What do a 1980s rocker and an 18th Century Enlightenment philosopher have in common?

International Space Station (ISS): “the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken” and a marvel of global collaboration.

International Space Station (ISS): “the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken” and a marvel of global collaboration.

The term collaboration is relatively new when taken in the context of human history.  But its essence and concept go a long way back.  When we apply contemporary understanding to what collaboration is, we can see many notable achievements across many fields.  Here are four offering inspiration and worth exploring:


  1. Encyclopedia.  In fact, the original name of this astonishing project was Encyclopedie, (in French) as the original authors were some of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers led by Denis Diderot.  The thirty-five volume (some 20 million words) publication was an attempt at collecting all the world’s knowledge and, in the words of Diderot (who was its original editor), “to change the way people think”.  The unprecedented project today seems trivial with Google and Wikipedia at our fingertips.  But two and half centuries ago this was a blockbuster collaboration.  It was produced thanks to large number of contributors – an estimated 150 scientists and philosophers.  Encyclopedia did in fact have a major impact on changing the way people think.  The ideas it collected and spread were represented in the foundations of the modern democracies we take for granted today.  This collaboration was as disruptive as disruption can be.  Encyclopedia was banned for a time and was considered major threat by authorities.
  2. ISS.  The International Space Station is a one of a kind collaboration.  It is as important as it is unique and inspiring.  This nearly two decades long project has been made possible due to the collaboration of a number of countries which have proven that, even at a time of the greatest competition and disagreements, collaboration can act as a force for shared goals.  NASA describes the ISS as “the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken”.  That is an apt description given the number of countries that are participating in the project.  Its operation is supported by thousands of people across facilities in nearly 20 countries and it has involved researchers from nearly 70 countries.  The ISS has effectively redefined the possibilities of collaboration.
  3. HGP.  The Human Genome Project is one now regarded as one of the greatest international research collaborative efforts.  Its goal was to “complete mapping and understanding of all the genes of human beings”.  As such it produced data whose results have been said to have produced a “transformative textbook of medicine, with insights that will give health care providers immense new powers to treat, prevent and cure disease”.
  4. Live Aid.  Without doubt, Live Aid was one of the largest artistic collaborations ever executed.  Hundreds of musicians across many countries collaborated to raise awareness and funds for aid to the crippling poverty in Africa.  This event was unprecedented in its scale and ambition as it attracted nearly 2 billion (appx 40% of world’s population at that time) viewers across 150 countries.  Apart from the humanitarian sentiment, the complexity of co-ordination and technology required for such a project, and the sheer size of the number of participants, was indicative of the fact that good organisation and a compelling collaborative narrative are the key to success.

These examples have many things in common; one of which is being inspiring beyond their original time.  The fact that they focused on global impacts is another.  But perhaps most telling is the fact that, when people accept the possibility of creating something bigger than what one entity can, we also see emergence of creative output with lasting impact.  These collaborations are indicative of the ongoing rise of multi-agency collaborations that at times can appear unusual as they bring partners across vast fields with seemingly little common interest.  Large scale collaborations are not rare any longer.  They open a whole new world of opportunities for learning and research that can reveal how collaboration can be harnessed to ever-increasing proficiency.