‘This isn’t just an ordinary up-and-down lift!’ announced Mr Wonka proudly. ‘This lift can go sideways and longways and slantways and any other way you can think of! It can visit any single room in the whole factory, no matter where it is!’ … ‘The whole lift is made of thick, clear glass!’ Mr Wonka declared. ‘Walls. doors, ceiling, floor, everything is made of glass so you can see out!’
— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Obliquity is a process of experiment and discovery. Successes and failures and the expansion of knowledge lead to reassessment of our objectives and goals and the actions that result.
— John Kay, Obliquity

A linear approach to what we make, how we make it, who we make it with and how we share and communicate is a framework or lens that sets us to look upon our world and act in a very particular fashion. Shuffle is an example of a non-linear approach, a means by which we can access, curate and interpret the world in a different way.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

In their constant search for competitive advantage, organizations are seeking people who already have specialized knowledge. This encourages people to keep going deeper rather than wider in their formal and informal learning.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Metaphors are a great vehicle for communication. Kit White observes in his aphoristic 101 Things to Learn in Art School that ‘Metaphor is the medium of symbolic language and is the language of art.’ With metaphors we can package up ideas and concepts and convey them to other people. A metaphor is something that can transcend visual, written and verbal language. As Susan Greenfield suggests, metaphorical thinking is one of the ways that humans distinguish themselves from closely related species like chimpanzees. The torch and compass help us navigate our way into and map the unknown. The candle’s flame enables us to light the wicks of other candles as knowledge is shared and amplified. The spider’s silk is suggestive of the digital, networked world in which we now commune.

Author James Sallis offers an intriguing perspective in his essay Gently into the Land of Meateaters: ‘Certainly each of us becomes a metaphor of the world: we figure the world from ourselves.’ When I think of how I use this blog – as a sense-making tool, as a platform for sharing ideas both embryonic and developed, as a repository of curated content, as a catalyst to conversation – I find this is an interpretation that resonates with me. In some respects, this blog and the books that are evolving from it are exercises in metaphorical enquiry. Each metaphor used here – the peloton, the cathedral, the detective, the flâneur, the bridge – are threads that are being woven into a larger tapestry. One of the latest threads, representative of an interest in both the polymathic generalist and the act of stewardship, is the elevator.

The elevator with which Willy Wonka transports Charlie Bucket and his grandfather is one of opportunity, curiosity, transparency and multidirectionality. Not only does it operate within the loose framework of Wonka’s factory, but it has the potential to journey into the unknown too. It is not regulated by one set course, but it can navigate in any direction. Compare this to the traditional bank of elevators in an office building. They travel up and down. Some require passes to activate them. Certain floors are restricted and off-limits. The fast elevator to the top floor is reserved for senior executives. Not so very different, then, as I observed in The apprentice’s craft, from the deep channels of silo-based expertise and hyperspecialism that characterise the make-up of many organisations.

The traditional career path we have alighted on suggests the exploitation of a narrow set of specialisms. The individual is recruited to a post based on a combination of academic credentials and previous experience. They are labelled and pigeonholed by both a job title and job description. By conforming with the latter and working within its bounds, they develop, even narrow, their specialism. Their subsequent progression up the corporate ladder, their access to the building’s upper floors, are closely aligned with this increasingly dated expertise. Their understanding of the other elevator shafts, the knowledge contained within them, the role of their occupants in achieving corporate goals and delivering on common purpose, is limited. Eventually they alight on one of the upper floors, the speed of their upwards trajectory either slowed or curtailed altogether. They are now a manager, acquiring a shallow set of broader skills to supplement their area of specialist expertise. They have been branded with the letter T.

Wonka’s elevator is one for the polymathic generalist, for #WWWpeople. It is the hyperlink made conveyor of people. It defies the silo of the traditional elevator shaft. It knows no restrictions. Its path is the path of obliquity, travelling to the unknown. It moves through space and time like the Doctor’s Tardis or Bill and Ted’s phone booth, acquiring knowledge, cross-pollinating ideas, taking a bird’s eye view, picking out patterns in the big puzzle. When all has been digested, internalised, sifted and blended, then a more traditional course can be set. Sometimes even to the top floor. So, for example, Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin by accident rather than design, and a pharmaceutical industry focus on antibiotics and their medical application subsequently follows. Or actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil combine their interests in applied science to develop frequency-hopping ideas that today are building blocks for wireless technologies. Or businessman Steve Jobs invests his personal energies and finances in multiple industries including personal computers, animation, music, high street stores, software and mobile telephony, and through an intricate game of hopscotch manages to master and integrate them all.

What happens when a polymathic generalist assumes a leadership role in an organisation? The intertwined stories of Jobs and Ed Catmull, documented in the latter’s Creativity, Inc., hint at the fusion of art and science and technology. Of people playing, experimenting, learning, failing and triumphing in several fields. In Catmull’s case, in particular, there is the suggestion of an individual seeking to create conditions in which others can bloom. The idealised polymathic leader is a visionary who strives for a future that they will not be part of themselves, an elevator floor at which they will never arrive. They aim to steward others, dedicated to the husbandry of their organisation, the individual people within it, nurturing the potential each has to fulfil. The stories that emerge about such people invariably point to their mentoring capabilities, their willingness to share knowledge and experience, to send the elevator back down so that others might follow, might build on the foundations they have laid, might push at the boundaries of the maps they have drawn.

You have to send the elevator back down.
— Jack Lemmon in conversation with Kevin Spacey

The saving grace was that declaring my beliefs about the asphyxiating effects of mechanistic organization versus the vitalizing results of organic systems had an unexpected liberating effect on me. That experience of liberation through speaking personal truths – along with the fact that my presentation caused no significant change at the heart of Hallmark – convinced me that, in the future, my efforts would be best spent in not trying to change Hairballs, but in offering to midwife out of Hairballs anyone who longed for a fuller, more original work experience.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Enlightened leaders deliberately hand over responsibility in order to create engaged team-players able to adapt their approach to suit the conditions.
— James Kerr, Legacy

When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

Plato’s children

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
— Plato, The Republic, Book VII

Art is a language of signs and symbols. To describe new conditions, new signs must be created or old symbols redeployed in ways that give them new meanings. Given that the world is constantly changing and that each new generation describes the world it sees in its own way, the symbol language of art must always be evolving. Language is influence.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.
— David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

One of the many brutal sequences in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange involves an exercise in aversion therapy known as the Ludovico technique. Alex, the recidivist protagonist played by Malcolm McDowell, is drugged and strapped to a chair. His eyelids are held open while he is forced to watch images of violence against a backdrop of classical music. The drugs induce a sense of nausea with the effect that, in the short term at least, he is revolted by the notion of sexuality, is unresponsive when confronted by violence, and is tortured by the music of one of his favourite composers, Beethoven. Alex is subject to state-sponsored brainwashing. His sensory responses to the experience of sitting before the movie screen are not within his own control. He no longer has agency in his own narrative.

