Vision Developing Trading Zones a Metaphor for Working Together

A useful metaphor from the literature on science and technology studies is the trading zone. Peter Galison used it to describe how different communities in physics and engineering worked together to build complex particle detectors (Galison 1997). They had to develop a creole, or reduced common language, that allowed them to reach consensus on design changes:

Two groups can agree on rules of exchange even if they ascribe utterly different significance to the objects being exchanged; they may even disagree on the meaning of the exchange process itself. Nonetheless, the trading partners can hammer out a local coordination, despite vast global differences. In an even more sophisticated way, cultures in interaction frequently establish contact languages, systems of discourse that can vary from the most function-specific jargons, through semispecific pidgins, to full-fledged creoles rich enough to support activities as complex as poetry and metalinguistic reflection (Galison 1997, 783).

My colleague Matt Mehalik and I have classified trading zones into three broad categories, on a continuum:

1. A hierarchical trading zone governed by top-down mandates. An extreme example is Stalinist agricultural and manufacturing schemes used in the Soviet Union (Graham 1993; Scott 1998) where the government told farmers and engineers exactly what to do. These schemes were both unethical and inefficient, stifling any kind of creativity. There are, of course, top-down mandates where the consequences for disobedience are less severe, but I would argue that as we look to the future of NBIC, we do not want research direction set by any agency or group, nor do we want a hierarchy of disciplines in which one dominates the others.

2. An equitable trading zone state in which no one group is dominant, and each has its own distinct perspective on a common problem. This kind of trading zone was represented by the NBIC conference where different people with expertise and backgrounds exchanged ideas and participated jointly in drafting plans for the future.

3. A shared mental model trading zone based on mutual understanding of what must be accomplished. Horizontal or lattice styles of business management are designed to promote this kind of state. An example is the group that created the Arpanet (Hughes 1998).

Another example is the multidisciplinary global group that invented a new kind of environmentally intelligent textile. Susan Lyons, a fashion designer in New York, wanted to make an environmental statement with a new line of furniture fabric. Albin Kaelin's textile mill in Switzerland was in an "innovate or die" situation. They started a trading zone around this environmental idea and invited the architect William McDonough, who supplied a mental model based on an analogy to nature, "waste equals food," meaning that the fabric had to fit smoothly back into the natural cycle in the same way as organic waste products. The architect brought in Michael Braungart, a chemical engineer who created and monitored detailed design protocols for producing the fabric. The actual manufacturing process involved bringing still others into the trading zone (Mehalik 2000).

Note that the shared mental model did not mean that the architect understood chemical engineering, or vice-versa. All members arrived at a common, high-level understanding of waste equals food, and translated that into their own disciplinary practices, while staying in constant touch with each other. The creoles that arise among Galison's communities are typically devoted to local coordination of practices. In this fabric case, we see a Creole-like phrase, "waste equals food," evolve into a shared understanding that kept different expertises converging on a new technology.

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