Scroll To Top
Scroll To Top

How Collaboration Arises and Why It Fails

May 8–13, 2022

Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Andreas Roepstorff and Paul Verschure, Chairpersons

Program Advisory Committee

Jenna Bednar, Julia R. Lupp, Bhavani R. Rao , Andreas Roepstorff, Ferdinand von Siemens, and Paul Verschure

Goals of the Forum

  • To explore the commonalities and differences in collaboration as observed in biological, social, and technological systems,
  • To identify core drivers of and constraints on collaboration and the conditions for its emergence, stabilization, and fractionation,
  • To outline putative generic architectures for processes of collaboration, and
  • To model how commons may be created, consumed, and destroyed during collaboration.

Integrating diverse perspectives, the Forum will work to develop a comprehensive framework to support future work.


The stability of social systems depends critically on realizing sustainable methods of “collaboration,” yet how and by which means collaboration is achieved is not clearly understood; neither are the conditions or processes that lead to its breakdown or failure. [For context, collaboration is understood as cooperation between agents toward mutually constructed goals.] Part of the reason for our lack of understanding is that the phenomenon of collaboration is, by nature, a highly multidisciplinary problem, and effective research into its complexities has been difficult to achieve across the broad range of scientific and technical disciplines involved.

The need for a fundamental understanding of collaboration, however, has become increasingly important. Not only does humankind demand answers as it attempts to address critical challenges at multiple scales (e.g., climate change, migration, enhanced automation, social and economic inequality), but ever-increasing technological and economical means of interconnecting people and societies are disrupting long-established, familiar patterns of how we interact. Radical technological changes that are ongoing have the potential to reshape collaboration in ways that are currently hard to predict or influence (e.g., by altering configurations in interaction, information creation, and modes of communication). On one hand, such changes could disrupt hitherto stable forms of collaboration by affecting critical communication channels and traditional roles, as can be observed in the rapidly changing patterns in governance, commerce, and social interaction. On the other, technology could lead to the emergence of novel, successful forms of collaboration that deviate from traditional “hierarchical” architectures. Evidence of this can be seen in areas as diverse as highly automated manufacturing plants, the open science movement, collaborative software repositories, user-centered services, and the sharing of economy-based modes of organization. Without a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms, processes, and boundary conditions of collaboration, it is not possible to evaluate or predict which of these possible scenarios are sustainable or even plausible.

To remedy this knowledge gap requires a comprehensive research program. At its core, a theoretical framework must link pertinent aspects of collaboration across spatiotemporal scales and contexts. This task is a tall order, yet given current pressures on human–human, human–machine, and future machine–machine collaboration, we believe that an attempt must be made for a first survey.

Group 1: What is collaboration good for?

Collaboration unfolds in specific networks and substrates where it draws upon and builds interdependent physical, social, and cultural resources or commons. Commons, in turn, define tasks, problems, and opportunities that shape the specific dynamics of collaboration. This working group will address questions such as:

  • What is the role of information technologies in collaboration?
  • What is the exact relation between commons and the features of collaboration?
  • How do commons shape the properties of agents?
  • What is the relationship between organizational design and collaborative dynamics?
  • Are commons static physical, social, and cultural resources, or are they dynamic and constantly consumed, recreated, and produced as collaborations develop?

Group 2: How do we collaborate?

This working group will address the core components of collaborative systems that comprise the architecture of collaboration; that is, how the exchange of information and resources is structured. It will look at a number of questions including:

  • Can a collaborative system be decomposed into different layers of a control architecture guiding information exchange, memory and action, or could it rather be conceptualized as a networked information-processing system?
  • How are goals, set, shaped, and communicated, and what communication channels are used?
  • What is the effect of different choice architectures on the success of collaborative processes, and how does the environment or context affect what choice architecture is optimal?
  • What is the memory of collaborative systems, its value systems for adjustments, the constraints and objectives a collaborative system needs to satisfy, and the temporal requirements on action and interaction?
  • Does collaboration require reciprocity in information exchange and affirmation of shared goals, or can collaboration be maintained within an overall goal hierarchy in which participating agents can operate in an encapsulated reduced action space?
  • In human systems, a critical part of the architecture of collaboration may be provided by our embodiment and its propensities. Are there general lessons to be learned from understanding the embodied nature of human collaboration? How does it draw on and integrate with particular physical biological and virtual cultural propensities that shape specific interactions?
  • By projecting agents into an informational space of incentives, the scale of collaboration can be massively increased: Do the same principles of organization hold for artificial entities and complex human made organizations?

