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Monday
Jan292018

Radical Collaboration: The Power of Unlikely Partnerships

This blog post is part of a series on Purpose-Driven Design for the Not-For-Profit world.

As we learned in our 50 conversations, the non-profit world is a rapidly evolving one. Forever chasing unpredictable funding streams, the wandering attentions of the public, and amid a political sphere in upheaval, non-profits are being forced to examine their operational partnership models. Looking at the of the worlds of music, media, and business shows us that unexpected alliances can, in fact, not only produce symbiotic relationships, but drive the creation of something even greater.

While exploring the alchemy of creative partnerships, we analyzed the success of a few that inspired us. We wanted to understand how dynamic cross-pollination in the context of organizational partnerships can create something exceptional-and uncovered a series of common motivations underpinning our case studies.

Access, Networks and Exposure: Run-D.M.C. + Aerosmith

In 1985, nobody expected a washed-up rock band just out of rehab to collaborate with a couple of rappers from Queens, New York, let alone to have their remix of a 1975 hit break the Billboard Top 5 and start a cultural revolution. But the impact of the unexpected partnership between Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith in the reinvention of the latter's "Walk This Way" cannot be overstated. Capitalizing on the then new and wildly popular medium of music video, the collaboration introduced a group of clean-and-sober rock gods to a new generation, and led the broader public to understand and embrace hip-hop as an art form. Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.'s brands were extended to vast new audiences, and pop music changed forever. Thirty years later, the boundary between the two genres is virtually indistinguishable, and crossover hits, remixing and sampling have become key elements of contemporary music.

Takeaway: Radical partnerships offer an opportunity to extend groups' stories to fresh audiences in new ways that take their message to the masses.

Evolution and New Thinking: National Geographic + Airbnb

What is entrenched and immovable in one sector is easily changed and disrupted via another. National Geographic needed to reintroduce itself to a new generation and "capitalize on a huge trend or event." Airbnb, with its focus on authentic, immersive experiences partnered with them to create a unique, once-in-a-lifetime event that leveraged both of their strengths, and offered its members the opportunity to experience the August 2017 solar eclipse while staying in geodesic dome in the wilds of Oregon with an astronomer. Intended to be an exclusive experience for a select group of participants, the odd pairing garnered public attention as absurd-but-cool combo of two brands with different pedigrees but shared messages and audiences. Both brands found a way through their partnership to evolve their identities, through the shared messages of exploration and curiosity.

Takeaway: Opening one's organization to testing new ideas with a seasoned co-pilot provides a safety net and a healthy push in new directions.

Passion and Enthusiasm: Aveeno + MillionTreesNYC

Sometimes all that matters is that you and your partners believe in the same mission. Collaboration takes many forms. An obvious overlap may not present itself outright, but passion for a cause can bring people together to build trust, connection, and find fruitful opportunities to more directly support one another. When skincare brand Aveeno wanted to express its commitment to natural products and the environment while making a brand statement, they sought a like-minded partner in MillionTreesNYC to convert Times Square into an actual forest to honor Earth Month. Initially erected to raise awareness for the cause, the 500 trees were ultimately donated to the not-for-profit partner. The groups also encouraged the public to match the donation in pursuit of MillionTreesNYC's goal of one million new trees in NYC by 2017.

Takeaway: A shared purpose or cause can unite diverse constituencies thereby cultivating a circle of like-hearted friends and benefitting from alliance with each other.

An Innovative Pathway for Shared Impact

Uncommon partnerships allow us to see something new in ourselves, opening up pathways that couldn't have been imagined before. We believe that these collaborations have the strength to help the not-for-profit sector as well as others take on today's most pressing social challenges. By focusing on unexpected pairings with a shared purpose, we can start shifting the paradigm to one that allows for programs that put mission ahead of organizational boundaries.

Every day we work on projects across a global portfolio with leaders and innovators across every industry. We are honored to have the opportunity to peek into the boardrooms, workrooms, and the hearts and minds of our clients. We hear their challenges, their passions, and their aspirations. How might we help be cross-pollinators? What is the role we play in proactively facilitating those connections and being part of the journey? Our next post dives a bit deeper into what that looked like when we asked a not-for-profit in Atlanta to join our experiment.

Noah Rollins is a Harvard-trained architect focused on simple and elegant design solutions. A design leader in Gensler's Tampa offices, Noah brings an extremely detail-oriented approach to relationships, which he views as symbiotic partnerships in problem solving. Noah is also the proud parent of two precocious cats, Inara-Khan and Gozer. Contact him at noah_rollins@gensler.com.
Paul Samala, with expertise in workplace engagement, focuses his career on helping mission-based organizations achieve their goals. As one of Gensler's firmwide Not-For-Profit leaders, he applies a goal-oriented and rational approach to all of his work. Contact him at paul_samala@gensler.com.

Additional contributors to this post include: Carolina Montilla, Kelle Adams, and Elaine Asal.