In this latter respect, Alex differs from Plato’s cave dwellers. While they may be chained and unable to look in any other direction but forwards, they are not drugged and have control of their own eyes. However lightly, they play some sense-making role in relation to the shadow images they see projected before them. They are able to interact with those that surround them, and together name what they see. They are, in however restricted a way, participants in the story. Shadows are labelled. Language emerges and evolves.

Most of us, of course, have far more agency than this in our lives. Not only do we participate, we co-create. We are complicit, for example, in the art we consume and with which we interact. Both writer and reader, painter and viewer, actor and audience member have a role to play in the creative process. Meaning is projected, but it is interpreted too, with subjectivity and context both coming into play.

Digital technologies have further clouded the waters. Take film viewing, for example. When cinema gained popularity in the late 19th century, and well on into the post-WWII period, film-going was a communal experience. This is beautifully captured in Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso. People of all ages, genders and economic backgrounds gathered together around places of worship and the local cinema. These were the centres where a sense of collective identity and community were established. Group storytelling shifted from the verbal to the cinematic. It was a more synaesthetic experience, blending poetry, fiction, folk tale, dance, song, theatre, painting and architecture into a swirling phantasmagoria of word, image and movement.

As with so much else, however, the industrial cauldron of the 20th century served as an accelerator. Technical advances were rapid, almost tripping over one another towards century’s end. There were adverse side effects, though, not least the increasing fragmentation of community, the alienation of people from people, and the replacement of meaningful relationships with digital simulacra. So, in the post-war period, cinema began to compete with television. Then VHS and Betamax followed. So too Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, online services and streaming. The role of the viewer shifted as well. A village assembled before the cinema screen in the 1920s became a family crowded on a sofa before a small television in the 1950s. That in turn transformed into the solitary commuter staring at their smartphone in the 2010s, cocooned in their headphones. Viewing became personal. It became asynchronous too, with viewers no longer tied to cinema or television broadcast schedules.

Technologies like Laserdisc also opened up new co-creative and consumption opportunities for viewers. As a film student, I was able to watch the original versions of films as screened in the cinemas, or to observe the film while listening instead to film directors like Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell describe the creative filmmaking process and their original intentions. Or to hear film academics like Laura Mulvey offer dense theoretical interpretations of the film I was watching. I could reprogramme films like Boyz N the Hood to include scenes that had been deleted in the theatrical release. DVD and subsequent technologies included these additional features and much more: mini documentaries, multiple commentary tracks, original studio and alternative directors’ cuts of films. The viewing experience became one of choice and interaction. Tools and maps were available; it was down to the individual whether they made use of them or not. Through social media, too, the community swirling around these films became global rather than local. Digital had fragmented the audience, but it had also enabled the fragments to be joined together in an ever-evolving, always-shifting network of common interests.

The opportunities to co-create, to navigate and harness the potential of networked communities, are there in the workplace too. If you only act on instruction, as Andrew Jacobs highlights in his See no ships blog post, you are in danger of returning to Plato’s cave. If you are acting on curiosity, though, not waiting for permission, but still aligning yourself with overarching corporate purpose, it is more likely that you are moving into the realm of creativity and innovation, of learning and knowledge exchange. Even as you tread the borderlines of rebellion. Such agency is what distinguishes us from the automatons or the brainwashed like Alex.

The shapes wore away as if only a dream
Like a sketch that is left on the page
Which the artist forgot and can only complete
On the canvas, with memory’s aid.
— Charles Baudelaire, A Carcass

the walls that were
whitewashed when they were younger
have turned into
maps of absence
— W. S. Merwin, Before Midsummer Above the River

When I write I’m absent
and when I come back I’ve gone:
gone off to see if other folk
go through what I go through,
if they’ve got so many others inside them,
if they see themselves the same.
— Pablo Neruda, We Are Many

Make curious with me

Good morning, Mr. Magpie
How are we today?
They’ve stolen all my magic
And took my melody
— Radiohead, Good Morning Mr. Magpie

Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of the smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point.
— Ian Leslie, Curious

The more fully we believe a model is reality, the more rigid the model becomes. And the more rigid it becomes, the more it confines us.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

From the seat of a bicycle ideas are shaken loose and mashed up. As the mechanics of the body enable pedalling and steering, doors into the unconscious are unlocked. Fast thinking and slow blend together. The mind becomes a melting pot, forming ideas, signalling calls to personal action. No one knew this better than Tullio Campagnolo. A racing cyclist during the 1920s, Campagnolo would go on to establish one of the most famous marques in cycling, accumulating patent after patent along the way. The company retains a fiercely loyal following. Its bike parts are recognised both for the quality of their engineering and their aesthetic appeal. Some have become collectors’ items.

As a racing cyclist himself, Campagnolo was confronted with the conundrum that affected all his contemporary giants of the road. The rear wheel of a bicycle includes a central hub. Cogs are attached to this which determine the gearing on the bike. During the 1920s, racing bicycles were fitted with one cog on each side of the rear wheel hub. To change gear, selecting something more suited to the terrain being traversed, necessitated stopping entirely. The rider would have to dismount, remove the rear wheel of the bike, turn it around, reattach it to the frame and ensure the chain was correctly fitted to the new cog. This was fiddly. It consumed valuable time. Climbing a mountain might require two changes; one for the ascent, the other for the descent.