Group 3: Why do agents collaborate?

Collaborations are intrinsically goal oriented and require agents to create and be guided by goals and commons. As such, collaboration may implicitly and explicitly come to follow norms of conduct. This group will focus on issues such as:

  • Should the “rights” of an individual agent be violated to sustain the collaborative process?
  • Do collaborative dynamics develop distinct meta-norms that follow a unique logic that transcends the individual or small groups?
  • The unique role of the commons must be protected by the collective, yet what happens when this leads to a compromise over moral prerogatives?
  • Are there intrinsic psychological features that are necessary for collaboration such as social perception, motivations, goals, and objectives?
  • How are rules and norms that are intrinsic to collaboration matched to extrinsic ones that constrain the commons?
  • What are the mechanisms that support norm and incentive creation, and how do they relate to the functioning of collaboration?
  • Can norms and incentives be scaled relative to their functionality and classified as proximate, distal, and ultimate?

Group 4: When does collaboration break down?

A discussion of boundary conditions addresses the issue of whether there are distinct, limiting factors and trade-offs in realizing collaboration. Human forms of collaboration require analysis, including the putative importance of embodied interaction, abstract representations, and organizational structures. This group will explore the following questions:

  • What is the role of embodiment and human biology? • How do the intrinsic limitations on human rationality affect or support collaboration?
  • What are the critical contributions of the dynamics of exchange and communication?
  • What is the role of trust and the experience of common ground among agents?
  • Is there a need for shared or consistent information across subsystems and agents, and how rapidly and consistently must information be distributed?
  • What is the role of noise and distortion of information in collaborative dynamics?
  • What are the limits, boundaries, and conditions on collaboration in technological and hybrid systems?
  • How are the external and internal conditions of collaboration matched?
  • How can the robustness and transience of collaboration be defined?
  • What are the catalysts of collaboration

We all have a sense of what “collaboration” is, but what is it concretely? Does it emerge in similar ways under different conditions? What causes it to succeed or fail? These first-hand accounts provide insight into the phenomenon as experienced in different areas of society.

Naina examines how collaboration is cultivated and achieved on various levels in the Sunrise Movement—a US-based, youth-led movement and organization aimed at stopping climate change and creating millions of good jobs in the process. Working across a diverse and decentralized membership base, she brings a unique perspective to how effective collaboration can be achieved.


Well known for his interdisciplinary work on the evolution of cooperation, Bob’s current areas of specialization include international security, cyber conflict, and cancer. Drawing from diverse examples rooted in natural science, economics, and history, he explores the process of collaboration from multiple perspectives.


A scholar of child development, family studies, and cultural psychology in Indian communities, Nandita reflects on her experience of collaboration in academic, family, and legal settings.


An expert on elementary particle and astroparticle physics, Sijbrand is primarily interested in the origin, composition, and physics of the highest energy particles in the universe. Having conducted high-energy experiments at large accelerator laboratories such as CERN, Fermilab, and the Pierre Auger Observatory, he considers how large-scale scientific collaboration is carried out.


After a Ph.D. in biochemistry and post-doc work on in vivo NMR spectroscopic studies of brain metabolism/function, Susan pursued a wide array of activities dedicated to the communication of science. She has worked at the James S. McDonnell Foundation since 1993 and discusses here the importance of collaboration between a private philanthropic foundation and the scientific community.

A neurophysiologist by training, Sten discusses the complexities of fostering collaboration within science, drawing on his experience as a member of the Nobel Committee for Medicine and Physiology and involvement in different international scientific initiatives (e.g., Global Science Forum, the  Human Genome Project, International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility).


With two decades of experience in international and domestic executive policy making, Connie Hedegaard today holds several key positions in support of a low-carbon and green economy. She discusses how collaboration occurs in the political context.


Meg leads a global team working to create jobs and generate income for women by connecting women-owned enterprises with corporate and government buyers. Prior to this she held positions at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights and the Australian delegation to the United Nations. She shares her experience of how the UN works collaboratively to achieve its goals of peace and prosperity for people and the planet.


