Where will change go?

Change anyone?

Non-directive change

I can get pretty fed up when people can’t seem to decide what it is they want or they want to do. It can be frustrating. But what is the implication of pushing people to make up their minds about something they do not have experience of? (Brexit, anyone?)

There are models for concretely exploring the options. Remember prohibition in the US and all the gangsters it spawned? Well, Bruce Alexander rehearses the Canadian version: in cities and towns and villages there were local votes about whether to have local prohibition of alcohol or not. And the structure insisted that after three years the issue must be revisited, i.e. there must be another vote. There were a few additional rules for places that had breweries and distilleries.

Many places oscillated between prohibition and its absence. People learned the implications of living both states. Where necessary they learned the lessons more than once. Over time, more and more places rejected prohibition and that became the norm across Canada. Not universal, though — certainly when I was in Baffin Island as a student among the Inuit, people had to have a personal import licence in order to buy alcohol. Of course, the history of alcohol among the native people of that coast down to Labrador is particularly unhappy.

This same question of the constant to and fro of different states and statuses is also documented by James Scott in The Art of not Being Governed. People in the developing city states of Malaysia had a choice of living free in the hill jungles or being slaves in the cities and often exchanged these ways of living. People learned both what their choices were and had several attempts to make either or both work for them.

According to David Graeber and David Wengrove, many of the Plains tribes in the US had different social structures at different seasons and their peoples went through very different experiences and organisational forms each and every year. Again, their experience of the alternatives was direct and infinitely practical. The concept of TINA, There Is No Alternative, was simply and very practically irrelevant, even stupid. The idea of “one best way” to arrange things was similarly null and void.

We have to wonder why in our society there is none of this fluidity. From school onwards, there are rules about living that are rather rigidly enforced and very few people have practical experience of different ways of organising their social existence. It is as though deeper, more practical learning from experience is thought to be threatening to the coherence of society. I guess part of the meaning of paternalism is that we are held not to be able to understand things for ourselves, such as when women were not considered competent to vote.[1]

Architecture and continuity

We build things, not just buildings: we build social structures, political structures, information structures. They become our environment. Architecture is not permanent or even necessarily lasting, but it does cast certain things into form and, by implication, neglect other things.[2] So what are the architectural desirables in your current situation and what amounts to second level issues? What is signal, at least for the time being, and what is noise? What are you trying to build that will become the environment that will shape you?

In an ecosystem there is non-directive change. There are many, many experiments with form and function. These experiments lead to a new situation where the species and their niches interact slightly (or significantly) differently. Forget about “competition” or “fitness” or all the other one-dimensional approximations to what happens. Think instead of Nora Bateson’s symmathesy, the subtle, beautiful, and infinitely complex mutual accommodation and learning that takes place.

What are the changes that are significant in a species or its niche? Here is a quote from Benjamin Taylor quoting Systemantics:


We always need to make a judgment call on what is significant, crucial, meaningful. To do so we need to know more about ourselves than about what we are looking at. On my Geology degree course at Oxford we looked at a fossil called Gryphaea. Over time, this oyster-like bivalve became more and more strongly curved in its lower shell, until, we were told, it could no longer open its lid and became extinct. The chance that this is a sensible description of the symmathesy of the bottom-dwelling fauna and flora at the time is zero, but it made a story that people were tempted to tell. An animal that learns to become non-viable? Oh, and there were Irish elks with spreads of antlers so large and heavy they couldn’t lift their heads. Really? Irish?

To stay with Nora Bateson for a moment, she tells a story of her attendance at a Club of Rome meeting, collectively reviewing their famous model and trying to see where to take it. After three days of drawing on whiteboards, Nora reports that she said:

I don’t think boxes and arrows are going to get us there, chaps.

Boxes and arrows are one crystallisation of architectural thinking — they say, this is what is significant in this situation and these are the loops that control the dynamics. The Club of Rome model was hugely significant in what it pointed to. Epochal. Within that understanding and its boxes and arrows is the living, learning heart of the actors. We would not have reactionary climate deniers if we did not have climate science and, as we have seen, science doesn’t necessarily have the upper hand.

It is the thought that a systematic analysis or a well-tried and tested method or a procedure that can be applied will reveal significance that is itself a flawed approach to architecture, this time the architecture of the study not the architecture of the situation. If anybody says to you “do it this way, this way works well” you have to unpick the similarities and differences in the situations and assess that architectural question of what is significant. Experience is really important, and the best experience equates to that non-directive, repeated iteration of different situations to see what works. Experience that is more like being required to do something that doesn’t make sense because someone else thinks it is a good idea — well, that is quite possibly not a learning situation.

Think for instance of buying a second-hand car. You go through some checks and you make your choice. It may work out well for you and it make work out badly. Those positive or negative lessons about this particular second-hand car may or may not be useful experience next time round. Self-knowledge in understanding what you are attracted to in cars and in what ways you may be swayed by salesmen are likely to remain important. But my local mechanic, who traded perhaps twenty cars in a year, had much better insight both into cars and the market for cars and into the changing nature of the problems that can arise.