Campagnolo had insider experience. He accumulated knowledge as a member of the peloton, constantly having to switch the gears on his bicycle. He was prompted by both frustration and curiosity to seek out more effective ways of making the change. Losing a race because he could not loosen a wing nut in freezing conditions gave added impetus to his quest. So began a lifetime of innovation. His first product, still seen on many bicycles today, was the quick release skewer, which allowed for the rapid removal of a wheel from the bike frame. A sliding hub and a derailleur, which precluded the need to remove the rear wheel to change gears, soon followed.

Campagnolo’s story illustrates a point made by Ian Leslie in his excellent book, Curious. Knowledge and curiosity feed off one another. Foundational knowledge – what the individual already knows – serves as a platform for curiosity. Curiosity itself services the individual’s desire to acquire more knowledge. The curious individual constantly moves to the boundaries of their knowledge. In Not Knowing, their award-winning new book, Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner observe that ‘The edge is the place where something new can emerge. We call this Not Knowing.’ We seek to bridge our knowledge gaps through curiosity, combinatory play and serendipity.

The story of the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, and their contribution to the history of aviation offers another good example. The Wrights possessed foundational knowledge and skills. They were experienced at working with machines like printing presses and motors. More tellingly, perhaps, they had extensive experience with the bicycle too, as did their workshop collaborator Charlie Taylor. They were able to draw on their knowledge about balance and stability, derived from their cycling experience, and apply it in another context. Using their existing knowledge as a basis, they allowed their curiosity to lead them into an exploration of controlled and powered human flight and resolve the problems with which they challenged themselves. As Ian Sanders puts it in his essay, The Art of Curiosity, ‘Being curious is often about shifting your mindset to ask a really simple question: what if?’

Regardless of industry or sector, organisations that want to thrive, to survive, need to be breeding grounds for curiosity. They need to be responsive and adaptive, open to the serendipitous occurrence, experimental and open-minded. Innovation rarely happens at the closely regimented conveyor belt. In that environment, there is little time to lift your head up and observe what else is going on around you, to wonder, to daydream, to mash up ideas in the maelstrom of creative thoughts.

Both curiosity and combinatory play tend to be characteristics of #WWWpeople. Yet another compelling reason to introduce a few polymathic generalists into the domain of hyperspecialism.

The bricoleur has an exploratory mindset, working at the edge between knowing and Not Knowing, constantly improvising and spontaneously engaging with the surrounding environment. For a bricoleur the process is as important as the end result.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Hyperthinkers are curious, want to learn and discover new things; they marvel at the wonders all around them. This curiosity can be innate or it can be developed through education, but the inner drive to discover and learn, the ability to ask questions, challenge preconceptions and get genuinely excited about the discovery of something new are all marks of the hyperthinker.
— Philip Weiss, HyperThinking

Goals in both life and career are important; it’s good to have a vision of where you’re headed. But stay open minded. Instead of having a fixed linear path for how to get there, embrace randomness and serendipity along the way.
— Ian Sanders, On Being Curious

mysteries contradict
a deathful realm of fact
— e. e. cummings, Selected Poems

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 16 February 2015.

The apprentice’s craft

The old craftsperson is back. He lost his job to the factories and became a worker; now he is back as a small business owner, this time with new tools to compete with the old workplace.
— Rolf Jensen & Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

The master craftsman is adept in using a philosophical framework, as well as tools and materials, to deliver useful things to the world. But more than that, the craftsman must be open constantly to new ideas; he is essentially always in beta.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

If you were a craftsman, or merchant, or clothier in the case of Rembrandt’s drapers, guilds offered members and society at large great benefits: ranging from education and apprenticeships to medieval forms of peer review, and all important stamps of approval.
— Peter Sims, The Return of the Guild

For all the innovations and dominance of different materials in their manufacture, the shape of the racing bicycle frame has remained remarkably consistent since the latter years of the 19th century. The road bike diamond is familiar to all, regardless of whether you express an interest in the sport or not. The production of these frames transcends the hazy line that separates bespoke artisanship and craft from large-scale industrial output. Indeed, just as professional cycling is inextricably connected to the evolution of mass media from the late Victorian period onwards, so too does the history of the bicycle in the same period reflect in microcosm shifting attitudes towards industry and craft. The revival of interest in cycling and the emergence of the maker movement has prompted increasing curiosity about the skills of the master framebuilder.

In Open, David Price observes that ‘Efficiency, standardisation, elimination of waste, were key drivers in the shift from craft production to mass production.’ Bicycle manufacture was no exception. Early on craftsmen had mastered the manipulation of steel tubing, shaping it into attractive frames with ornate lugs. However, the incessant search for lighter, cheaper, stiffer and stronger parts and frames, particularly in professional cycling, led to experimentation with other materials too, including titanium, aluminium and carbon. The development of carbon moulds, as well as alternative methods for manipulating carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers, opened the way for outsourced mass production in Asian factories. Designed in Italy. Made in Taiwan.  The names of famous brands plastered over uniform products lacking any idiosyncrasies.

Off-the-shelf bicycles flooded the market to suit all riding styles, body shapes and sizes, not to mention wallets. But they lacked the personal touch. It was at the fringes of cycling culture, among the messenger community, for example, and the fixed-wheel enthusiasts, that something a bit more distinctive could be seen. Famous old marques and steel steeds were dusted off and repurposed. Artisans of the past were sought out, their knowledge and craft highly valued again. Steel and titanium frames offered romanticised memories of things past, a different feel on the road, a ride that appealed to those less interested in haste. Measurement here related not so much to speed, distance covered, calories burned and heartbeat, than to bespoke fit for your own body. In his It’s All About the Bike and the documentary film that complements it, Rob Penn enthusiastically describes the experience of having crafted for you, by an experienced artisan, a frame that fits you like a glove. Bella Bathurst, in her The Bicycle Book, goes further still, describing the experience of making your own frame under the watchful eye of a master framebuilder. The journey to knowledge mastery starts with both conversation and action.

