Co-Op or Co-Lab?

Interesting distinction between coperation and collaboration by Thomas Kvan of the University of Hong Kong while discussing collaborative design. The author attempts to make the distinction between the two terms by comparing their etymologies. Therefore:

  • Co-operari means to work together while
  • Col Labore means to labour together

At this point Kvan notices a subtle distinction; collaboration is a joint problem solving act, it means working with others to find solutions satisfying all concerned to a problem they mutually agree on, to be open and exploratory, trusting and accepting.  Coperation on the other hand is to work together in conjuction for a mutual benefit and it does not necessarily mean that there should be a deep level of trust between parties to carry out the work, Kvan claims.

Design is an act that involves many others and this according to  Kvan can be done in two ways:

  • with close-coupled designers: people working closely with each other or
  • with loosely coupled designers: people contributing each to a different domain of the project

Gero and McNeill, says Kvan, have shown that “design is in fact a process that consists of a series of distinct events that occupy discrete and measurable periods of time. Most significantly, they have shown that the temporal span of these design events is remarkably short”. Therefore, the design activity  consists of discrete decisions not intimately linked.

In the light of this Kvan distinguisghed between three types of collaboration:

  • Mutual: the participants work with the other
  • Exclusive: participants work on separate parts, negotiating occasionaly
  • Dictator: the participants decide who is in charge and that person leads the process

Key word to understanding this is the term compromise a term already suggesting that there can be only a partial agreement between those involved. Kvan goes further to suggest that collaboration is so time consuming that it is usually cooperation and compromise that prevail as they should in order to realize a successful project.


Kvan, Th., 1997, “But is it collaboration?, in Challenges of the Future [15th eCAADe Conference Proceedings / ISBN 0-9523687-3-0] Vienna (Austria) 17-20 September 1997

full article available here

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