Summary: the power of touch
Intensive practice in the past five years has taught me that a very simple 3D printed object is an object of modern day magic. Laden with symbolism, in the context of a face-to-face meeting, it acts as
- A pointer, revealing knowledge and emotions;
- A powerful leverage in uniting players; and
- Support for enduring memory,
- Which reveals and constitutes a boundary object that is common to all stakeholders.
Watch on video: “Ideas that can be held” (10 min)
“Uniting project players within a common dynamic can include the use of symbolism: thanks to 3D printed ‘boundary objects,’ it is possible to embody the frameworks, constraints, players and interactions that are at the heart of the project. See the concepts before delving into them… Three examples and a presentation on the method.”
Watch here (in French): http://vimeo.com/user34840685/desideesatoucher
In my experience of 25 years as a project manager, I have had the opportunity to manage the implementation of a number of large-scale French infrastructure projects. These include the construction of new 200 kilometre-long highways in rural areas, the completion of the “Duplex A86” project, i.e. a 10-kilometre 2-deck tunnel in the greater Paris area, and the modernization of existing highways… I’ve guided projects through their key stages, from preliminary studies to implementation, by way of communicating with the stakeholders concerned by the future developments, including elected officials, nearby residents, government, associations, and more.
Early on in my career, I applied myself to following the “classical” commonly-taught communication techniques: listening, rephrasing, explanation, visual demonstration (pedagogical figures, synthesized images, etc.) and the like. I utilized the two most widely used senses in this field: hearing and sight. Thus, I spoke, I listened, and I displayed pretty images before my interlocutors.
Gradually, the idea of introducing a third sense with a view to exploring a new sphere of expression became central in my thinking as a communicator. In 428 BC, Anaxagoras said “man thinks because he has hands.” In Medieval Latin, “manipulare” means to “lead by the hand” (Translator’s note: the root man/i/u also giving the French word for hand, “main”). Manipulating (handling) arouses curiosity and openness to dialogue. The brain reconnects deeply with the world through the object that is being handled.
My wish was to allow my interlocutors to use touch as a way of facilitating their expression and to use a new mode of perception so that they could together concretize the concepts of the project to be implemented. But what should the object to handle be? And under what conditions was I to test this new mode of exchange, whether with nearby residents or elected officials?
The change I wanted to effect in my practice was eased by the advent of 3D printers. It had become possible for me to invent the desired object and to materialize it by testing various sizes and colours. This truly magical process marked a turning point in my approach to large- scale project management. I was able to verify on many occasions that using 3D boundary objects introduces a whole new dimension in relationships and interpersonal communication.
Over five years of practice, I designed and printed in 3D a number of boundary objects, including Aladin’s Cube, André Lenotre’s Disc of Knowledge, the Szillassi Polyhedron, the Zero Accident Cone, the Tessera Service Area, and the 3D City: space, time and imagination. Today, each of them helps me progress when I question things and helps me validate, far beyond my expectations, what I have instinctively known for a long time, namely that touch is a powerful vector of communication in project management. Born in our imagination and materialized through 3D printing, the boundary object makes it possible to share project construction with a maximum number of concerned parties.
To illustrate my point, I chose to elaborate on two examples: Aladin’s Cube and the Tessera Service Area model. The exercise is somewhat paradoxical, since I fix these ideas in writing without giving you the opportunity to handle the 3D boundary objects and evaluate their power yourselves. My hope is that this paper will encourage you to undertake your own experiments.
Wait no longer! Print your images in 3D boundary objects! Share them in order to unite your interlocutors and add a whole new dimension to your projects!
What is a boundary object?
Boundary objects, be they material or conceptual, are spaces that allow communication between very different worlds, to serve a common objective.
Boundary objects may have different characteristics. They may be abstract or concrete, material or conceptual, general or specific.
1. The first printed 3D object: Aladin’s Cube
The inception of Aladin’s Cube
Like many of you, as a child I played with blocks, wooden cubes. My grandfather’s name was Henri. He was born in 1898, two centuries back. When I was playing with my blocks, Henri gave me his own. And unlike mine, which were plain, the blocks of Henri’s childhood were covered with images, all of them different.