It is intriguing to see how the professional cycling teams have carried over the notion of the master-apprentice relationship into the sport itself and not just in its supply chain. In #pelotonformations there is always a fluidity of leadership, roles and responsibilities that is governed by context. The passage of time comes into play too. For example, many successful professional cyclists at career’s end as practitioners on the road move into advisory or management roles off it, serving as sporting directors, coaches and mentors. At the other extreme is the space created for promising, young amateur riders towards the end of each professional cycling season. Stagiaires are given the chance to gain experience competing in professional races as short-term members of established teams. This gives both the rider and the team the opportunity to assess readiness, attitude, aptitude and team fit. It is an immersive learning experience, where inexperienced youth rubs shoulders with and performs alongside seasoned veterans of the road racing circuit. For some it is the launching pad to a successful career. Mark Cavendish, for example, was a stagiaire with the T-Mobile Team in 2006, having spent time in one of their feeder squads. The following year he was riding his first Tour de France with the same team.

The novice is exposed to the knowledge and expertise not only of the master but of the colleagues with whom the master interacts. Skills are acquired through observation, imitation, enquiry, internalisation, deed and subsequent repetition. It happens in the cycling team with the annual introduction of new team members and constant access to veterans of the sport. It happened in the medieval monasteries as suggested by The Name of the Rose; Adso learning not only in the moment alongside Brother William, but years after the fact as he reflects back on past events and filters them through decades of subsequent experience. It happened with the blacksmiths, bakers, cobblers and masons of old too. It happens still on a daily basis, in workplaces large and small, in both the office filled with knowledge workers and the artisan’s workshop occupied by the few. It is personal knowledge mastery made manifest. A perpetual exercise in curiosity, acquisition and application of learning. Both master and apprentice continuing to learn together.

Where recognition and reward for one’s expertise is the end goal, there is always the danger of stagnation. An organisation comprised only of a team of deep specialists is not unlike a bank of elevators, separated from one another, loosely serving a common purpose but only occasionally pulling in the same direction. The tendency towards hyperspecialisation fosters a blinkered perspective. The knowledge and personal experience of the individual gradually becomes valued above all else, curiosity fades, self-promotion escalates, expertise loses its currency and evolves into empty rhetoric without foundation in the market it is intended to serve. The craftsman as the incomplete, always evolving learner is a useful countermeasure to this. By remaining open to new ideas – including those introduced by their own youthful apprentices – the craftsman allows themselves to blend new knowledge with traditional practices, to experiment and tinker at the edges.

Some of the great innovations in cycling equipment, including the quick-release wheel, have resulted from such Trojan Mice initiatives. So too some of the nutritional and training practices adopted by cycling teams open to the influence of newcomers experienced in other disciplines. Many of the great masters of painting have also shown themselves to be receptive to new influences and ideas. Picasso’s career, for example, is one marked by many sudden deviations and experiments in form and style, co-opting and personalising, cycling constantly between the role of master and apprentice. Maybe what our modern offices need are a few more generalists, who can both span as well as mine specialisms, an injection of artisanship and a greater emphasis on learning while doing.

It is a rewarding, stretching venture. The quest for a mastery that can never quite be attained. What Harold Jarche calls life in perpetual beta.

Knowledge artisans are retrieving the older artisan model and re-integrating previously separate skills. Knowledge artisans not only design the work but they can do the work. It is not passed down the assembly line.
— Harold Jarche, A New Way to Work

[Tattoo artist Ami James has an] uncompromising and absolutely clear conception of what creativity requires: time, immersion, ability to overcome resistance, professional knowledge, craftsmanship, finding the right master, the desire to express one’s own voice, and a joy in creation.
— Christian Stadil & Lene Tanggaard, In the Shower with Picasso

An apprenticeship is one kind of learning field. A team is another kind of learning field, because the action is shared among the members of the team.
— Dave Gray with Thomas Vander Wal, The Connected Company

Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

It turns but does not try to remember
it does not precede or follow
obey or disobey
it is not answering a question
it arrives knowing without knowledge
— W. S. Merwin, The Artisan World

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 12 February 2015.


More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
— Ted Hughes, The Jaguar

It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely.
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose

What rules could we get rid of today that would enhance our ability to create value?
Vineet Nayar quoted in Lars Kolind & Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

Traipsing homeward from a bracing winter day’s walk last week, I opted for a route that took me through Whitstable’s active little harbour. The tide was high, the fishermen’s vessels rocking in their moorings, the whiff of their haul still lingering despite the best efforts of the freshening wind that whistled in off the North Sea. What I experienced, though, was a sensory overload of another kind. It seemed that whichever way I turned my head, my eyes were assaulted with signs of interdiction. No climbing. No black bags. No parking. No fouling. No jumping. No diving. No swimming. Rules and regulations rose up at me, and swam at the periphery of my vision. A swirling vortex of restriction and limitation.

What is permissible then? I wondered. Inevitably, I was reminded of the corporate world from which I have just jumped and begun to orbit instead. Reminded of the business appetite for policy, process and procedure. The legislator’s shopping list of constraint. The regulator’s quest for compliance. All packaged in demands for conformity and language dripping with negativity. But what of phrases of encouragement, participation and optimism? Why do we find it easier to say no rather than yes? More often we tell people not to do things rather than to do them. We adopt a position of risk aversion rather than taking a chance and embracing the unknown. No wonder our workplaces are as they are, and the statistics about worker satisfaction are so poor. We jump to prohibition so quickly.

[Photo credit: Interdiction, Richard Martin, 23 January 2015]

Which is not to say that there cannot be a beneficial aspect, in the right context, to limitations. Again, language is important here. For example, personally I am more drawn to the notion of frameworks than policies. Rightly or wrongly, I perceive the latter as rigid and restrictive, the former as flexible and permissive. With policies come rules that will be policed, a strict enforcement of the hierarchy. With frameworks come mutually agreed working practices, high levels of autonomy, fluidity of roles, plans that can be quickly adapted in response to shifting context. Policy creates an environment in which trust struggles to find a foothold, fear and inhibition rear their ugly heads, transparency is lacking, communication is closed, and email becomes a mechanism for covering one’s backside, serving as a record of directives issued and received. Frameworks enable openness and transparency to flourish. They do not require email at all. Within a framework, information can be exchanged rapidly and acted on in real-time. Cycling teams often show us how this is done, adapting their plans to suit the day’s conditions and the form of their team members, constantly communicating among themselves and with support staff, taking decisions on the fly.

