As I gazed at the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and other amazingly-clear star formations last Thursday evening, there was no distraction from city lights or from the fog that often defines San Francisco.
I was sitting in the world’s largest digital planetarium, which uses real-time data from NASA plus immersive video technology. The NASA data accurately represents the current night sky, and the immersive video technology makes visitors feel like they’re travelling through space.
The star-studded evening program was a departure from the usual daytime planet presentation in honor not only of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday last Thursday evening, but also of the launch of NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences. NightLife is a weekly Thursday evening event featuring bars, food plus all of the Academy exhibits.
I walked, Lagunitas India Pale Ale in hand, through the recently-reopened museum and marveled at the four-story glass rainforest with its colorful poison frogs and Borneo bats and the graceful movement of jellyfish in the Steinhart aquarium, which includes thirty-eight thousand animals. Aside from official certifications that the Academy is the “greenest” museum on the planet, I found the museum’s “Living Roof” stunning and unique. The 197-thousand foot roof features seven hills containing many native plant species. The concept was to blend the building’s environment with that of Golden Gate Park and to reduce the Academy’s energy needs by creating oxygen, capturing rainwater and avoiding the heat-trapping disadvantages of tar-and-asphalt roofs.
After a decade of planning and $500 million in expenses, the Academy reopened last fall to much fanfare.
At the time, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an interesting story by John Cote that described how the Academy’s board of directors chose an architectural team for the project. By July of 1999, the board had reportedly narrowed its search to five finalists. According to the story, a British architect arrived with five associates, two trays of slides and detailed mockups of two specific designs. He spoke for an hour and a half.
When it was Italian architect Renzo Piano’s turn, he began by rearranging the room chairs in a circle. He then used a blank pad to sketch as he listened to board members describe the importance of nature, biodiversity, and naturalistic forms. Ultimately, Piano and his team got the job because of his collaborative approach. Rather than simply presenting options to the board, Piano engaged and involved his client. The result reflects broad input and the collaborative sessions between architect and client.
Too often in organizations, people make decisions in a vacuum. Those decisions are handed down to people who must implement them. This causes a chasm between the decision makers and the decision implementers and many others who are impacted by decisions. Then there’s a lot of talk like “They want us to ….” Or “they’ve decided that we’re supposed to….” So, an “us and them” mentality develops and sucks the motivation, innovation and value out of an organization.
In contrast, collaborative organizations make decisions by involving and engaging people across levels, functions, business units and regions. When people have a stake in decisions, “us and them” dissolves. I’ve written in The Culture of Collaboration book and in this blog about the interplay of culture, environment and tools in sparking collaboration. In his initial session with the Academy’s board, Renzo Piano used all three. He changed the culture by involving the board in the conceptual process. He redesigned the environment by rearranging the rooms chairs in a circle. And he used a blank sketch pad as a collaborative tool.
It’s a reminder—one that we stress in The Culture of CollaborationÒ Workshop—that collaborative culture can begin with a team gathering or a spontaneous exchange. In the case of the California Academy of Sciences, the result is an extraordinarily functional and “green” architectural masterpiece.