It was magical! Each cube told several stories, yet several cubes together formed a single picture. My head began to spin!
Twenty years later, as a student, I experienced the same giddy feeling when reading a book by Douglas Hofstadter, the cover of which depicts a cube sculpted out of the initials G E B for Gödel, Escher, and Bach. The book describes the connections between Gödel’s mathematics, Escher’s art and Bach’s music. It demonstrates the “sprigs of an eternal garland,” revealing the unity of the essential structure of the world that lies beneath multiple facets. My childhood memories came rushing back, with great intensity, in one fell swoop: Sundays at my grandfather’s, adult conversations, and the stories that came from “my” cube.
The idea of the “letter cube” came naturally to me several years later as a means of designing and printing my first boundary object.
From the start, I chose to interlink four very visible letters: E, C and two R s.
My intention was to examine a new process for communication with project stakeholders: the State, local authorities and nearby residents. (Translator’s note: the letter E stands for “État” in French, meaning State or central government; the letter C stands for “collectivités,” meaning local communities; and the letter R, stands for “riverains,” meaning nearby residents). I wanted to reveal, tell about and give meaning to my projects.
Putting these four letters in a cube pointed to another letter, not as obvious, yet very much on the scene, i.e. the letter M: multiple, multi-faceted, multi-interlocutor, and magical.
The choice of the letters E, C, R and R, completed by the fortuitous appearance of the letter M, in French constitutes a moderate lexical constraint, neither powerful nor weak.
In fact, the letters E, C, R and M start 24,625 words out of the total 78,855 words that the 2007 edition of the French Petit Larousse illustré dictionary contains. By offering the possibility to use 30 percent of common vocabulary, they require some thought, while allowing for a range of expression that is sufficiently wide in order to be effective.
Putting these four letters in a cube pointed to another letter, not as obvious, yet very much on the scene, i.e. the letter M: multiple, multi-faceted, multi-interlocutor, and magical.
In addition, when looked at from a different angle, the M, could be used as a W
and the C, as a U
Unlike the five other sides, the sixth side of the cube remained indecipherable. Ultimately, this illegibility is logical: it represents the hidden side of the project, what has remained unspoken, overlooked issues that emerge unexpectedly, and stakeholders that weren’t identified at the start.
Void or essence?
For the stakeholders, i.e. the State, local communities and nearby residents, the project is focal.
In the middle: an empty space where what is invisible and immaterial contains the essential: the meaning of the project.
The space where individual histories intermingle in a common story to give rise to a shared and consensual dream.
In one way, the cube is like a person: it absorbs influences and passes on meaning. It is therefore essential to properly direct its use: “State” discourse is not adapted to a “nearby resident.” A nearby resident evokes stories that nearby residents have to tell.
Now that I finally had “my cube,” the challenge became finding a way to introduce it in the interactions with my interlocutors. I belong to the category of serious people, who develop serious projects in a serious company, produce 30 cm thick technical files, and leave nothing to chance. So I thought I should bring out my inner child to break the ice that is only natural in my first meetings with interlocutors.
The Persian-Arab tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp is a classic, as much for older persons who stayed up at night to read it, as for the younger ones who’ve watched the cartoon. I expected everyone to be able to relate to it. I assumed that referring to our hero and the genie he let out of the lamp would help me rekindle my interlocutors’ childhood memories and build up their trust.
I therefore baptised “my cube” “Aladin’s Cube,” before making it with a 3D printer. For many, an “object coming out of a 3D printer” is in itself a work of magic: “I didn’t know this existed,” people will comment. The magical character of the 3D printer that materializes an object from out of nowhere fully resonates with the magic of Aladin’s tale, embodied by the cube.
I have since been bringing multicolored Aladin’s Cubes to my visits and professional meetings. I “play” Aladin’s Cubes in all sorts of contexts: at meetings with project stakeholders, team meetings, business lunches, conferences, and even in contexts of my personal life.
I marvel each day more at the power this 3D printed boundary object has to unite people and shape projects.
Aladin’s Cube: the project and stakeholders
Projects for roads, tunnels, trains, stadiums, urban planning – Aladin’s Cubes have inspired many accounts with various interlocutors. Projects differ according to the angle of perception and the perspective from which they are looked at. A project is not a unique and monolithic reality. It presents as many different aspects as the Cube’s use can reveal, all equally true.
