Northrop: Collaborative Partners, Multiple Perspectives

The Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts helped Northrop realize a collaborative model with interdisciplinary university partners.

This is the third post from Melissa Wray and Sarah Thompson about Northrop’s experience in the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. We asked them to share an update about the prototype project that Northrop pursued through the Lab. Read more from other Lab participants here.

Looking at a real-time image of Northrop reflected upside down in our Camera Obscura, I notice things that I haven’t noticed before. I think about how a simple change in perspective and fresh approaches allow for discovery. Looking back at our work in the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, this is also true. Bringing together perspectives from our widely varied new resident partners (Northrop Presents, Institute for Advanced Study, University Honors Program, and the College of Design’s Innovation Lab), we discovered new processes for working together and realized a collaborative model that will continue to shape discoveries and generate ideas in the years to come.

What did we do?

Northrop’s Camera Obscura on Northrop Plaza, created by College of Design Professor Rebecca Krinke.
Northrop’s Camera Obscura on Northrop Plaza, created by College of Design Professor Rebecca Krinke.

Just what did we do together as part of the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts? Many things!

The College of Design’s talented professor Rebecca Krinke created a beautiful, large Camera Obscura as our first social object that sits on the Northrop Plaza, inviting passers-by to step inside and be enveloped by a whole new perspective.

Student groups were invited to pitch pop-up event ideas, from which we selected seven to fund and help program as part of our Pop-Up Northrop initiative. These happened between this fall and winter, and included a University of Minnesota Marching Band and Drumline performance, an installation of a traditional Siberian chum dwelling from the Weisman Art Museum’s student collective, a money machine filled with positive thoughts on paper instead of cash as programmed by the University Honors Program students, and much more. As Pamela Baker from the University Honors Program said, their Pop-Up event was “great in terms of getting visibility for [Honors Program] students, and getting them excited and pumped about Northrop and […] for continuing to collaborate.”

We also hosted four exterior installation projects that included video projections and lighting treatments. The most popular and dynamic projection event, Light Plays (which repurposed Glowdoodle software), invited participants to don lights and glow bracelets, and then use their body movements in front of a webcam to make real-time images that were projected onto the façade of Northrop. This event, which was the brainchild of a graduate student from the College of Design, also featured a performance element by a local choreographer with dancers who performed with lights attached to their limbs that captured and projected their movements.

Collaborative action learning

Action learning is an underlying current of our work together. Each of these events and projects required collaboration between partners to conceive of a plan, program and execute it, and reflect on our successes and areas for growth. It has been an iterative process, with each event building on the next.

A committee made up of staff from Northrop and the College of Design solicited and sifted through the Pop-Up Northrop submissions before bringing top choices to the larger group of resident partners. While Northrop’s Student Engagement Coordinator ran the logistics of these events, all partners assisted with staffing, documentation, and supplies. The same committee model with representatives from each resident unit, and a designated point person to lead the way, was used to work through the planning and execution of the Social Object (the Camera Obscura) and Exterior (Light Plays) Installations.

Student engagement

One of the most fruitful outcomes of our collaborative framework has been student engagement. As a building that has historically had challenges connecting with the active U of M student community, engaging students in the New Northrop is a high priority for all residents.

Our Student Engagement Coordinator has been able to reach countless more students through the connections and support of our resident partners, and their student networks. Thanks to the Pop-Up events, we’ve “found a way to make our students excited about the collaboration between units,” says Pamela Baker of the University Honors Program.

Long-term implementation of a collaborative framework

All resident partners have been impressed with the early successes of this work and are committed to further developing our collaborative framework with an eye toward long-term sustainability.

As Susannah Smith of the Institute for Advanced Study puts it, “The Innovation Lab retreat and our follow-up work has laid an important foundation for close working relationships between the IAS and our resident partners in Northrop. As of February, we are now finally all co-residents in the building, but thanks to the work we started together in the spring of 2013, we have been working as a team already for months. … Because we had already established relationships and protocols for working together, we were able to weather what was an incredibly busy and stressful period.”

That busy period has included programming and announcing our grand reopening roster, which includes activity from all residents. We are making special efforts to look for areas of overlap, and program events that work well in tandem with the other residents. As an example, Northrop’s new student advisory group is bringing in College Humor as part of our grand reopening and the Institute for Advanced Study has a lecture programed an hour before the event featuring Anatoly Liberman on the origin of humor. Working collaboratively, we are able to maximize each other’s efforts, and think strategically about programming within the building.

Creation of further cross-departmental processes

Another example of this collaborative framework in action is the connection of the University Honors Program to the College of Design via the Travelers Innovation Lab in Northrop. Because of this partnership, the College of Design has three Honors Seminars scheduled for the fall of 2014, when previously there hadn’t been any. As Brad Hokanson from the College of Design explains,

“One of the great values for our college to have a working space in Northrop is the ability to connect and engage with the other partners in the New Northrop. We, as designers, know that innovation and creativity spring from chance meetings and that the proximity of the different resident groups will encourage interaction and new directions. … The New Northrop will be a place which can pull the divergent voices of the University community together, building a new center for innovation and creativity. … This can be a center of interaction, engagement, of mixing and mash-up, of connection and collaboration. No longer the rock in the stream, it will be the generative cascade for ideas. And probably a place to get a donut.”

A sub-committee of representatives from each resident partner, pulled from our Innovation Lab team, has also started the exciting work of curating our new gallery space based on intersections of activity within the building. And at an institutional level, our newly formed Advisory Board will focus one of its primary objectives on helping us formalize this collaborative framework by identifying appropriate community partners and sustainable funding sources that can aid in advancing our work.

Thanks to the experience of the Innovation Lab grant, we have established a promising framework for the continued growth of our collaboration and innovation practices. We are looking forward to Northrop’s Grand Reopening on April 4, and the new opportunities it will provide in the years to come!

Melissa Wray is a communications professional working in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. As Marketing & Communications Associate at Northrop at the University of Minnesota, she writes and edits both print and online content, manages the Northrop blog and social media, works on student outreach, and much more. She is also a cofounder and Executive Director of Hazel & Wren, an online literary community that also hosts events in the Twin Cities area. Melissa will be starting graduate school in the fall for Arts & Cultural Leadership at the University of Minnesota.