The Collaboration Room

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I received an unusual honor a few weeks ago: Simon Fraser University named a room after me, the Mark L. Winston Collaboration Room.

It generally takes a hefty donation to inspire a university to name a room, a level of financial incentive quite beyond my capacity to give. But the Collaboration Room was named to recognize my tenure as founding director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue as I stepped down from that post.

I was informed of this most generous of gestures at a picnic attended by students, faculty, staff and colleagues, and was moved beyond even my usual tears. This surpassed any honor I had ever imagined, but it was particularly poignant to have the idea of collaboration attached to it.

“Collaboration” is defined as working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals, and requires teamwork, cooperation and collegiality for success. The younger version of myself didn’t exhibit a particularly cooperative nature, but that changed when I entered the world of bees.

Honeybees are consummate collaborators, working together with exquisite coordination to conduct the myriad tasks colonies need to survive and thrive. Take comb building, for example, one of nature’s most complex examples of animal architecture.

Comb construction requires organized efforts by a hiveful of workers, all conducted without the benefit of a foreman or supervisor and no carefully drawn-out architectural plans. First, foraging bees must collect nectar from innumerable flowers and return with it to the nest. There, after being processed into honey and stored in already-constructed cells, the comb-building bees consume and metabolize it into the three hundred plus components of beeswax.

Then many hundreds or even thousands of workers, each acting independently, secrete the beeswax as thin flakes from overlapping plates in their abdomens. They each use their jaws and spines on their legs to work collaboratively with other bees to shape the wax flakes into precise hexagonal cells, within .05 mm tolerance in diameter and .002 mm in cell wall thickness.

Each bee contributes a small bit of wax and a few minutes of work to a cell, and then moves away to let a co-worker in with fresh wax, who picks up where the previous worker left off.  Apparently each worker can perceive the stage of construction at each new location and contributes whatever is needed for that cell. Thus, a single cell is built cooperatively by many bees stepping in and contributing, all without being told what to do by any overseer.

Perhaps the most extreme example of bee collaboration is pollination, because it crosses species boundaries. The environment through which bees forage would not exist without the actions of each individual bee pollinating flowers, one by one, a remarkable lesson for us in the benefits of collaborating with nature rather than managing it into submission.

It’s a simple formula: bees pollinate flowers, and the plants provide nectar and pollen to feed the bees. Bees wouldn’t exist without flowering plants, and most plants wouldn’t exist without the accumulated pollinating efforts of innumerable individual bees globally. Sixty five per cent of all plants and about one-third of crops require or benefit from bee pollination, by honeybees and the over 20,000 species of wild bees, making the actions of gazillions of individual bees a crucial element of almost all terrestrial habitats.

Oddly, the intense cooperation of honeybees working with each other and with the flowers they pollinate reminds us that individual actions matter, not only for the bees but also for the larger sphere they inhabit. Colonies could not function without the small but innumerable contributions of myriad individuals, and the same is true for human societies.

It’s not surprising that I ended up at a centre for dialogue given how absorbed I became in the collaborative example set by honeybees. The Collaboration Room could be nicknamed “The Hive,” because it was observing bees that forged my inclination to work with others.

I know every time I walk into the Collaboration Room my throat will catch with emotion in appreciation of having it carry my name, but also with the deepest of respect for the bees that brought me to collaboration and dialogue.