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Why Minecraft predicts the future of collaborative work

ICE Graveyard 1/08/2016 Jim Fowler

Kids are the ultimate beta testers. As soon as they figure out what a new technology is for, they try to make it do something else. They push boundaries, break rules, play with possibilities and share their results in real time.

When I see how my son and his friends play Minecraft, I see the future of engineering and technology — and it’s an exciting one.

Minecraft is like an immersive digital Lego set. It lets you build whole worlds out of a few simple categories of digital bricks. Then you can invite your friends or anybody with a Minecraft account to enter those worlds and interact with them, change them or create parallel worlds based on yours.

Once you learn the basics, the level of complexity you can build up to is virtually limitless. The style of play in Minecraft is also great training for the digital workplace: it’s collaborative, real time, iterative and largely open-ended.

There are also zombies and lava lakes and some really cool-looking monsters.

Here’s how Minecraft is predicting the future of collaborative work.

We will live inside our designs

Microsoft, which purchased Minecraft for $2.5 billion in 2014, has integrated the game with HoloLens, their augmented reality headset. This means players can look down over Minecraft landscapes superimposed on surfaces in their immediate real-world environment and see other players as tiny avatars walking around.

Imagine a team of engineers doing the same thing with a design in process. Some of the engineers could virtually shrink themselves down and go on a journey through their design, like the tiny explorers in Fantastic Voyage who take a tour of the human body. Other engineers could look over the entire design at once, watching its construction as you might watch ants build an anthill.

We will work on platforms that attract skill and unleash creativity

Minecraft is more than a game. Because third-parties and users can make custom mods, it’s evolved into a global platform for creativity and skill. Anybody is free to make custom items, characters and worlds that can be purchased and played.

An entire representation of the fantasy world from Game of Thrones has been constructed in the game.

By developing something cool enough to convene and then tap into a global well of creativity, Minecraft’s developers have hit the jackpot. They’ve sourced more creativity than a single company could ever dream of officially hiring. For example: An entire representation of the fantasy world from George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has been constructed in the game by a collective of volunteers. Another group built a working model of a 16-bit computer.

Minecraft has even fired the imagination of people traditionally outside the gaming space. Irish novelist Julian Gough wrote the poem that plays at the ending credits of Minecraft’s initial adventure. And Denmark’s government commissioned a firm to make a life-size map of Denmark inside the game.

In the digital industrial age, the companies than can make platforms capable of convening and unleashing creativity will be the ones that thrive. Your software can no longer just solve urgent problems. It also has to be the starting point for a whole ecosystem of solutions — some generated by you and some sourced by your customers and users.

No problem will be too complex to be solved collaboratively and in real time

When my son gets home from school (and after he’s done his homework) he hops on the computer with five or six of his friends and they build worlds together. They code their own game mods and then build new worlds off of those. I would be lying if I said I understood half of what they get up to, and I am the Chief Information Officer of a global technology company.

What fascinates me about how my son and his friends build complex things together is that nobody is really in charge, yet everything gets built, quickly and completely, with changes made as needed along the way.

We shouldn’t overlook the many things outside the classroom that might kick off an active, lifelong interest in technology.

We’re already seeing this kind of spontaneous, highly effective collaboration at work in the corporate world. As CIO, I’ve watched people get more comfortable exploring and finding their own best way to use data. Earlier in my career, I tried to dictate how people used technology. Now, I just keep the maximum amount of data flowing to whomever wants it. I set up sensible guard rails, but, otherwise, I let people explore and experiment. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing referee for an open-ended, open-source, high-stakes game played with resources and data.

The effortless speed at which my son and his friends work is also the future. I’ve seen the current generation of collaborative design tools available to engineers take the design and initial manufacture of huge industrial projects down from weeks to days, sometimes hours. Just imagine what will be possible when my son’s generation enters the workforce.

Science and technology education will be more like games and less like school

There is a lot of talk about the lack of STEM education in America, and we absolutely have to make a formal, concerted effort to get more hard science into our classrooms. But we also shouldn’t overlook the many things outside the classroom that might kick off an active, lifelong interest in technology.

My own journey to becoming a CIO began when I was a kid behind the counter of my father’s pharmacy. I was mesmerized by how one IBM computer running a single, proprietary application eliminated two days of extra work per month and allowed insurance companies to reimburse my Dad four times as fast as they had working off a paper system. The work I do today — optimizing enterprise resource planning for global businesses — is an extension of the initial excitement I felt working with that first IBM.

This kind of childhood fascination and wonder have launched some of the most significant careers in computer science. Computing pioneers Claude Shannon and Danny Hillis bonded at MIT when they discovered that as boys they’d both designed simple electrical devices capable of playing tic-tac-toe. Shannon went on to invent the math behind search engines, and Hillis designed one of the first supercomputers.

To spark more careers like those of Hillis and Shannon, and to make sure that our future workforce can speak the languages of both digital and industrial, we’ve got to make sure more kids come into contact with science, technology, engineering and mathematics in ways that draw on their natural independence and creativity.

Recently, GE made a $25,000 donation to the Robotics Club at my alma mater, Van Wert High School. In the five years they’ve been around, the Van Wert Robotics Club has won tons of awards (Go Cougars!) — but that’s not the only reason GE chose to support them. We’re partnering with organizations across America that engage young people with technology in ways that draw on their natural independence and creativity.

After all, the future of technology is in play.

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