Aladin’s Cube enables a project manager to show each stakeholder that the latter’s individual point of view is clearly seen and that the stakeholder’s own responsibility is to take them all into consideration for the project’s development. With a concern for orienting each side of the project to the concerned stakeholder, the cube helps in making mutual expectations more comprehensible.
In the exchange with stakeholders, the sides E, C and R represent the diversity of categories, including
- The protean State: central government, Prefect, regional and local authority services;
- Multiscalar local communities: tiny municipalities with a population of around 100, big cities, urban centres, counties, regions. Each has its own vision for the project, varying according to its distance from the project’s location, its political sensitivity, its sister alliances, etc.; and
- Nearby residents: individuals who may act alone, form local associations, or join national associations. Perceptions vary: for or against the project, with different sensitivities (environmental, ecological, economic, political, and the like).
The “indecipherable” side represents an issue that may have been neglected and, despite excellent project preparation, may emerge brutally and call into question the history written so far. For example, the discovery of a protected beetle species, whose scientific name is osmoderma eremita but is commonly known as the “hermit beetle,” put the construction of a section of the A28 highway between Le Mans and Tour off for five years.
Above all, the apparent void reveals the immaterial forces at play in the project, in other words, the meaning to be constructed by putting together individual accounts that intermingle in a collective story, to give rise to a common dream.
The Cube reveals knowledge and emotions
This stage of the project’s modelling is atypical, yet remains classic, when all is said and done.
The concrete use of the cube has revealed its impact.
I have noticed a number of times that after my introduction of the cube that I just described, my interlocutor fully appropriates the object and projects his or her own history, thoughts and emotions on it: “When I was little I had cubes too,” “have you thought of the way…,” “in my opinion…,” are among the expressions uttered spontaneously while handling the cube.
This powerful mediation nourishes dialogue.
The Cube as memory hook
At the end of each meeting, I offer each one of my interlocutors a cube. From a simple piece of plastic, it can turn into a battery charged with the emotions exchanged, and since it is kept, it should help perpetuate the bond that has been created regardless of physical distance and time.
Aladin’s Cube offers its holder the possibility of serenely raising complex issues and allows his or her interlocutor to bring forward elements that he or she may not have wanted or known how to address had the cube not been present.
The 3D boundary object sets off mental images and emotions, and allows for their verbalization before they can be interiorized. Shedding light on ideas and revealing knowledge, it gathers up experiences and restores them with time.
Following a short period of getting used to the object, the trust inspired by childhood memories and Aladdin’s story lead the interlocutor and the original holder of the cube to express profound, unconscious and unspoken ideas by way of association. In a group setting, handling the object reveals the diversity of viewpoints and brings them closer, enabling consensus to emerge.
Aladin’s Cube reveals underlying structures that connect seemingly separate elements. Making it possible to see beyond the usual appearances, it brings insightfulness, and to our surprise, helps to uncover a closely interconnected whole.
In the process of using the cube, I gradually reduced its size with the intention to measure its hypothetical efficiency. I observed that reducing its edge from seven to three centimetres increased its power.
After having held meetings without Aladin’s Cube for the purposes of comparison with other media types, such as lists, words and images, I came to the conclusion that a flat, two- dimensional description does not have the same force as a 3D object. Through touch, the object printed in 3D can enable concrete multiscale permanent interactions. It enriches the cognitive experience and widens the scope of potential mutual comprehension.
Although at first glance the letters may seem ill adapted to intercultural exchange, I have witnessed Aladin’s Cube working very well for Anglo-Saxons and Japanese. A Japanese person even added an audio dimension to the experience by hitting two cubes together, making them resonate.
…and personal accounts
An elected official
The layout of one of my projects was affecting the territory of a middle-sized municipality. At our first meeting, the mayor distrustfully and reluctantly welcomed me in. I decided to reduce the formalities and break the ice by placing a cube before him on the table that separated us. The mayor stepped back is if to avoid being burned. I invited him to take it. Intrigued, the mayor picked up the cube and examined it thoroughly. I then spoke of my childhood, Aladdin’s magic lamp, and so on. The mayor gradually got used to it and started telling his story.
