Category Archives: trace

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.

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. 

Negative space, the most important knowledge space

I’ve always been interested in the shadow side of organisations – beyond tacit, that dark underbelly of unstated, often collusive, collective behaviour which informs, and glues together, the official work of the organisation.  Sometimes its a good thing, somethings it’s a seriously bad thing, and gets in the way, but is impossible to clear away. I doubt I’m saying anything about shadows, intangibles, invisibles, informals, that others have not already said.  Although I suppose I could say that without the shadow you’d not be able to see the shape of the thing.  So anyone who cares to look at an organisation without it’s shadow side is doing something like trying to look at the shape, size and colour of an object at the height of the midday sun (when we know only mad dogs and Englishman are out anyway).  

Some nice work has been done taking Jung’s ideas on shadow identity and applying them to archetypes of leadership.  Wizard, king, something, something (I forget what typical modes of leadership were chosen), each has it’s shadow side and the leader must be aware of the effects of the shadow side in order to work to best effect and chose the right people to surround him/her.That’s shadows, anyway.

More recently, I’ve become obsessed with a different but related concept which I can’t help feeling holds the key to the next round of my thinking and practice (and so, inevitably) Sparknow’s thinking and practice.And that’s negative space.  A road partly travelled but I suspect with a long hard climb ahead.It comes from the idea that, in art, the space around the object is where attention needs to be for the artist.   It’s easier to draw the spaces round a hand, a leaf, a chair a tree, and allow the object to emerge from attention to the negative spaces.  Henry Moore said something like ‘the hole holds more meaning than the material surrounding it’.  A window frames a view and makes sense of it (which isn’t quite negative space but is about looking through rather than at.)

My tiny, but growing and excitable hunch, is that in this germ of an idea is a huge truth.  We’re stumbling across it already by seeing knowledge workers as navigators – people through whom you find access; by making a shape of someone by what they google or what they recommend on Amazon; cookie trails allow us to trace the outline of a person without ever having to see the person directly.  I think we can go one stage further and imagine, in thinking what knowledge is key operating knowledge, a two step process (with more steps to follow as I imagine it)

1.  trace the outline of a person, google-wise, or amazonishly, through social network analysis, by what they use, what they recommend,  who they consort with

2.  persuade the person then to step out of themselves and look back at the space left and then describe not what they do, but what isn’t happening now they aren’t doing it, preferably to an invisible or actual colleague who they care about, so that they want to describe the task(s) in enough detail that the other is able to carry it/them out sufficiently well for only the smallest number of organisational hiccups to occur.

This goes perfectly with two things which seem increasingly important to me from everything I see.  Both are to do with knowledge not being captured.Codified knowledge doesn’t exist.  Codified information does though.Knowledge can’t be captured, except in the most labour intensive ways and even then, like a map, the terrain is always inescapably larger and more complex than the map of it.  It’s impossible to make a map of the world which covers the world.  Or if not impossible, actually pointless since it would add nothing.  It’s the miniature form of the map as a guide which makes it portable, relevant, useful to the user.  A 1:1 scale map of the world would be useless.  Knowledge capture of the literal kind is exactly the same.  Useless.  Too big.   Compression, illumination, symbols which make useful patterns are reference points, are what is useful.

Information, guidance and reference materials can be captured, but in the end (Bruno Latour-wise) its the interaction of the agent with the knowledge-object which determines an action. More and more work is conducted in a non-linear way – not at your desk, not in a sequence, but in groups and simultaneously.  The knowledge exists in the presence of each other and of codified resources in an environment conducive to exchange (slow or fast, more or less documented, depending on your purpose.)  So the knowledge exists in a moment in time, the information which results can point to, but not replicate, the experience of that knowledge.  So knowledge is in gaps which are temporarily closed and then opened again when people disperse from a meeting, a room.  It’s a vanishing thing, leaving a more or less ghostly trace, with some embodied consequences for those who were present, and perhaps those in their networks. That’s the first thing about capture.The second is to do with the contract between organisation and individual, or between organisations, particularly in circumstances where knowledge of business processes must be retained during a move, or restructing, or merger or upheaval of any kind. 

Capture is a hierarchical, intrusive concept.  It implies minions, service, servitude.  It implies containment.  It’s entirely the wrong concept for thinking about how to retain what is needed in order to operate the business.  And it takes no account of the individual on the receiving end of the upheaval.Which is again where negative space comes in.  

An invitation to imagine themselves as vanished and see

1.  what work does not get done when they are not at work and

2. what work would need to get done by another filling their shoes

is a far more delicate and thoughtful conversation and one that can lead to the sense of knowledge as a donation.  

Firstly the indirectness of the question allows them to pay attention and describe something which sits not in the individual but in the space between them and their imaginary colleague and will allow for a much more open and trusting description.  Then also, by going through this imagining process, the individual who is up-heaved can also be invited to share something that they themselves will be a beneficiary of – they can donate what they know and also treasure it for themselves;  they can leave a legacy and take it with them.  And we know from oral history work that the process of valuing themselves expressly in ways that they perhaps haven’t before, makes them visible to themselves and others in ways they haven’t been before.

I’m almost out of time and I’ve not even referred to the thing which propelled this idea (which I’ve tried out a bit, but not found a way to communicate well yet) right up to the surface for me was Shibboleth, the exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It’s a huge crack, running apparently through the fabric of the floor in the Turbine Hall, the main exhibition hall.  And it’s astonishing.  I’ll write more soon, but here’s a short note from the Tate Modern website.Much more to follow while I try and find this idea and what it means for me.  


Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall. Rather than fill this iconic space with a conventional sculpture or installation, Salcedo has created a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between these elements that resist yet depend on one another. By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo dramatically shifts our perception of the Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.Doris Salcedo was born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, where she lives and works. Amonographic display of her work can be seen on Level 3 as part of the Poetry and Dream collection displays.                

The man’s labour that did the work is in the work

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a little while. A by-chance thing about construction and knowledge and ownership. Cormac McCarthy’s play ‘The stonemason’ came in a batch greedy buy from the Oxfam shop down the road a while back. I’ve not finished it, but it’s been haunting me while I’ve been looking into knowledge and construction. It’s a play about 3 generations, in which stonemasrony becomes a metaphor for spiritual wisom somehow.

BEN: So who owns the stonework that’s not paid for?
PAPAW: Well, under the law you can get a lien on the work. You can claim it, but you caint take possession of it. The man you built if or, he can take posession of it, but he caint calim it. The law dont have no answer. Where men dont have right intentions the law caint suppley em. You just at a dead end.
BEN: Then no one owns the work?
PAPAW: The man’s labor that did the work is in the work. You caint make it go away. Even if it’s paid for it’s still there. If ownership lies in the benefit to a man then the mason owns all the work he does in the world and you caint put that claim aside nor quit it and it dont make no difference whose name is on the paper.

This deeply spiritual version of work must in my view be the version that we, the privileged educated cocooned, should hold onto in our search for meaning. And encourage for the generations to come.