Category Archives: imagination

‘Yes we can’

Not many of my words today, mostly Barack Obama

This is a fabulous example of using history to spring the future in leadership storytelling. It runs from 15:20 – 17:40 on the CNN Youtube. I don’t know how to extract the clip, but here also is the transcript. Just look at/listen to what he does in those 2:20 seconds. Through the eyes of one witness, a true witness, he gives us the sweep of history and of change over a century which puts the change of the next century into it’s right place. The past as a lens for the future. You can smell and touch and feel the past and the future in this speech. And look at his gorgeous Ciceronian rhetoric, simple repetition and reinforcement to grow the space of understanding, which any fule kno works every time. (I should add that it’s 345 words. 2 minute 20 seconds out of 29 minutes or so, so a bit under 10% I think, 345 words, something to bear in mind when planning your own Presidential acceptance speech, or just the story you are going to tell to your team tomorrow.)

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

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Bridges & ditches

I walked up the footpath at the back of our land yesterday, to see the weather from a different place. The water was roaring down the stone gullies that have been dug out through the land, and hurtling down the path too. It is unstoppable.

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

At dinner with the neighbours last night we talked of the bewilderment of the summer tourist, who can make no sense of these great dry stone beds, with absurdly high bridges constructed over them. You need to winter here to understand, and then this Orange alert is making for weather rare even for the vrai Ardechois, born and bred to it.

We spent a long time, too, foraging for the right translation for combler la fosse, which in French is to fill in a ditch, to close a gap. In it’s context I went for building bridges, so with a twist of reconciliation, but in the dictionary afterwards it seems more likely it’s to bridge a gap. I wonder if there’s anything in the French effort to actually fill the gap, while the English blithely construct a bridge over it and leave it there? How high a bridge then.

Fred, who runs a supermarket near Toulouse, was talking about how easy it was, right from the beginning of the year, to detect the change in buying habits, although the sharp swing away from brands came in about May. Danone yoghurts down 9%, where before it was 3 freezer shelves stacked with President butter to one own brand, now it’s 2 and 2. Own brands have been winning out over the grandes marques for quite a while. For Fred, that’s fine, so long as he’s tuned early to the changes and can change his buying.

I was thinking about this in respect of some work on future story exercises I’m working on with Anecdote just now. Shawn, delightfully, uses William Gibson (science fiction writer)

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Fred can see the future in the changed distribution of butter in his freezers, one tiny image which pretty much conjures up a whole picture of crumbling economies. Of course, for organisational visioning you’d like the picture to be rosier, in one way. But it is rosy too. The own brand comes into it’s own.

I wonder whether there’s something too in the ditch versus bridge difference. We’ve been imagining future stories as a way to build a bridge from the future to the present, using present anecdotes (Gibsons we’re calling them) about future signs as part of the construction materials. Perhaps we need to be thinking about filling in ditches, combler la fosse, rather than bridging a gap. Or perhaps we need to build very high bridges indeed, knowing that the winter rains will wash away lower ones.

Knowledge transfer of unlikely kinds

I think I must be tuned in to the unlikely meeting of worlds otherwise alien to each other. In any case, here are two offers of ‘knowledge transfer events’ which I think should get the juices flowing.

First, from Saturday’s Guardian: Freerunning goes to war as marines take tips from EZ, Livewire and Sticky

“We found some of the moves were relevant for battle,” .. “For them it is about artistic expression. For example, they will run along a wall keeping a low profile because it looks good, but we need to do the same thing in urban combat to stay safe.”

The other example that struck me over the weekend has an altogether darker underbelly. I was watching a programme about wreckers presented by Bella Bathurst who has also written a book on it. The original wreckers, who stripped wrecked ships for a living in dangerous circumstances, often leaving survivors to drown, are in fact the same families in many cases as those who are committed to the life boat cause. Same skills, different motives.

I write this, in fact, as I’m listening, in the background, to a virtual lecture by Clive Holtham about the role of artists sketch books in reflective management practice, which is another crossover moment. And then there are the blurring of boundaries between high and low culture with the popular classical raves going on for a few years now in Berlin clubs.

So all kind of knowledge is crossing all kinds of gaps, and in it’s transfer is generating new energy, commitment and ideas. This is, to me, true knowledge transfer of an unpedestrian kind. Hard to see, but inspirational when one gets a glimpse of it.

Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

‘We notice trends before anyone else’ – Chris McCabe of the Poetry Library

There’s so much I want to write about – the structure of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, everything about Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, but above all the epilogue, cunningly inserted well before the end, in which the author blatently footnotes his sources and plagiarisms while discussing the book with the protoganist who, in some respects, knows more about what has happened to him than the author has.  It’s only a short skip to Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ which has always been one of my favourite plays, and one which determines the slowly emerging structure of my own lightly fictional work ‘Fist:  sundry items recording the breakdown and recovery of a middle-aged woman’.  Sundry items came from the shopface of an artists supply shop (now sadly defunct) I used to drive past in Highgate:  E Ploton (Sundries) Ltd.I digress.  I hope I do write about Six Characters, Lanark, Paranoid Park – they are all worth it.  

But today I want to write about poetry, and in particular the poetry library housed in London’s South Bank Centre. There are three things I want to say about poetry, to start and guide my year.  I would also like to thank Angie Dove, with whom I am ‘broken friends’ as someone once described it, for her introduction to the library.  Thanks Angie.  It was a gift I much appreciate. 