The dialogical turn

The main presupposition of dialogical perspectives is that the mind of the Self and the minds of Others are interdependent in and through their sense-making and sense-creating of social realities, in interpretations of their past, experiencing the present and imagining the future. — Ivana Markova

Minds and meanings and the whole question of significance are interdependent: no single mind and no single meaning can ever be the key to a general understanding. My meaning is not private, it is already formed in response to yours and in the context of theirs. We continually try to tear this fabric, to insist that I can make sense on my own, but the tears in the fabric become themselves woven into the evolving cloth.

So, can the architecture we desire itself be dialogical? David Bohm has an approach to dialogue itself, in which a group of committed people help each other expose the assumptions they are not aware of in their thought, looking for the flaws in thinking which are systemic and invalidate the whole thinking system. This is a continuous process, without end, but it can lead to radical changes in understanding. Instead of trying to make our thinking correct we accept that the process is what counts and the awareness that the nature of the reality we perceive is indeed social and subject to continual deepening in the way we relate to it and to each other in its discovery.

Notice again the parallel with non-directive change. Each time a town in Canada adopts prohibition, or changes away from prohibition, the situation is not the same as it was before. This is not mere pointless repetition. This is the re-entering of a reality with a changed set of assumptions and a changed understanding of the values that may be at stake. In particular, what is held to be significant now may be radically different than before. A second vote on Brexit would most emphatically not be the same thing as the first vote, even if you tried to make the questions and all the setting the same. Practically, it would be a completely different choice with completely different implications.[3]

Asymmetric design

Here’s a really plonky and really old example. Many moons ago as a seismic geophysicist the company I worked for had seismic recording vessels steaming up and down the North Sea. And every month they would put in to Aberdeen to refuel and resupply. The shopping list for the resupply would be faxed ahead to the suppliers so that everything could be ready. As it was back then, the ship would start with a literal blank sheet of paper and list the things they needed: eggs, toilet paper, how quotidien. And they always missed/forgot things.

Of course, the architectural view is that you should have a list of everything you have every needed to order, a master list, and merely cross out the things that you don’t need this time. I hope you can intuit that this would be more reliable overall but would also make it more likely that new things would be missed or forgotten. This insight is the root of asymmetric design, which splits the architectural question into two. How do we do the things we always do really reliably and well? And how do we handle the things that we have never done before but which may be equally important?

In a much more important example, Richard Veryard quotes the serially disastrous Child Support Agency. The CSA needs to investigate parental circumstances to ensure fair maintenance payments. Most of its work is routine and needs to be timely and efficient. Some of its cases are baroque and stretch the rules so that they are incredibly difficult to resolve. It was said that some fathers knew that if they started new families faster than the CSA could follow them, they would never be caught up with for payments.

Put like that, it is obvious to me that there should be two designs, two architectures with a spanning, asymmetric view. Cases that are not going to be resolved quickly need to go through a totally different process than the routine cases. And it is not too hard to partition the work.[4] Cynically, perhaps the people who built the system knew that it was lucrative to build a system that would never be complete, so asymmetry was not going to happen.

Uncertainty over significance

The hardest thing is to admit and maintain that what will turn out to be important or even vital is not known yet. No-one wants to hear you say that.[5] But without being able to admit radical uncertainty at that level we are not going to have the energy or the permission to build non-directive change mechanisms that will allow significance to develop and become visible. We have to let go of the idea of an in-or-out referendum that will decide things “once and for all”[6] if we are to discover what people want when they are not being manipulated.

[1] Suffrage has a complex and ongoing history of course. And the sufferage gap is less than you might think: in the UK, women gained the right to vote in 1928, just 10 years (sic) after men. Residents of Washington D.C. vote for president until 1961 (they still have no meaningful representation in the House or the Senate). Until this century, the lords and ladies of the UK were not eligible to vote in elections of members of Parliament. In Canada, weirdness persists, with the constitution granting suffrage to all citizens but the elections act restricting it to residents.

[2] Even in the architecture of enterprises, this balance of exists. Chris Potts talks about the value of architecture being in “structural innovations”, which could as well be through becoming “agents of stability” as much as “agents of change”.

[3] Can’t help but point out Milan Kundera’s take on infinite return, where it’s the repetition that gives weight to an event. Einmal ist keinmal he quotes, once is as never.

[4] In a recent project in Guernsey, an explicit design goal was to enable a ‘green lane’ where the straightforward cases could be dealt with efficiently, and a ‘red lane’ so that more complex cases could be given care and attention.

[5] Which in turn may stand in the way of helping them do real work. The messages of certainty sell better than the ones we believe in. And yet, our style of consulting may result in more value and more kinds of value…

[6] Seems somehow fitting to be writing about the futility of “once and for all” thinking on the centenary of the 1918 armistice treaty, that finale of the “war to end all wars”.