Cre­at­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion

In­side AUT’s Colab


EVER WON­DERED WHAT the sounds of your life would look like 3D printed in white ny­lon? Or what they do in a mega­tron­ics lab? Or what 200 game de­vel­op­ers would talk about if they were all in a room to­gether? Or how you might in­cor­po­rate con­duc­tive fi­bres into a ‘smart’ shirt so it be­comes ‘wearable tech­nol­ogy’? Or why all those white dots on your face are nec­es­sary to turn you into an avatar? Or how you print an in­dus­trial wid­get from stain­less steel pow­der us­ing se­lec­tive laser melt­ing (spoiler alert: it isn’t any­thing like print­ing a plas­tic toy from one of those loud desk­top 3D print­ers).

OK, so you maybe didn’t ever ask these ques­tions? But if you did, chances are Colab could give you the an­swer.

Set up in 2008 as the in­ter- dis­ci­plinary unit for AUT’s newly- cre­ated De­sign and Cre­ative Tech­nolo­gies fac­ulty, Colab’s mis­sion was to get stu­dents and re­searchers from five dis­parate aca­demic dis­ci­plines – art and de­sign, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, com­puter and math­e­mat­i­cal sciences, cre­ative tech­nolo­gies, and en­gi­neer­ing – talk­ing and work­ing to­gether to en­cour­age in­no­va­tion in new ar­eas, in par­tic­u­lar cre­ative ap­pli­ca­tions of newly- de­vel­op­ing tech­nolo­gies.

Artists work­ing with pro­gram­mers on in­ter­ac­tive art for big screens, for ex­am­ple, or engi­neers col­lab­o­rat­ing with fash­ion de­sign­ers on wearable tech.

The orig­i­nal founders still head up Colab – ar­chi­tect Charles Walker, and Frances Joseph, who was an artist work­ing in sculp­ture, in­stal­la­tion, pup­petry and an­i­ma­tron­ics.

Joseph says she has al­ways been in­ter­ested in

Oth­ers see chaos. We see ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and dis­cov­ery... Around 30% of grad­u­ates from the pro­gramme go on to found their own busi­ness.

Charles Walker, Colab

how cre­ativ­ity and science come to­gether.

“My fa­ther was an elec­tronic engi­neer and my un­cle was a pro­fes­sor of English and a poet. So I al­ways had two di­men­sions to my­self: tech­nol­ogy and artistry.”

Still, cre­at­ing an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary or­gan­i­sa­tion within a univer­sity struc­ture hasn’t been easy.

“What we were do­ing was quite rad­i­cal six years ago. Peo­ple were talk­ing about col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween dis­ci­plines quite a lot, but it’s a hard thing to do, par­tic­u­larly in univer­si­ties, which tend to be fo­cused on dis­ci­plinary ex­per­tise – deep and nar­row – with fund­ing as­so­ci­ated with stu­dents in dif­fer­ent ar­eas.” Has it been worth it? Def­i­nitely, Joseph says. Col­lab­o­ra­tion is cru­cial. To take just one ex­am­ple, there are no univer­sity cour­ses where peo­ple study ad­vanced en­gi­neer­ing and ad­vanced textile de­sign to­gether, she says, so if you want to de­velop wearable tech­nolo­gies or e-tex­tiles, you have to have some way of bring­ing these dif­fer­ent ar­eas and ex­perts to­gether.

“The wearable tech­nolo­gies group in­cludes textile de­sign­ers, PhD stu­dents, elec­tronic and me­chan­i­cal engi­neers, nan­otech­nol­o­gists, com­puter pro­gram­mers, phys­io­ther­a­pists and health sci­en­tists, as well as in­dus­try part­ners.

“The re­searchers come from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines with dif­fer­ent cul­tures. They un­der­stand things dif­fer­ently and speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages.”

In gen­eral New Zealand or­gan­i­sa­tions don’t do col­lab­o­ra­tion well, Joseph says, though we are im­prov­ing. “Maybe kids do it bet­ter, but our sys­tems – univer­sity, busi­ness, gov­ern­ment – aren’t geared for col­lab­o­ra­tion.”


The word “Colab” con­jures up (in this mind at least) a Sil­i­con Val­ley-like white space, full of muted groups of stu­dents, per­haps in lab coats.

The real thing isn’t like that at all.

With­out its own build­ing (though it may get a home in 2018 as part of AUT’s re­build­ing pro­gramme), Colab has snuck, mag­pie-like, into other peo­ple’s spa­ces.

3D print­ing is at the bot­tom of the science and en­gi­neer­ing block; textile and de­sign is tucked in the base­ment of an un­likely build­ing near the top of the cam­pus; PIGsty is cur­rently a vir­tual group, man­aged through Colab, and is wait­ing for con­fir­ma­tion of its own phys­i­cal lab space.

Then, sev­eral floors above PIGsty is the mega­tron­ics work­shop – grandad’s shed taken over by the teenagers.

