, practices, tutorials, projects, meetings, and news and the awareness of community activity needs to be better supported.

The CreativeIT Wiki (see Application-3) is an effort to create and incrementally improve such an environment for the community. While at this point of time (Spring 2008) we have a good start with important resources being shared and numerous individuals involved, the "tipping point" for the CreativeIT community has not yet been reached. One factor is the existence of more established venues for participation and construction of "social networks" (e.g., conferences, workshops, panels), the associated products (e.g., papers, reports, monographs, books), and the recognition of academic capital associated with those efforts make it less likely that academic researchers, whose need for constant accrual of such capital is critical for tenure, promotion, and salary review, explore new modes, models, and approaches to creating new knowledge and new communities.

We postulate that the upcoming generation of researchers in this field may be a better target population for developing new cultural practices based on new forms of social networking, knowledge sharing, and academic capital. To this end, we have begun a focused effort to engage the graduate student population in areas related to creativity and IT (beginning with participants in the C&C 2007 Doctoral Consortium) to explore the potential of new media and networking capabilities to expand modes of academic knowledge creation, review, sharing, attribution, and evaluation as part of a continued community-building goal. This approach is built on the basic assumptions that these emerging researchers are:

The discussion among the participants during the workshop resulted in some insights as to what successful outcomes for the community space might be. Key elements for the further development of the community space were:


The authors thank the members of the Center for LifeLong Learning & Design at the University of Colorado, who have made major contributions to ideas described in this paper. The research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, (a) REC-0106976 "Social Creativity and Meta-Design in Lifelong Learning Communities," (b) IIS-0613638 "A Meta-Design Framework for Participative Software Systems," (c) IIS-0709304 "A New Generation Wiki for Supporting a Research Community in Creativity and IT."


Alexander, C. (1984) "The State of the Art in Design Methods." In N. Cross (Ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, John Wiley & Sons, New York, pp. 309-316.

Anderson, C. (2006) The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Hyperion, New York, NY.

Arias, E. (2007) Creating Environments to Support Collaboration in Learning, Design & Planning: Education, Participation, Environment, and Technology, Available at

Arias, E. G., Eden, H., & Fischer, G. (1997) "Enhancing Communication, Facilitating Shared Understanding, and Creating Better Artifacts by Integrating Physical and Computational Media for Design." In Proceedings of Designing Interactive Systems (DIS '97), ACM, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, pp. 1-12. Available at:

Arias, E. G., Eden, H., Fischer, G., Gorman, A., & Scharff, E. (2000) "Transcending the Individual Human Mind—Creating Shared Understanding through Collaborative Design," ACM Transactions on Computer Human-Interaction, 7(1), pp. 84-113.

Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Bennis, W., & Biederman, P. W. (1997) Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA.

Bereiter, C. (2002) Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000) Sorting Things Out — Classification and Its Consequences, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Brand, S. (1995) How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built, Penguin Books, New York.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000a) "Re-education." In J. S. Brown, & P. Duguid (Eds.), The Social Life of Information, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, pp. 207-241.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000b) The Social Life of Information, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.

Campbell, D. T. (2005) "Ethnocentrism of Disciplines and the Fish-Scale Model of Omniscience." In S. J. Derry, C. D. Schunn, & M. A. Gernsbacher (Eds.), Interdisciplinary Collaboration — An Emerging Cognitive Science, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 3-21.

dePaula, R., Fischer, G., & Ostwald, J. (2001) "Courses as Seeds: Expectations and Realities." In P. Dillenbourg, A. Eurelings, & K. Hakkarainen (Eds.), Proceedings of The European Conference on Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, Maastricht, Netherlands, pp. 494-501.

Eden, H. (2002) Conceptual and Technological Support for Social Creativity in Face-to-Face Collaboration, Ph.D. Dissertation (forthcoming), University of Colorado at Boulder.

Fischer, G. (1994) "Domain-Oriented Design Environments," Automated Software Engineering, 1(2), pp. 177-203.

Fischer, G. (2002) Beyond 'Couch Potatoes': From Consumers to Designers and Active Contributors, in FirstMonday (Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet), Available at

Fischer, G. (2005) "Distances and Diversity: Sources for Social Creativity," Proceedings of Creativity & Cognition, London, April, pp. 128-136.

Fischer, G., & Giaccardi, E. (2006) "Meta-Design: A Framework for the Future of End User Development." In H. Lieberman, F. Paternò, & V. Wulf (Eds.), End User Development: Empowering People to Flexibly Employ Advanced Information and Communication Technology, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, pp. 427-457.

Fischer, G., Giaccardi, E., Eden, H., Sugimoto, M., & Ye, Y. (2005) "Beyond Binary Choices: Integrating Individual and Social Creativity," International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (IJHCS) Special Issue on Computer Support for Creativity (E.A. Edmonds & L. Candy, Eds.), 63(4-5), pp. 482-512.

Fischer, G., Giaccardi, E., Ye, Y., Sutcliffe, A. G., & Mehandjiev, N. (2004) "Meta-Design: A Manifesto for End-User Development," Communications of the ACM, 47(9), pp. 33-37.

Fischer, G., Grudin, J., McCall, R., Ostwald, J., Redmiles, D., Reeves, B., & Shipman, F. (2001) "Seeding, Evolutionary Growth and Reseeding: The Incremental Development of Collaborative Design Environments." In G. M. Olson, T. W. Malone, & J. B. Smith (Eds.), Coordination Theory and Collaboration Technology, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 447-472.