Constraint can also help catalyse creativity. This is a common theme on this blog. Lack of people, money or technology can prompt innovative solutions. Working at the edge of the box, building on what has gone before, can result in great leaps in our knowledge, science, business and art. Working within the limits of the canvas, the frame, the page or available ingredients has not hampered our artistic forebears. But here the outlook is optimistic. I have these morsels available to me, what meal can I make from them? I have this small landscape before me, how shall I transform it into a floral feast? I have but a single piece of paper left, which words will I select for my poem? There is an inclination here towards what can be done, a positive outlook, rather than a sour-faced listing of all that cannot be achieved.

Rules may be necessary in the societies and communities we share. How we frame and present them matters, though. Better the language of the optimist than the strictures of the policymaker.

Only endings allowed things to stay
as they were, as they had been:
otherwise it was all change,
glimmers of light, faces at the window,
whispers of good intention.
— James Sallis, Other Conclusions

What kind of fool do you think I am?
To think I know nothing of the modern world
All my life it’s been the same
I’ve learnt to live by hate and pain
It’s my inspiration drive
I’ve learnt more than you’ll ever know
Even at school I felt quite sure
That one day I would be on top
Another dot upon the map
The teachers who said I’d be nothing
This is the modern world that I’ve learnt about
This is the modern world we don’t need no one
To tell us what’s right or wrong
This is the modern world
— The Jam, The Modern World

Sounds of rebellion

It was anarchic, nihilistic and deliberately confrontational. It questioned the establishment, challenged the status quo and generally posed the question ‘Why?’
— Stephen Colegrave & Chris Sullivan, Punk

Their common problem
is that they’re not someone else
— John Cooper Clarke, Beezley Street

Who needs remote control
From the Civic Hall
Push a button, activate
You gotta work an’ you’re late
It’s so grey in London town
Panda car crawling around
Here it comes, eleven o’clock
Where can we go now?
Can’t make no noise
Can’t get no gear
Can’t make no money
Can’t get outta here
Big business, it don’t like you
It don’t like the things you do
They got no money, they got no power
They think you’re useless so you are punk
They had a meeting in Mayfair
They got you down an’ they wanna keep you there
It makes them worried, their bank accounts
It’s all that matters, it don’t count
Can’t make no progress
Can’t get ahead
Can’t stop the regress
Don’t wanna be dead
Look out’ those rules and regulations
Who needs the Parliament
Sitting making laws all day
They’re all fat and old
Queuing for the House of Lords
Repression, gonna start on Tuesday
Repression, gonna be a Dalek
Repression, I am a robot
Repression, I obey
— The Clash, Remote Control

How many rebels are celebrated in their lifetime or, at least, at the height of their powers? Often the people are small in numbers who truly appreciate the rebel cause in its moment of initial blooming. They follow the lead of the challenging few, advocating and disseminating their ideas. But it takes either distance – sometimes physical, sometimes temporal, usually reflective – or premature death – think Shelley, Manet, Rimbaud, Schiele, Clift, Kerouac, Guevara, Marley – to amplify the rebel yell and extend its reach.

Sometimes posthumous appreciation is many years in the making. Time, though, cycles around, moving in spiral-like progression. The ideas of the past become current again. Movements, ideas, individuals resurface. They find new context. What seemed a bump in the road back then suddenly takes on new meaning and, looked at from the other side, appears somewhat more lofty and mightier than originally thought. Take the music of The Clash, for example, and the punk movement of the 1970s from which it emerged. Were the band’s musicianship, generic experimentation and lyrical virtuosity appreciated more at the time of their conception and first airing, or from the perspective of the 21st century, filtered through subsequent decades of mediocrity?

The pattern is repeated constantly. Romanticism, for example, bubbled up as a reaction to the dominant ideas established by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The Modernists took on scientific ideas from Darwin, Freud, Einstein and others to transform the arts. They took form and style in directions hitherto uncharted. Before them, the group of artists we know now as the Impressionists were derided when they first displayed their work in Paris. For many subsequent years too. It took a shift in time and place – an exhibition in New York organised by Paul Durand-Ruel – to help turn around critical appreciation and the commercial viability of their work. The Beat Generation, on the other hand, initially struggled to sidestep the hedonism label, and found their works the subject of obscenity trials in the US courts. The whiff of drugs and sexuality permeated Andy Warhol’s studio, The Factory, in New York, as well as Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, Sex, in London. Yet they are now appreciated as catalytic hubs; cultural melting pots where art, music and design merged, where artifice, commerce and rebellion became uncomfortable bedfellows.

I am very sympathetic to the thesis Neil Usher sets out in his blog post Hollow Hills. Rather than finding ourselves in an era of unprecedented change, we may find it is one of crushing tedium, uniformity and vacuous conformism. I also appreciate Armando Iannucci’s challenge to the UK politicians in his Comment is free column. People really should stop talking about talking. There is so much flannel out there, soaking up the moisture of empty rhetoric, that it is becoming too heavy to lift. Ideas need to be defined and shared, but at some point they have to translate into action too. Some ideas, though, gestate slowly. They only take hold properly when they cycle around again, maybe on the second or third time of asking.

You can see that with some business ideas. Maybe the voices of Robert Greenleaf, Peter Drucker and Charles Handy have a more receptive audience now than at any other time. They needed both fruitful and fallow years before they produced their bumper crops. But they persevered. They challenged. They inspired others to do the same, questioning from the inside, asking why, punking up work, to borrow Perry Timms’s phrase.

In Orbiting the Giant Hairball, published towards the end of the last century, Gordon MacKenzie painted a picture of the unbending, conformist status quo that many of us recognise still prevails today – for all the technological advancement and social change that we seek to celebrate. In rebelling against the Hairball, there appear to be four options open to us. Compliance and soporific tedium I find the least attractive of these. One alternative is total disengagement, self-imposed exile like that sought out by Chris McCandless, protagonist of Into the Wild. But that way entropy lies. The energy that fuelled initial rebellion gradually leaks away leaving a corpse behind. One option is to follow MacKenzie’s own lead, orbiting the Hairball, occasionally zooming in for a quick raid and act of defiance. The final option is to find a place on the inside.