I led him back to the context of the project and helped him situate himself; in relation to C (local community), he answered “mayor.” I proceeded with the other sides. The mayor completed my sentences, flipped the cube, examined it from every angle, and expressed his fears and questions. I listened and talked about the project. The mayor responded. Before parting, we drafted a summary of our meeting in a climate of mutual understanding. Trust, the breeding ground of our future success, appeared to be taking root.
Six months later, I was back in the mayor’s office for a new meeting. After a warm welcome, he picked up the cube that was sitting next to his telephone and proudly said, “You know, since you came, this cube has heard all sorts of stories! I even used it at home to plan our vacation. That’s right; I wanted to tell you….” Today the project is in service and our relationship remains very cordial indeed.
Relationship with a nearby resident
During a field visit for a highway expansion project, I met a nearby resident directly affected by the project. After a brief exchange, I handed him a cube. Following from there were contextualization and explanations. He listened and by way of a response asked, “Do you mean to say that you consider me, a nearby resident, as seriously as you consider the State?” “Yes, for me, you, a nearby resident, are individually as important as the State. You take up a full side, not a corner of the organizational structure!”
Training and learning
With the help of Aladin’s Cube, in a quarter of an hour it is possible to explain to the technician who comes for a soil survey that access to the site requires the farmer’s authorization, and that the farmer can’t be seen as an annoyance, because from his point of view as a nearby resident, the technician is the intruder. With a few puns, each is able to put himself in the other’s shoes and grasp all stakeholder dimensions, even if a 15 million-work-hour project is at stake.
In large-scale projects, teams vary greatly, with a constant inflow of new people who stay for a few days, months or years. Beyond processes and a disembodied quality system, how is coherent action to be maintained?
Up until this time, I proceeded by writing up a few-pages-long nice descriptive brochure for the project, with a mention of all stakeholders in the annex. A year or two after the start of the project, this brochure was generally nowhere to be found, which was fortunate, because it had already become obsolete as no one cared to update it.
In addition, the use of Aladin’s Cube makes it possible to highlight the importance of the project’s shared meaning and to maintain it throughout the process, even in times when everything seems to be in a jumble.
Team and fractal organization
Having a team and a fractal organization is every project leader’s dream. The word “fractal” means an object whose structure remains invariable in each of its dimensions. Applied to a project, it describes an organization where each element and person concentrates on their task, while incorporating at the same time all the dimensions of the project, with deep awareness of the interrelations that activities entail. The use of the cube contributes powerfully to this effect by the tactile representation of the multi-scale and multi-actor reality.
Projection and listening
Throughout the years, I have handed out hundreds of Aladin’s Cubes, in group and individual meetings.
Using the cube led to a break in my way of conducting projects. I went from projection, demonstration and forceful persuasion mode to open listening and effectively integrating seemingly contradictory demands thanks to co-building.
However, each person appropriates it in a unique manner and uses it in a way that resonates with his or her personality and actions.
There is another object that embodies yet another abstract concept.
2. The Tessera, service area model
Highways are dotted with gas stations, also called service areas. In the French highway model, the highway operating company issues a call for tenders and the chosen bidder normally manages the entire service area on its own behalf. Bidders are important oil companies, with a brand and an image attracting substantial investments.
How de we express a set vision of servicing in the service area’s design, while leaving a genuine field of expression for the oil brand?
The assiduous use of Aladin’s Cube inspired me to experiment with a program object that would embody the concept and the essence of our desires. Note that this object is not a scale model of the site.
Printed in 3D, the concept object must inflect the thinking of the designers who will be called upon to design the service area. They have a broad experience in the field of service area design, and my wish is to make them work differently, by encouraging them to go beyond the usual mental pattern of their trade in order to grasp our real needs from new angles and to understand us better.
This original way of proceeding forces the contractor to simplify the operational concept in order to preserve only the essential, i.e. “the spirit” of the project that is hidden in the 600-page specifications drafted by lawyers.
First, I added a “dream journal” to the project specifications in order to embody the service area program through a nice watercolour painting.
The results were, however, unsatisfactory. I therefore had a 3D object made to embody the program concept, passed along with the tendering documents.