Fischer, G., Lemke, A. C., McCall, R., & Morch, A. (1996) "Making Argumentation Serve Design." In T. Moran, & J. Carrol (Eds.), Design Rationale: Concepts, Techniques, and Use, Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 267-293.

Fischer, G., Nakakoji, K., Ostwald, J., Stahl, G., & Sumner, T. (1998) "Embedding Critics in Design Environments." In M. T. Maybury, & W. Wahlster (Eds.), Readings in Intelligent User Interfaces, Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco, pp. 537-559.

Fischer, G., & Ostwald, J. (2005) "Knowledge Communication In Design Communities." In R. Bromme, F. W. Hesse, & H. Spada (Eds.), Barriers and Biases in Computer-Mediated Knowledge Communication, Springer, New York, N.Y., pp. 213-242.

Florida, R. (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, Basic Books, New York, NY.

Gladwell, M. (2000) The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference, Back Bay Books, New York, NY.

Janis, I. (1972) Victims of Groupthink, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Mumford, E. (1987) "Sociotechnical Systems Design: Evolving Theory and Practice." In G. Bjerknes, P. Ehn, & M. Kyng (Eds.), Computers and Democracy, Avebury, Aldershot, UK, pp. 59-76.

Nardi, B. A. (1993) A Small Matter of Programming, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

National-Research-Council (1999) Being Fluent with Information Technology, National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

National-Research-Council (2003) Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity, National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

O'Reilly, T. (2006) What Is Web 2.0 - Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software, Available at

Olson, G. M., & Olson, J. S. (2001) "Distance Matters." In J. M. Carroll (Ed.), Human-Computer Interaction in the New Millennium, ACM Press, New York, pp. 397-417.

Raymond, E. S., & Young, B. (2001) The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, O'Reilly & Associates, Sebastopol, CA.

Rittel, H. (1984) "Second-Generation Design Methods." In N. Cross (Ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, John Wiley & Sons, New York, pp. 317-327.

Rogoff, B., Matsuov, E., & White, C. (1998) "Models of Teaching and Learning: Participation in a Community of Learners." In D. R. Olsen, & N. Torrance (Eds.), The Handbook of Education and Human Development — New Models of Learning, Teaching and Schooling, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 388-414.

Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, Basic Books, New York.

Shipman, F. (1993) Supporting Knowledge-Base Evolution with Incremental Formalization, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Shneiderman, B. (2002) Leonardo's Laptop — Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Simon, H. A. (1996) The Sciences of the Artificial, third ed., The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.) (1999) Handbook of Creativity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Tapscott, D., & Williams, A. D. (2006) Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Portofolio, Penguin Group, New York.

Trist, E. L. (1981) "The Sociotechnical Perspective: The Evolution of Sociotechnical Systems as a Conceptual Framework and as an Action Research Program." In A. H. VanDeVen, & W. F. Joyce (Eds.), Perspectives on Organization Design and Behavior, Wiley, New York, NY.

Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1991) "Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete." In I. Harel, & S. Papert (Eds.), Constructionism, Ablex Publishing Corporation, Norwood, NJ, pp. 161-191.

von Hippel, E. (2005) Democratizing Innovation, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Waddell, P., Borning, A., Noth, M., Freier, N., Becke, M., & Ulfarsson, G. (2003) "Microsimulation of Urban Development and Location Choices: Design and Implementation of UrbanSim," Networks and Spatial Economics, 3(1), pp. 43-67.


Gerhard Fischer ( is a Professor of Computer Science, a Fellow of the Institute of Cognitive Science, and the Director of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a member of the Computer Human Interaction (CHI) Academy. His research is focused on: social creativity; design; meta-design; new conceptual frameworks and new media for learning, working, and collaboration; human-computer interaction; cognitive science; distributed intelligence; domain-oriented design environments; and universal design (assistive technologies).

Hal Eden ( is a senior researcher in the Department of Computer Science and Associate Director of the Center for LifeLong Learning & Design at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has been a key developer on the Envisionment and Discovery Collaboratory (EDC) since its inception and has worked closely with domain experts on embodying innovative design practices in the EDC. His research interests include participative design, tangible tabletop interfaces, interactive design and learning environments, embodied design, interaction support for face-to-face collaboration, and socio-technical environments in support of social creativity.

Abstract 1

Keywords 1

1 Introduction 1

2 The Opportunity: Unleashing Social Creativity with Socio-Technical Environments 1

3 Applications 2

Application-1: The Envisionment and Discovery Collaboratory (EDC) 2 Application-2: Course Information Environments 3 Application-3: Supporting Social Creativity with Next Generation Wikis 3

4 Pitfalls and Promises 4

Pitfalls (PFs) 4 PF-1: Ignoring Motivation 4 PF-2: Build it and they do not come 4 PF-3: Insufficient Seeds and Not Reaching a Tipping Point 5 PF-4: Insufficient Understanding of Different Objectives 5 PF-5: Being Entrenched Group Think 5 PF-6: Not Exploiting the Ecology of Contributors 5 PF-7: Insufficient Support for Social-Technical Environments 5 Promises (PMs) 5 PM-1: Exploiting the Long Tail 5 PM-2: Supporting Underdesign 5 PM-3: New Concepts for Interaction and Collaboration 6 PM-4: Increase Value and Decrease Effort 6 PM-5: Supporting Reflective Communities 6

5 Putting Insight into Action 6

6 Acknowledgements 7

7 References 7

Figure 1: Incremental Refinement and Formalization in Design 3

Figure 2: The top-level Interface of the CreativeIT Wiki 4

Table 1: Creating New Possibilities for Interaction 6