By framing development as the interface between biology and culture, Heidi’s research explores culturally specific solutions to universal developmental pathways. In this conversation, she elucidates how the conception of collaboration varies among cultures and which human traits help people with different world views work together.


Larry discusses the importance of collaboration among funders and grantees. Before joining the foundation, he served from 2004 to 2012 as Dean of Stanford Law School, where he spearheaded significant educational reforms and pioneered a new model of multidisciplinary legal studies.


Noted for her work in comparative political economy, labor politics, and democratic theory, notably on the origins and effects of trustworthy government, Margaret shares her insight on how people who often have countering interests manage to find a way to work together and develop a cooperative strategy or collaborative strategy.


His research is focused on mathematical model applications of complex systems to music composition and interactive systems.


Martin discusses the role of collaboration in the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, which generates and shares evidence to connect academia and practice. Emphasizing the importance of trust, communication, and balance between humility and confidence, he explores health policy within the broader context of economic development and identifies points of disruption.


After his work in Groningen as professor and head of the Department of Human Movement Sciences, Theo’s career took a completely different direction when he assumed the role of director for scientific research of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. This and subsequent activities inform his perspectives on the challenges that face multiple, large-scale scientific organizations as they attempt to collaborate.


Deepa has accumulated over 25 years of experience working at the World Bank, the UN, and NGOs on poverty, gender, and inequality in development. Having lived for many years in village communities, she focuses on local, community-driven approaches nested in social and political processes. In this interview Deepa reflects on the role of power and the role of love in collaborative efforts.


After beginning his career as an attorney, Ernst received his first judicial appointment in 1983 to the Rechtbank Den Haag and was appointed in 2000 to the Dutch Supreme Court where he remained until his recent retirement. From his extensive experience on the bench, he discusses the role of collaboration within the judicial system in achieving fair outcomes in accordance with the law.


From the perspective of mergers and acquisitions in pharmaceutical, consumer health, and medtech areas, Alexander examines how collaboration can be cultivated and practiced across diverse geographical regions, and explores the importance of diversity, communication, and strategies to cultivate alignment around common goals.


As partner and head of the Life Sciences Sector in Strategy and Transactions at Ernst & Young, Alexander leads mergers and acquisitions in pharmaceutical, consumer health, and medtech areas. In this podcast, he focuses on digital health and its impact on collaboration.


From his early work as a parish minister in Puerto Rico to his involvement as Bishop of the Caribbean Synod and Director of Global Missions, Rafael has worked in over 70 countries with different groups of people on programs that address development work, advocacy, as well as ethnic and racial ministries programs. Here he provides a framework to understand collaboration that emerges out of a sense of shared humanity.


From his engagement in social, educational, and spiritual activities around the world, Swami Puri shares his perspectives on collaboration: how it differs from cooperation, the elements and “intangibles” that are involved, and how it is interwoven in most aspects of life.


Ilona brings a wealth of experience to the management of this renown house, having previously led the Konzerthaus Die Glocke in Bremen and the Beethovenfest Bonn. Here she examines the intricate relationships that exist between the musicians, the conductor, management, the audience, and sponsors of the Tonhalle Orchestra.


Ted is an expert on early Chinese thought, comparative religion and cognitive science of religion, big data approaches to cultural analysis, cognitive linguistics, digital humanities and humanities-science integration. He elaborates on his latest research into the role alcohol has played in engendering collaboration throughout history; see also “Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization”.


Combining the clinical skills of an experienced practitioner with public-health expertise acquired from working in many of the world’s most devastating combat zones, Annie discusses here the challenges facing global collaborative approaches to public health.


Naina examines how collaboration is cultivated and achieved on various levels in the Sunrise Movement—a US-based, youth-led movement and organization aimed at stopping climate change and creating millions of good jobs in the process. Working across a diverse and decentralized membership base, she brings a unique perspective to how effective collaboration can be achieved.



Naina examines how collaboration is cultivated and achieved on various levels in the Sunrise Movement—a US-based, youth-led movement and organization aimed at stopping climate change and creating millions of good jobs in the process. Working across a diverse and decentralized membership base, she brings a unique perspective to how effective collaboration can be achieved.




Produced in partnership with the