Hand­tools and drills sit along­side 3D print­ers and old os­cil­la­tors sal­vaged for parts – the work­shop is a glo­ri­ous trea­sure trove, open once a week for any­one who wants to work on their own projects, ex­change ideas, and col­lab­o­rate.


There’s al­most no stand-at-the-front- of the-class­room-style teach­ing at Colab, Walker says. In­stead, the cur­ricu­lum is pro­ject-based – with the projects mostly de­vised by stu­dents them­selves. Some visi­tors used to the old, tra­di­tional way of aca­demic teach­ing can be a bit hor­ri­fied, Walker says. But stu­dents (and mostly their par­ents) “get it”.

And if suc­cess is mea­sured in terms of how much in­no­va­tion you foster, Colab is win­ning. Around 30% of grad­u­ates from the pro­gramme go on to found their own busi­ness.

“Oth­ers see chaos,” Walker says. “We see ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and dis­cov­ery.”

Six years af­ter the Ter­tiary Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion handed over its first $1.4 mil­lion of fund­ing, Colab now has 200 stu­dents, 17 staff, and four labs – 3D print­ing, textile and de­sign, mo­tion cap­ture and PIGsty ( play in­ter­ac­tiv­ity and games). There’s a data vi­su­al­i­sa­tion lab com­ing on stream in 2016 where re­searchers will be look­ing at new ap­pli­ca­tions in ar­eas like vir­tual re­al­i­ties, tan­gi­ble in­ter­ac­tion and the de­sign of im­mer­sive spa­ces. And Colab staff also run a se­ries of reg­u­lar meet-ups and hackathons – from game de­vel­op­ment to dig­i­tal art.


At any one time there are dozens of projects go­ing on in Colab, says Walker. Some in­volve un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent teams, oth­ers post­grad­u­ate re­searchers from var­i­ous dis­ci­plines, and the teams of­ten work with aca­demic staff and peo­ple from in­dus­try, busi­ness and the cre­ative sec­tor.

“There is a lot of em­pha­sis on team­work with the stu­dents – stu­dents de­velop and dis­band teams on a pro­ject-by-pro­ject ba­sis. That’s how the world works, but it’s one of those over­looked skills in univer­si­ties – how to fit into teams, work with peo­ple and be con­struc­tive.”


At the mo­ment, Colab is work­ing with about 10 busi­ness and com­mu­nity part­ners, in­clud­ing Spark (for­merly Tele­com), Walker says, with an em­pha­sis on new tech­nolo­gies and dig­i­tal fu­tures.

“Ev­ery­one talks about dis­rup­tion, so if the world is chang­ing be­cause of new tech­nol­ogy, what are the new prod­ucts, ser­vices, busi­ness mod­els, ca­reers and or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­tures that are go­ing to be suc­cess­ful. That’s what we are in­ter­ested in.

“With ex­ter­nal part­ners, we like to sit down and run ideation ses­sions; work out what the ques­tions are, and agree a path for­ward, rather than start with them telling us their prob­lem.

“For ex­am­ple, Spark knows it can’t be a telco, it has to be a dig­i­tal ser­vice provider, so what is its fu­ture in the new dig­i­tal econ­omy?”

And Colab is also grow­ing in other ways. Last year it took 50 first year un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents; this year the in­take was in­creased to 70. The school typ­i­cally gets 350-400 ap­pli­ca­tions. Now the fo­cus is to boost post-grad­u­ate num­bers from 35 to 60 by 2018.

“We tend to at­tract peo­ple who are at the edges of their own dis­ci­pline,” Walker says. “They might be an engi­neer that be­came in­ter­ested in mecha­tron­ics, or an artist who wants to get in­volved in tech­nol­ogy, or a pro­gram­mer who wants to do some­thing cre­ative, like film or mo­tion cap­ture.”

The big­gest chal­lenge Colab faces, Joseph says, is keep­ing ahead of the game, when the game is dig­i­tal fu­tures. But when it works, it’s worth it.

“One of the best mo­ments for me was fi­nally get­ting elec­tri­cal engi­neers work­ing with textile de­sign­ers in the field of wearable tech and e-tex­tiles. It was a five-year process to get this hap­pen­ing be­cause fash­ion and en­gi­neer­ing are tra­di­tion­ally seen as op­po­sites... pre­domi­nently fe­male stu­dents ver­sus al­most ex­clu­sively male, 'friv­o­lous' ver­sus se­ri­ous, cre­ative and ex­pres­sive ver­sus sci­en­tific and math­e­mat­i­cal.”

Cap­tur­ing in­ter­est: Colab co-di­rec­tors Frances Joseph (left) and Charles Walker (right), with public li­ai­son co­or­di­na­tor Harry Sil­ver (cen­tre right) and vis­it­ing Mon­treal aca­demic and artist Chris Sal­ter (sec­ond from left) in Colab's mo­tion cap­ture lab.

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