The bidding designers were required to make an offer that complies with the concept expressed through the object. This boundary object gives shape to a new service area concept. Six months of transdisciplinary teamwork were necessary for the concept and the object to come together.
Illustration: “the components of the Tessera”
In ancient times, the Tessera (a Latin term) was an object used as a distinguishing mark by the members of a community to identify themselves. Sometimes the gift of a Tessera was accompanied by a narrative, also destined for dissemination within the group.
The 3D Tessera is a metaphor for the concept of a service area of the kind that we would like to offer our clientele.
It is only revealed through the story below. Imagining the storyline and gestures is an integral component of the object. Without the story, it is no more than an inert piece of plastic that doesn’t speak for itself; it requires a human mediator.
Instructions for use: the scenario of the “Tessera,” a gas station model
The Tessera, a service area model, is an object to be used by two people simultaneously. As they handle it, players learn to use it individually and collectively. It was conceived to foster verbalization and dialogue among stakeholders. Because it is charged with meaning, when offered to individuals who have tried it, it becomes a “memory hook” that continues to solicit both discussion and imagination once the meeting is over.
Its force is amplified when used with the following script, much like the ritual in tea ceremonies intensifies sensations.
Like in Ancient Rome, where the narrative was integral to the giving of the Tessera, this script is communicated along with the transmission of the object.
Step 0: Show the object to your interlocutor.
“The Tessera I am offering you is a metaphor for the service area that we wish to offer our clients. Its story is the following:”
Step 1: Give the object to your interlocutor.
Script: “Take this object, take the time to discover it. What does it inspire in you? What do you think of the texture?
In designing it, I wanted to evoke a pebble picked up on a beach. When we hold it sitting in our living room, we hear the sound of the waves and smell the scent of the sea. Continue to explore it.”
Invite the person to find the bolt on the side.
Step 2: Turn the bolt, let out the coloured beads and place them in the cup on the back.
Script: These are the clients on the highway, and as you can see, they are very different: professionals, vacationers, truck drivers, bus passengers… Choose one type of client and describe his or her needs.”
Step 3: Listen to your interlocutor’s description of the needs, rephrase, then continue going through the steps of a client’s visit.
Script: “Let us imagine together the perfect visit of the service area.”
Step 4: The bead rolls through the dark grey part…
Script: The client demands a safe free-flowing journey.
Step 5: The bead pauses, we can pick it up again and focus the narrative on it, as it represents the client, i.e. the centrepiece of our approach.
Script: “… but this is not all, because we are addressing drivers, who need to take a break from driving. We need to work together towards improving our services. Our client is a human, not a vehicle! Our ambition is to re-design service areas around human needs, in order to create living spaces where people will feel good and where they will be able to rest before continuing their journey.”
Step 6: The bead rolls from the dark grey part (the highway) towards the service area.
We consulted an anthropologist, who stressed the fact that the transition between one situation, where the person thinks, “I am in my car, listening to my music, driving at a steady speed on the highway” and the situation of “I am in the warm coffee shop with my coffee” is abrupt and stressful.
More specifically, in the past few years, we have worked a great deal on flow separation and path legibility when driving. We know that the first impression is often decisive and we must be attentive to how we welcome clients in service areas.
Step 7: The bead stops on the area
Script: Today we are afraid of letting dogs and children get off because of the traffic in parking areas. The new objective is to situate parking spaces next to a large safe pedestrian area.
Step 8: Show the centre of the area and the area periphery
Script: In the centre of the area lies the Unique Place, where pedestrians can move around safely. The bubbles represent the symbolic territory that is re-emerging in the area. The bell tower represents the residents who can enter the service area through a gate in the fence, so that they can use the services of the area as well. Likewise, it allows transiting clients to explore the surrounding area on foot.
There are references to the places walked through: by telling the history of the local men and women who have lived and continue to live in this area, we bring forward lasting human references. All the services available in the service area are concentrated in the Unique Place: outdoor spaces for relaxation and leisure, and a single building where stores and gas sales are located. The building has patios so that visitors may get some fresh air while remaining indoors and a covered courtyard where clients can be outside and have shelter.
