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How Collaboration Arises and Why It Fails

January 17–22, 2021

Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Andreas Roepstorff and Paul Verschure, Chairpersons

Program Advisory Committee

Jenna Bednar, Julia R. Lupp, Bhavani R. Rao, Andreas Roepstorff, Ferdinand von Siemens, and Paul Verschure

Goals of the Forum

  • To explore the commonalities and differences in collaboration as observed in biological, social, and technological systems,
  • To identify core drivers of and constraints on collaboration and the conditions for its emergence, stabilization, and fractionation,
  • To outline putative generic architectures for processes of collaboration, and
  • To model how commons may be created, consumed, and destroyed during collaboration.

Integrating diverse perspectives, the Forum will work to develop a comprehensive framework to support future work.


The stability of social systems depends critically on realizing sustainable methods of “collaboration,” yet how and by which means collaboration is achieved is not clearly understood; neither are the conditions or processes that lead to its breakdown or failure. [For context, collaboration is understood as cooperation between agents toward mutually constructed goals.] Part of the reason for our lack of understanding is that the phenomenon of collaboration is, by nature, a highly multidisciplinary problem, and effective research into its complexities has been difficult to achieve across the broad range of scientific and technical disciplines involved.

The need for a fundamental understanding of collaboration, however, has become increasingly important. Not only does humankind demand answers as it attempts to address critical challenges at multiple scales (e.g., climate change, migration, enhanced automation, social and economic inequality), but ever-increasing technological and economical means of interconnecting people and societies are disrupting long-established, familiar patterns of how we interact. Radical technological changes that are ongoing have the potential to reshape collaboration in ways that are currently hard to predict or influence (e.g., by altering configurations in interaction, information creation, and modes of communication). On one hand, such changes could disrupt hitherto stable forms of collaboration by affecting critical communication channels and traditional roles, as can be observed in the rapidly changing patterns in governance, commerce, and social interaction. On the other, technology could lead to the emergence of novel, successful forms of collaboration that deviate from traditional “hierarchical” architectures. Evidence of this can be seen in areas as diverse as highly automated manufacturing plants, the open science movement, collaborative software repositories, user-centered services, and the sharing of economy-based modes of organization. Without a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms, processes, and boundary conditions of collaboration, it is not possible to evaluate or predict which of these possible scenarios are sustainable or even plausible.

To remedy this knowledge gap requires a comprehensive research program. At its core, a theoretical framework must link pertinent aspects of collaboration across spatiotemporal scales and contexts. This task is a tall order, yet given current pressures on human–human, human–machine, and future machine–machine collaboration, we believe that an attempt must be made for a first survey.

Group 1: What is collaboration good for?

Collaboration unfolds in specific networks and substrates where it draws upon and builds interdependent physical, social, and cultural resources or commons. Commons, in turn, define tasks, problems, and opportunities that shape the specific dynamics of collaboration. This working group will address questions such as:

  • What is the role of information technologies in collaboration?
  • What is the exact relation between commons and the features of collaboration?
  • How do commons shape the properties of agents? • What is the relationship between organizational design and collaborative dynamics?
  • Are commons static physical, social, and cultural resources, or are they dynamic and constantly consumed, recreated, and produced as collaborations develop?

Group 2: How do we collaborate?

This working group will address the core components of collaborative systems that comprise the architecture of collaboration; that is, how the exchange of information and resources is structured. It will look at a number of questions including:

  • Can a collaborative system be decomposed into different layers of a control architecture guiding information exchange, memory and action, or could it rather be conceptualized as a networked information-processing system?
  • How are goals, set, shaped, and communicated, and what communication channels are used?
  • What is the effect of different choice architectures on the success of collaborative processes, and how does the environment or context affect what choice architecture is optimal?
  • What is the memory of collaborative systems, its value systems for adjustments, the constraints and objectives a collaborative system needs to satisfy, and the temporal requirements on action and interaction?
  • Does collaboration require reciprocity in information exchange and affirmation of shared goals, or can collaboration be maintained within an overall goal hierarchy in which participating agents can operate in an encapsulated reduced action space?
  • In human systems, a critical part of the architecture of collaboration may be provided by our embodiment and its propensities. Are there general lessons to be learned from understanding the embodied nature of human collaboration? How does it draw on and integrate with particular physical biological and virtual cultural propensities that shape specific interactions?
  • By projecting agents into an informational space of incentives, the scale of collaboration can be massively increased: Do the same principles of organization hold for artificial entities and complex human made organizations?

Group 3: Why do agents collaborate?

Collaborations are intrinsically goal oriented and require agents to create and be guided by goals and commons. As such, collaboration may implicitly and explicitly come to follow norms of conduct. This group will focus on issues such as:

  • Should the “rights” of an individual agent be violated to sustain the collaborative process?
  • Do collaborative dynamics develop distinct meta-norms that follow a unique logic that transcends the individual or small groups?
  • The unique role of the commons must be protected by the collective, yet what happens when this leads to a compromise over moral prerogatives?
  • Are there intrinsic psychological features that are necessary for collaboration such as social perception, motivations, goals, and objectives?
  • How are rules and norms that are intrinsic to collaboration matched to extrinsic ones that constrain the commons?
  • What are the mechanisms that support norm and incentive creation, and how do they relate to the functioning of collaboration?
  • Can norms and incentives be scaled relative to their functionality and classified as proximate, distal, and ultimate?

Group 4: When does collaboration break down?

A discussion of boundary conditions addresses the issue of whether there are distinct, limiting factors and trade-offs in realizing collaboration. Human forms of collaboration require analysis, including the putative importance of embodied interaction, abstract representations, and organizational structures. This group will explore the following questions:

  • What is the role of embodiment and human biology? • How do the intrinsic limitations on human rationality affect or support collaboration?
  • What are the critical contributions of the dynamics of exchange and communication?
  • What is the role of trust and the experience of common ground among agents?
  • Is there a need for shared or consistent information across subsystems and agents, and how rapidly and consistently must information be distributed?
  • What is the role of noise and distortion of information in collaborative dynamics?
  • What are the limits, boundaries, and conditions on collaboration in technological and hybrid systems?
  • How are the external and internal conditions of collaboration matched?
  • How can the robustness and transience of collaboration be defined?
  • What are the catalysts of collaboration