To me the latter seems one of the best positions from which to implant ideas, to start that slow change process that may produce a rich harvest many years hence. It is a place to bridge out to external influence, to serve as a conduit to orbiting rebels. With the passage of time, the pernicious Establishment absorbs the rebel of yore. Even Vivienne Westwood has succumbed to the lure of damehood. Better to play them at their own game, though, accepting a role alongside them and operating as an outsider on the inside. Like Mick Jones, punk figurehead with The Clash, now hall of famer and successful producer of The Libertines.

Hairball is policy, procedure, conformity, compliance, rigidity and submission to status quo, while Orbiting is originality, rules-breaking, non-conformity, experimentation, and innovation.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

As future thinkers, rebels spot what’s coming and create ideas for how to respond to that change. Let the present thinkers figure out how to implement the ideas and manage the projects.
— Lois Kelly & Carmen Medina, Rebels at Work

Ideas don’t explode; they subvert. They take their time.
— David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined

The myopia of expertise

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.
— Wallace Stevens, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

Those who advocate certainty are not credible.
— Charles Handy in conversation with Steven D’Souza

Human desire for certainty is unshakeable, noble, incorrigible, highly dangerous.
— Isaiah Berlin in conversation with Michael Ignatieff

In the world of hyperspecialism, there is always a danger that we get stuck in the furrows we have ploughed. Digging ever deeper, we fail to pause to scan the skies or peer over the ridge of the trench. We lose context, forgetting the overall geography of the field in which we stand. Our connection to the surrounding region therefore breaks down. We construct our own localised, closed system. Until entropy inevitably has its way. Our system then fails, our specialism suddenly rendered redundant. The expertise we valued so highly has served to narrow and shorten our vision. It has blinded us to potential and opportunity.

It does not have to be like this, though. The maintenance of connections, the exercise of curiosity, the desire for continuous improvement at both a micro and a macro level can all energise, sustain and help evolve new practice and behaviour. Some of my favourite stories about receptiveness and openness to alternative methods and ideas have come from healthcare. They include the pioneering German surgeons who recognised the scientific nature of medical practice, and understood the need for sterility symbolised by the white laboratory coats they opted to wear. They also include the joint endeavours of the Great Ormond Street Hospital surgical team and the Ferrari F1 pit-stop team who partnered together to improve the hospital’s post-surgery handover procedures. Then there is the tale, documented by Atul Gawande in The Checklist Manifesto, of medical staff seeking to reduce the incidence of post-surgical infection by learning lessons from the aviation, construction and finance industries. All are examples where highly skilled individuals, however temporarily, removed the blinkers of their expertise.

Stories of positive deviance also offer up examples where experts have chosen to put their own knowledge and experience on hold. Instead they have selected to learn from emergent practices demonstrated by community members who have diverged from or modified standardised behaviours. The aim is not to impose or blend outside knowledge, as was the case in the Great Ormond Street-Ferrari example, but to amplify what already exists within the community. To uncover and broadcast it for the benefit of all.

The experiences of Jerry and Monique Sternin working on behalf of Save the Children in Vietnam have been well documented by the likes of Sternin himself, David Dorsey and Chip & Dan Heath. Tasked with addressing child malnutrition in a short time frame, the Sternins opted to observe both common and deviant practice. They learned that the healthier children tended to be members of families that provided smaller but more frequent meals than was the norm. In addition, these families tended to add other ingredients to their traditional rice dishes. Dependent on where they lived, this might include shrimps, crabs, snails, sweet-potato greens, peanuts and sesame seeds. Sources of protein and vitamins to supplement the children’s intake of carbohydrates.

The publicising of the results of this positively deviant behaviour, and the sharing of knowledge by parents who had been adding variety to their children’s meals, led to broader adoption and ongoing experimentation. Not only individuals but villages too learned from one another. They were exposed to different practices, internalised them and adapted them to suit their own context. The solution to child malnutrition was personalised, home-made, evolutionary, communal. It emerged from within rather than being imposed from the realm of the alien expert briefly parachuted in to espouse a colour-by-numbers quick fix.

For the generalist, there is something hugely appealing about the notion of taking themselves out of the expert’s comfort zone and plunging headlong into the unknown territory of a new discipline. The realm of Not Knowing, explored in a recent book by Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, is one of opportunity, exploration and the acquisition of new knowledge for such an individual. It is a place where they can give vent to their curiosity, exercise personal knowledge mastery and experiment continuously. It is a chance to broaden one’s horizons, to make the canvas on which one paints even bigger, rather than exchanging one ploughed furrow for another.

Sport supplies several examples of multi-disciplinarians. In athletics, decathletes and heptathletes have to be adept at a broad range of track and field events, and outstanding in at least a few of them. Similarly, medley swimmers, pentathletes, biathletes and triathletes have to be competent in a range of disciplines. These sports people learn constantly from others, collaborating with coaches, liaising with former high achievers in their various events. More fascinating still are those individuals who exchange one sport for another and excel at both. Dennis Compton, for example, was a test match cricketer who also played football for Arsenal. Rob Andrew was a rugby international and a double Cambridge Blue who also had experience of first class cricket. Both Chris Boardman and Bradley Wiggins were specialist track cyclists, highly accomplished Olympians in the pursuit discipline, both of whom went on to enjoy success on the road. Wiggins, for example, transformed himself from a 4,000m board specialist to winner of the mountainous Tour de France. Perhaps less well known is the story of Rebecca Romero.

Romero was a member of the quadruple sculls rowing team that won the silver medal at the Olympic Games held in Athens in 2004. Four years later in Beijing, she again represented Great Britain, this time winning gold in the women’s individual pursuit event held in the velodrome. In so doing, she demonstrated what can happen when someone moves from a realm of expertise and, with an open mind, embraces the unknown. By being receptive to new ideas, combining them with existing knowledge and experiences, working collaboratively with others, she was able to transform herself into an expert in another discipline. She demonstrated the curiosity and generalism of the fox, rather than the specialism and prickly defensiveness of the hedgehog.

By opting to specialise in multiple fields, the generalist helps correct the myopia that is characteristic of expertise.

