The world needs more detectives

Sharon VanderKaay
5 min readJan 27, 2019


It takes practice to extract wisdom from knowledge

Cygan (left) and Baxter would make dubious detectives. Science Museum, London

Now that machines can extract knowledge from information, humans must get better at extracting wisdom from knowledge. Before we can turn knowledge into wisdom, we need to see the wisdom. It takes practice to be observant and inquisitive. Habits of asking questions and noticing things have not been wildly encouraged in the past.

Machines may outshine humans when it comes to analysis, but how much should we rely on robots Cygan and Baxter to investigate a situation? While “detective” is seldom included on Jobs of the Future lists, robot detectives would surely lose out to humans. The best detectives focus on what matters; they resist jumping to conclusions, they notice obscure clues and they look beyond the obvious.

Learning to see
When I was in design school at the University of Michigan we learned how to see more of what we were looking at. We did this by by engaging in two types of exercises. I realise today how these regrooving activities fit with the way the brain works: the neuroscience of change.

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. The National Gallery, London

We devoted three hours a week to investigating what’s going on in a painting like this one by van Eyck. What do we know? What can we infer? What are the unsolvable mysteries? Such intense scrutiny honed our cognitive skills. We sensitized ourselves to the emotional, historical and cultural situations depicted in each artist’s slice of life. This new level of awareness was then applied to other works of art, as well as diverse aspects of our lives.

University of Michigan, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

We would also do drawings from life. Sometimes there was a human model, or more frequently, we rendered fragments of classical architecture that seemed to have crash landed in the courtyard. I was a modernist who cared little for Corinthian column capitals at that time. But the discipline of drawing these stone fragments in detail sharpened my powers of observation for a lifetime. Capturing subtle variations and imperfections in shade, shape and texture prepared me to be more aware of my environment.

How can workers develop such heightened awareness if they don’t have the time or resources for art appreciation classes? Conventional approaches to worker education will not be sufficient for us to thrive or perhaps even survive in the 21st century. So let’s imagine the potential for learning to see and ask better questions within social learning clubs.

Similar to art appreciation, “situation appreciation” would help us understand what’s really going on in selected workplace slices-of-life. Just as we might easily devote an hour to discovering more than meets the eye in a painting, we can practice seeing more in everyday work situations.

Inquiring minds
Lieutenant Columbo is often cited as one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time. In addition to seeing what others overlooked, his unpretentious human qualities served to disarm and eventually disclose who did the crime. His character’s trademark was the zinger “one more thing…” question that slowly but surely emerged from his seemingly naive questions. Columbo championed honest curiosity and was not afraid to question conventional wisdom.

When we act as detectives instead of jumping to answers we get a more complete picture. We notice details and clues that we might otherwise miss. Through observation, investigation and conversation the complex nature of each situation is revealed. We also see more potential consequences of various scenarios for action.

Radically old-fashioned
The Latin root of for the word educate is educare which refers to “bringing out” or “drawing from” rather than pushing in. Norms for 20th century education essentially relied on a push model. Experts lectured on what they decided students ought to know. Students crammed knowledge into their heads for the purpose of passing exams.

To extract wisdom from knowledge we need a pull approach to education, based on nurturing curiosity, reflection and inquiry. This kind of learning activity must be seen in contrast to a focus on complex problem-solving. Good detectives know that what they look for determines what they will find. They set out with a purpose: to investigate a mystery and expose the perpetrator. They don’t begin by defining a constrained problem; instead, they understand the they ultimate purpose of their investigation.

In addition to sharpening our powers of observation, the detective approach to situations gives us practice in asking better questions. Few of us have extensive experience in asking constructive, truly insightful questions. We are more familiar with manipulative, routine, rhetorical or superficial questions.

De Hallen, Amsterdam

Picturing a better way forward
Grassroots social learning clubs can help us escape conventional habits of jumping to solutions and needing to have all the answers while eschewing questions. They offer practice in being a detective and a miner of knowledge. The reward is that we learn to make wiser decisions. We uncover exciting possibilities rather than being satisfied with superficial input. Even when informed by anaylsis of big data and enabling technologies, the old GIGO rule of thumb (Garbage In, Garbage Out) still applies: Quality of input determines quality of results. Columbo questions serve to both set us apart and make us irreplaceable through our capacity to look for wisdom in the right places.



Sharon VanderKaay

Designer, artist and student of human nature.