Step 9: Show the roof of the building with the Wi-Fi pictogram
Script: The service area is both a physical and a symbolic space thanks to the references to the places over which it stretches. The Tessera is a metaphor. The area, in its entirety, has a third, digital, dimension as well, as indicated by the pictogram. Connectivity is an essential characteristic of the quality of a public space.
Step 10: Give the Tessera to your interlocutor
Script: There is only a single step between evoking the digital dimension of the project and the gift of the object. After having flipped the Tessera around to show the flash code that provides further information on the project and its procedures, the object is given to the interlocutor; the interlocutor thus walks away with the object, keeping the emotions from the meeting as a legacy.
It is, of course, possible to do a different sort of exploration with a different type of client.
Drawing lessons from the Tessera
The Tessera enables sustainable crystallization of the meaning and soul of the service area program throughout the years and as the individuals in charge of the project come and go. The Tessera also makes it possible to bring together transdisciplinary teams around a single project. In this regard, it constitutes a major change in the way people work and address the project’s issues.
Indeed, in the classical method of project management, players attempt to grasp the main needs through words, but the numerous interpretations that arise draw attention away from what is essential.
Alone or in a group, the player always writes, trying to evoke the operational aspect of the concept to finally come up against the deadlock of the designer’s free creativity: the latter, in fact, must comply with a locked description of specifications.
When the project manager receives tenders, he or she is surprised to discover stereotypical soulless projects, lacking creativity and innovation.
Conversely, the intermediary object described, which is anything but a physical representation, allows the project envisaged to be expressed in a firm manner while at the same time leaving room for the designer’s imagination.
There are endless possibilities of boundary objects that can be created.
“André Le Notre’s Disc of Knowledge”, an anamorphosis, enabling the presentation of the physical, digital and symbolic areas of action that are rooted in garden metaphors: Create, Care for, Replenish, Recount.
The “hybrid city” deconstructs city representation to make room for new fields of urban integration.
The “Zero Accident Cone” embodies the “Zero accident construction project” approach, which tends towards securing the safety of all components of operations involving 100,000 people over a few hours or a number of years.
The “Szillassi Polyhedron,” a mathematical object each of the seven sides of which has a common edge with the remaining six, embodying the necessary and possible connectivity and cooperation in complex projects.
Before I started using 3D objects, I felt powerless in the face of the increasing complexity of projects and their context.
The practice of 3D objects gradually enabled me to get a grip on complexity through cooperation. I not only learned from it, but was also profoundly changed. Today this transformation is progressively being expanded.
I am disseminating this method through all copyleft regime channels: Copy freely, experiment, appropriate stories, discover and use the power of touch in the conduct of your projects. The feedback provided by users who’ve adopted this method confirms the universal efficiency of touch throughout cultures.
Examples of possible uses: in a start-up company developing industrial products, by a landscape architect for the purpose of presenting his or her project, and many more.
As for me, I continue my experiments in the sphere of modern city transformation around the world.
I look forward to the day when someone will come along and say to me, “Look at this object, take it in your hand and let us share our story…”
Eight principles for efficient use of a boundary object
The object must :
Fit in the hand and in a pocket: edge measuring three to six centimetres.
Be as bucolic as a pebble picked up on the beach: when holding it, you can hear the waves, smell the sea, and feel the hot sand on your feet.
Relate to emotions and symbolism.
Be accompanied by a script for the purpose of presentation that can be enriched through meetings over time.
Be passed on mainly hand to hand at all levels of authority, and to close and not so close circles of people around the project (encouraged by the low cost of 3D printing).
The object must not :
Be functional: avoid designing it as a mini scale model and ban paraphernalia (key chains, USB keys etc.).
Include words: the absence of words facilitates appropriation and the freedom to change and adapt stories to meetings.
Be distributed except through meetings in person: it is from the quality of the encounter that it draws its strength. A delivery by mail with a note will not be understood.
I thank Paul Coudamy, the designer, for accompanying me in the creation of boundary objects to serve projects.
I thank Olivier Bordry, my colleague and partner in poetry who baptised the “Tessera.”
Above all, I wish to express my gratitude to all persons who shared their dreams, emotions, and worldviews in meetings nurtured by 3D boundary objects to help create and expand my projects, both professional and personal.