The lively plurality of voices sometimes can and should outweigh the stentorian voice of experts.
— David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined

The idea of self-realization is one of the most destructive of modern fictions. It suggests you can flourish in only one sort of life, or a small number of similar lives, when in fact everybody can thrive in a large variety of ways.
— John Gray, The Silence of Animals

We have access to a growing network of expertise from people, like bloggers, who are willing to share their knowledge for free. Expertise is becoming ubiquitous through the Internet and professional social networks. One’s position in the hierarchy is no longer an indicator of one’s influence or knowledge.
— Harold Jarche, Finding Perpetual Beta

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 6 January 2015.

The future of now

In fact we can provide many examples of verifiable phenomena, such as the particle/wave duality of certain entities, that seem to contradict the manner in which experience tells us the world works. Similarly, with Time the fact that we experience it as a linear procession of events does not mean that’s what Time truly is; or that it even exists for that matter. So let’s posit a possible description of true Time. Basically, imagine a vantage point with respect to Time whereby you can see all events at once. When you observe it from this vantage point, Time is not linear. Instead, from this view, you see that events that exist in spacetime do not really precede or follow each other and therefore probably cannot be said to cause each other either. They exist all at once so to speak.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity

Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. He also knew why. From the depths of my future, throughout all this absurd life I had lived, a gathering wind swept towards me, stripping bare along its path everything that had been possible in the years gone by, years that seemed just as unreal as the ones that lay ahead.
— Albert Camus, The Outsider

Life is always in between. Life was what happened while you were waiting around for other things to happen. Life was what sprang up in the places you never thought to look. In between.
— James Sallis, Death Will Have Your Eyes

When does the past stop and the future begin? What about that void, that in-between, we know as the present? Author James Sallis observes that every day we reconstruct ourselves out of the salvage of our yesterdays. Past lessons and memories carry us across the in-between. How to blend them with the occasional glance futurewards? How to marry what we know with the potential and opportunities offered by social change and technological advancement? I have to confess that, while agreeing wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I find the phrase the future of work highly problematic. If we are truly building cathedrals of change, then we either need to be laying foundations or constructing on top of existing ones. Action needs to be taking place in the Now, continuing tomorrow and persisting into a vague, hazy and distant future too.

There is a danger that the future of work has already become a vacuous term, in the same way that social business and Enterprise 2.0 have. It is a momentary hit, like fast food, delivered by clever and manipulative marketeers chasing a dollar and an ego massage. There is a need either to reclaim the phrase and properly define what it means or move on. That said, it was interesting for me to be invited this week to speak about the concept at a couple of local creative workspaces in Kent. What does the future of work mean to me, on a personal level, right now? It was an ideal opportunity to both reflect back and look forwards. Ideally timed too, as I find myself in an in-between state, working out the last few days as an employee of a traditionally structured organisation and in the throes of setting up my own company of one. From January, I cycle back to the freelance life after fifteen years in corporate hierarchies.

Where I work and whom I work with have become increasingly important to me. I need diversity. Diversity of projects, diversity of location, diversity of perspectives. I am a generalist, I am curious, I need to learn. Working for a single organisation, in a single office, on a single subject, just does not make sense to me. I feel like I am ossifying. My saving grace has been the advent of social media, learning to navigate and connect in the digital, networked world. The people with whom I have interacted the most over the past year, with whom I have exchanged ideas, argued and debated, given and received validation, and, increasingly, collaborated and cooperated, have not tended to be on the same payroll as me. Often they are not in the same industry. Invariably not in the same country. These are friendships and partnerships that have been formed online and, wherever possible, been cemented by in-person meetings in coffeeshops, restaurants, creative spaces and galleries.

[Picture credit: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí, 1931]

My most productive days while an employee have occurred when I have worked offsite, either at home, in a café or at a gallery. The most qualitative of learning experiences during this same period have resulted from conversation either online, face-to-face over coffee, or in motion, walking and talking. These learning experiences have resulted from networked connections and communities, never from prescriptive corporate training programmes. This is not to suggest that I have neglected my duties as an employee. Rather, that I have combined my varied interests to add value to the work I am responsible for. As an outsider on the inside, with an internal consultancy mandate, I have sought to bridge out to other organisations, other disciplines, other practitioners, serving as a conduit to other ideas, alternative working practices, different business models.

I have no background or particular interest in the industry I am about to exit. My focus has instead been on people, how they organise themselves, how they acquire and share knowledge, and how they adapt to change. It has also been on the value of generalism in a hyperspecialised industrial context. The need for pattern recognition, curiosity, cross-pollination of ideas, storytelling, horizon scanning and a strategic outlook are all important facets. From the perspective of my in-between state, I have come to realise how important these are for future working practices too. Also how I want to help multiple organisations, rather than a single one, acknowledge the need for such skills. As Peter Morville has recognised, the ideal state for the future is an intertwingled one. Where science and art and business and technology all have value, connect, combine and intermingle. It seemed pertinent somehow this week to be talking about such things in Kent’s creative spaces, discussing lessons drawn from business experience with people making a new start as artists.

In my personal journey, I have advanced to repeat. I started my career as a freelancer, ill-equipped for it, fresh from many years in the ivory towers of academia and naive about business and work. I hope I return to it more knowledgable, better able to add value and assist others. But there is also a sense of simultaneously looping back and progressing in terms of the working practices now available to me and others. The advancement of technology, social structures and workplace expectations has enabled us to revisit and improve upon old traditions. Transportation, telecommunications and mobile computing make a nomadic lifestyle attractive again. The hyperlink erodes spatial and temporal divisions. Asynchronous collaboration across countries and continents is a regular undertaking. Crafts and manual skills also are becoming highly valued again. Workers, previously tied to the industrial conveyor belt, a particular place and time of work, are being freed by automation and algorithms. For some this is a threat, for many others an opportunity.