Firstly, poetry as essence.  In a recent article exalting the Poetry Library, the author, Lisa Mullen, opens with some Ogden Nash ‘Poets aren’t very useful/Because they aren;t consumeful or very produceful.’  Which goes to the heart of our current enquiry into knowledge transfer between libraries and business.  Please read ‘The Gift’ by Lewis Hyde, which says a great deal more about the collision between poetry and consume-producefulness in our society.  What is value? What’s the point?  Is the Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath in winter any less value for money, as the Corporation and the accountants would have it, because only a handful of hardy drooping ladies mostly of a certain age or beyond, with sturdy white knickers, totter there for a frozen dip?  Or is it beautiful and of value beyond compare for exactly that reason.  That we can all hold the dream of our reddened skin as we totter from the ponds on painful feet to know that we embraced, and were held by, nature for those few moments in a way that makes our souls sing, even while our bodies scream with the pain of hands crusted in cold?

Secondly, the same extolling article in Time Out (Jan 2 – 8 2008) had Chris McCabe, acting joint librarian, saying

‘One of the privileges of working here is seeing all kinds of poetry come in…we notice trends before anyone else. For instance, there has been a real swathe of political poetry since the war in Iraq – it does interest a lot of users.  And that goes against the idea that poetry is a totally quiet and reflective activity; there are lot of poets making a noise about things that are upsetting them.’

There’s one for the futurists and horizon scanners.  Stop looking to science, pay less attention to science fiction, and start watching the poets if you want to understand what’s going on and where things are heading.  Believe me when I say I’ll be making this point as we move from the MLA work into the Defra commission to help create a governance framework and guidelines for policymakers handling horizon scanning and futures research.  More poetry for Defra I say.  We’ll find musicians and poetic writers like Richard Mabey and the late great Roger Deakin, and fiction writers like Jeanette Winterson, and pithy sharp writers like Will Self, John Lanchester, John Berger, and blockbusting writers like Michael Crichton and line them all up persuade people on all sides that beauty and provocation in finding and conveying the essence of ideas has as much to recommend it as ticking the boxes of policy essentials.  

I wrote recently in a post elsewhere that metaphor is essential is opening up new channels of communication in organisational settings – not the thudding cliches of silo, blue sky and out of the box thinking and not the dangerous appropriation of a handy but superficial label (shall we windtunnel anyone), but the narratives of possibility which draw people in to conversations they never realised they needed to have. 

Which brings me to Barrack Obama and his trouncing of Hillary Clinton in Iowa.  A glorious article in the Guardian that I’ve mislaid quotes someone as saying that you win elections in poetry and govern in prose.  And there he is, making poetry just by standing there, even before he opens his mouth.  I’m a Clinton girl myself.  I think Hillary Clinton is the thinking person’s President, but Barrack Obama will win it with poetry. 

Offsetting the digital sales experience with stories

Oblique narrative pathways seem more than ever necessary to us as we want something more than a hard sell.   Take this Toast podcast which is a special Christmas project of book and podcasts intending, I suppose, to distinguish Toast from other online retailers. We want something which has been touched by human hand, or voice, and these kinds of slightly offbeat digital narrative projects help to put a face, a voice, a personal stitching hand, a sense of richness to the encounter which offsets the inhuman and functional aspects of the experience.

This is part of a bigger story called in a recent magazine article ‘The birth of nu-craft’. Writing about two exhibitions (one just past, called ‘Hot Craft’, and one just started at the V&A called ‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’Fleur Britten writes about how craft has moved from being a ‘nesting pastime’ to an expression of creativity. Craft nights are springing up everwhere, including in unlikely places like working men’s clubs (a subject worthy of another blog sometime). The boundaries between craft, art and design are being blurred. We want the trace of the potters hand on the pot, both as potter seeking meaning in work expression, and as purchaser, seeking meaning in what we surround ourselves with. One of the interviewees in the article, Kate Westerholt (who co-curated Proud) sees is as akin to the Arts and Crafts movement, with people tiring of industrialisation and craving individuality.I don’t think it’s just that. I think there’s more too it, but it is a sign of an important trend.

I’ve been writing elsewhere about negative space, and, by inference, about the necessary slowness involved in the ambiguity of making your own meaning.This struck me too the other night when I was watching Pan’s Labyrinth, quite a chilling mix of fact and fantasy set in the Spanish Civil War. As with all Guillermo Del Toro’s films, there’s a great big allegory in there. What’s great and big about this one is that like ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ the fusion of both fantasy and fact make for a whole new personal narrative journey. And you have to park your analytical mind because the meanings are not, as my friend Markie would term it, isomorphic. The surrender to ambiguity and random resonance during the experience is what makes it meaningful.

This all seems to me to be part of a bigger search for personal meaning. Which Doris Lessing was also saying in her Nobel Prize Speech at the weekend. We need storytellers and writers don’t come out of houses without books in them, she says. But beware: 

“The inanities of the internet have seduced a generation, and we live in a fragmenting culture where people read nothing and know nothing of the world, the new Nobel laureate novelist Doris Lessing warned yesterday…. “We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.” I’m off to read and write real fantasy now

Tales of Iraq under the shadow of Tower Bridge

I took this great photo while visiting City Hall, on the South Bank. (Although I’ve tried loading it twice and it comes up on its side both times so you’ll have to get a crick in your neck to look at it.)
Tales of Iraq under the shadow of Tower Bridge

There are big exhibit cases just outside City Hall, and while I was there they had a series of oral histories in from Iraq.  To see these short stories huddled together against the backdrop of Tower Bridge was a masterpiece of storytelling.It reminded me of something I heard Stephen King say on the radio about writing scary stories which is that it’s all about what you don’t say and how the reader projects into the gaps.  For the most part a horror tale has very little happen.  It’s the nothing which makes you gasp when there’s a something.  I think that might be part of my search for the gaps, shadows, structural holes, invisibles, unsaids, negatives, not-knowings, opposites, nothings which the imaginative space in which the somethings make sense.I’m increasingly sure you need to take everything way and then find out what’s left.Skeleton keys.