Kicking off the “Bi-Laterals” Series in San Francisco

Ping-pong, pong-ping, ping-ping — that was the playful format of the inaugural Bi-Laterals event that we hosted in our San Francisco studio last Wednesday. Sound too cryptic? Well, here’s a more straightforward description: the idea behind the Bi-Laterals series is to set up a friendly confrontation of two very different — if not diametrically opposed — organizations from different industries, different cultures and different walks of life. Specifically, this means gathering two groups of panelists: representatives of NBBJ, and our guests from an organization with which we have typically little or nothing in common. At a fast pace, we ask each other questions and answer questions on each other’s behalf — a blitz dialogue indeed, with an element of surprise. Our hope is to have a rich contrast that generates not only a little bit of empathy, but also the kind of unexpected insights that let us learn. And to have fun!

To kick off the Bi-Laterals series, we had the great pleasure of sharing the stage with four members of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit behind Wikipedia, the world’s 6th-most-visited web site and the steward of one of the world’s most active networks of volunteers.

Bi-Laterals: NBBJ Meets Wikimedia
Bi-Laterals: NBBJ Meets Wikimedia
Bi-Laterals: NBBJ Meets Wikimedia

Facilitated by our masterful master of ceremony, NBBJ’s Matthew Ridenour, we learned that Wikimedia’s grassroots culture belies its far-reaching global influence: the foundation does not have even one editor on staff, it doesn’t store user data (to avoid becoming a target for intelligence inquiries), it doesn’t have to respond to donors’ political agendas (a notable exception in the non-profit sector), and it only recently added a design department (well, that one was not too surprising). We also heard what keeps the Wikimedia team up at night: the challenge to scale Wikipedia without losing its integrity, the demands and sensibilities of a hyper-engaged worldwide community, and the worry of losing audiences to more interactive platforms.

Here were some of the questions we asked Jessie Wild Sneller:

What most inspires you most about Wikipedia?

Working with volunteers from around the world who create free, open content projects for the good of others. I have met so many people — elderly women from India, teenage geniuses from Brazil, professors from Poland — who earnestly edit Wikipedia, ask their local governments to release documents into the public domain and train others to edit Wiki projects, all so their countries can access resources in their local language. This is hugely inspiring.

When you look down the road 5 or 10 years, where do you see Wikipedia headed?

This is a tough question for a group of encyclopedians: we are in the business of capturing history, not predicting the future! But for Wikipedia: I think it will be a space where people can experience and interact with content, rather than just consume [it] through reading. For example, instead of just reading about how to calculate velocity, you could interact with the different components of the equation and see the effects on a moving image.

What do you find most interesting about the design and architecture industry?

It’s really interesting to think about the way design elements can cause people to interact in certain ways. It has been fun observing more critically the physical spaces I am in and considering why they may have been designed in a particular fashion. I am also inspired to take more seriously the effects of the software architecture of the online convening places that I help run and develop for the Wikimedia grantmaking work. There are designs that encourage people to share more (or less), and we need to be cognizant of this!

Why is it important for industries that have little in common with each other to get together for forums like Bi-Lateral?

It’s challenging at times to pull out of the silo of one’s own industry and to realize others are also building towards a better world, but from a different angle. For me, stopping and interacting with the work of others is exciting as it gives me a small window into the talents and passions that are outside of my own. From an overall industry perspective, it is a communication challenge — no jargon! — to help others understand the work, and also can bring up new ideas and ways of thinking which can be taken back to reframe an existing problem. For those of us in the Wikimedia movement, this is especially important, since our projects like Wikipedia exist primarily because there are so many different people in the world with such diverse areas of expertise.

When it was our turn to be “grilled,” the Wikimedia team asked about the future of architecture in 20 years (“galactic real estate” and “ad-hoc, super-flexible micro-units that transcend the permanence of the built environment”), the threat emanating from a possible “Wikipediazation” of design through crowd-sourced or open-sourced services (“yes…but”), and last, but not least, our romantic preferences: Bond or Bourne? (“Not even close: Bond!”).

Thanks again to the team from Wikimedia for being “game” — it was a terrific premiere of the Bi-Laterals! More to come. Stay tuned for the next Bi-Laterals evening in January.