Long-established notions about time, which have governed working life since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, have become fractured. Different conceptions of time co-exist. There is the linearity of past, present and future, the ticking of the clock, the flicking of calendar dates, the sound of the church bells and the punching of the timecard. There are the natural cyclical rhythms of the seasons, Winter forever giving way to Spring, birth to death, drought to flood. There is also the helical, spiral-like sense of forward movement and repetition, echoes and mirrors of the past intruding on the present, time matching the structure of our DNA and the movement of our planet through space. Then there is a Now that may be long if you are running a 10,000-year clock, somewhat shorter if you are operating on 10-15 year cycles, and minuscule if you are focusing on the movement of the second hand. So just as the location of where we work is becoming less and less fixed, so too is when we work. In a digital, networked world we can be forever on, or we can learn to revisit the patterns of our forebears who worked the fields and find other rhythms more suited to our bodies and personal preferences.

For me, the future of work is one of fragmentation, small pieces loosely joined, diverse locations, networked connections, time both speeded up and slowed down, time chunked and repeated. It is possibly one where the generalist becomes the counterpoint, the counterbalance to the highly specialised machine. It both thrills and terrifies me.

It started yesterday.

The world is infinitely complex, and any attempt to simplify, which means the elimination of contradictory elements, will fail to capture that complexity. One can, however, attempt to compress or condense those elements into a more abbreviated or altered form. That is the role of metaphor.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information. Like a digital unconscious, the raw data sits forgotten unless accessed by a program in the future. Everything is recorded, yet almost none of it feels truly accessible.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We want to welcome the future as a good friend that we wish to meet, not as an enemy that we hope to avoid.
— Rolf Jensen & Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

I am grateful to Lloyd Davis for inviting me to work alongside Brian Condon and himself, talking about the future of work at #workshop34 in Sittingbourne and the POP Creative Space in Chatham on 11 December 2014.

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 14 December 2014.


Choice and connection

Bridges are a great paradox, they not only use nature against nature, but magically the best examples do not defeat or damage nature but enhance it, and, in ways that are sometimes hard to fathom, achieve a deep harmony with their surroundings.
— Dan Cruickshank, Bridges

In art forms we see frequent attempts to incorporate the past into the present and offer up something for the future. Painters, poets, architects, composers, photographers, novelists, choreographers, comedians, filmmakers and sculptors build on the ideas of others, paying homage even as they create something new. They steal like artists, as Austin Kleon claims. They blur and elide. It is like the photographs that were briefly popular earlier in 2014 as we commemorated the D-Day landings: modern-day images of Normandy beaches blended with wartime shots of the same locations from 1944. It is a Modernist idea, holistic in scope and intention: all time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. Ideas co-opted from science and woven into the artistic works of people like Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges. Cultural hopscotch, the embracing of diversity, the bridging of borders — east-west, conscious-unconscious, public-private, craft-industry — all prompting creativity and innovation.

We are social animals, and one of the ways we have learned throughout human history is by means of imitation, repetition and refinement. We were doing this before we had speech, painting or writing. We copy what we perceive to be necessary to our survival. We copy what we like. We copy what works, making adjustments when we come across something better. But also because we inevitably make mistakes, seek variations and attempt personalisation. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, in his book Wired for Culture, describes this as a form of visual theft, echoing the views of Kleon. It is one of the defining features of human history and the longevity of our species. We bridge back to what went before and innovate for the future. We can see evidence of this in our great cities. London, for example, serving as a palimpsest in bricks and mortar.

With a bridge — both literal and metaphorical — either/or is replaced by and. With a bridge, it is no longer a case of here or there but here and there. Not in or out but in and out. Not us or them but us and them. Not past or present but past and present — and future too. You can see the metaphor applied in professional cycling. A rider bridges the gap when they ride off the front of the peloton and catch up with the breakaway riders. They bridge across through both time and space. When they make their move, they are simultaneously part of the peloton and part of the breakaway. They are in both places and in no place. Standing above the River Thames, I am on both the North Bank and the South Bank and in neither place.

[Photo credit: Pont du Gard, Richard Martin, August 2014]

In our moment, in our time, we complete building the bridges from the past to the present even as we begin working on the bridges to the future. We look both backwards and forwards at the same time, learning from our forebears, sense-making and amplifying, while exploring how our knowledge and work can benefit future generations. We advance to repeat. The result is a spiral-like sense of time. This can have both positive and negative implications.

In Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux draws parallels between our various organisational models and the history of human consciousness. He highlights the accelerated changes of the past couple of centuries. Crucially, though, he draws our attention to the fact that many of these models exist concurrently. That it is not simply a case of linear, evolutionary progression from one model to another. That, in fact, conscious choices can be made to move from an apparently progressive, networked-style of model back to a command-and-control centralised regime. We do not destroy our bridges as we move forwards. The option always remains to move in either direction. If the mood takes us, we can move backwards in time and try again, develop a different pattern or repeat the same one. From city state, to nation state, to union of nations and back again.

Consider this scenario, for example. A financial collapse is followed by an extended period of economic recession. Political extremists make their move, with a notable swing to the right. Scapegoats are sought for the financial woes. Immigration becomes a hot topic. Nationalist rhetoric is prevalent, permeating both media and politics. Anything that departs from the ‘ideal’ promoted by these right-wing extremists is treated with suspicion and disrespect. Trust is eroded. Simmering resentment boils over, manifesting itself in popular uprisings and armed conflict. Is this Europe in the 1930s or the West in the 2010s?

Consider too the spiral like progression from a nomadic existence to one based on settlements. Then back again to global nomadism enabled by technological advancement. With WiFi and mobile technologies, where you work is largely irrelevant. The hyperlink opens up multiple opportunities for working in different times, places and with different business partners. The hyperlink is our digital bridge.

We have choices in which direction we build our bridges. We can proceed in the same direction as the one that arched from the past to our present. Or we can twist the turntable a couple of notches and build in another direction. Indeed, in multiple directions, constructing a network of bridges. A web of potential and multi-way influence.

In his study of bridges, Dan Cruickshank observes that, ‘bridges are, in their way, a form of alchemy — they transform, they bring life.’ For me, they epitomise Lois Kelly’s observation that ‘our work is our art.’ They are the product of hard labour and artistic vision, merging science, engineering, design and aesthetics into incredible structures. The bridge is a symbol both of choice and connection. We determine in which direction we wish to travel. Which connections we wish to establish between people, places and knowledge.

This post reworks and adds to material previously published on the IndaloGenesis blog, In the Flow. It was published on Medium and LinkedIn on 28 November 2014.