Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Painting Pan & Avoiding Panic

Painting in the outdoors, or “plein air,” is a popular past-time for artists and great practice for everyone who wants to learn to appreciate their surroundings with new eyes. I am most likely to be found doing this on weekends when I have painting pals who want to be outdoors.  But a few (most, actually) of the people with whom I correspond do not have much time to paint whether in or out of doors, so I thought I’d write a post about what art is teaching me about readiness for the unexpected.

The other day, I found myself in a setting devoted to sustainable gardening and wild meadows where my subject turned out to be a small garden statue of the ancient Greek god of the wilds, fields, and flocks, Pan, with his man-like body and a goat’s hind legs.  The word “panic” is derived, I’ve since learned, from Pan’s name.

photo-of-pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Photo of garden statue of Pan at the River Farm, Alexandria, Virginia

This subject promised to be challenging, especially given changing circumstances. Sunlight vied with overcast skies, changing the shadows on the figure every few minutes.  In addition, a wedding was scheduled for these very grounds in a short time, so planning ahead was of the essence.  First off was a quick sketch to familiarize myself with this scene, and gain some idea of lights and darks.

sketch-of-pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Quick sketch in terracotta watercolor pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

Such a sketch can boost confidence for the next step, though it is true that you never know how a sketch is going to turn out and many sketchbooks, like diaries, are private partly for this reason.  Nor, increasingly, do we know what we will face, so sketching (or  a rehearsal or a “scenario”of any kind) is a way to increase our readiness for the unexpected, a subject that received more attention in the early days of this blog.

Seeing Things Differently and Avoiding Panic  Learning how to see in different ways, sometimes very quickly–including connecting with others who see things differently–is fundamental to survival, not only for the artist.  It has been called various things including cognitive agility, mindfulness, and “rapid reflection.” But I’ve observed that it often doesn’t get the attention you’d expect for something so critical.  In fact, in too many places, people are incentivized to ignore the unfamiliar and to treat it as irrelevant until an altogether too-obvious change in the status quo forces (some of) them to reconsider…and sometimes that is too late.   (Even in the absence of crisis, such a disinterest in the world can harden into a lack of curiosity which calcifies one’s situational awareness at a dangerously low level.  This has proven in the past to be particularly bad for living species of all kinds–not to mention modern-age businesses–and is especially risky in today’s world where we–and all our things, such as watches, cars, and phones–are more interconnected than ever before.)

pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Watercolor on Arches Hot Press by Black Elephant Blog author

Topping off this day  of plein air painting was the opportunity to see the movie, “Sully,” on the inspirational pilot and the first responders on that incredible day when a fully-loaded passenger plan had to land on the Hudson River.  From painting Pan in the wilds, I was confronted with wild scenes that would leave most of us panic-stricken if we were in the midst of them.

sully-photo

Illustration: Photo from indiewire: http://www.indiewire.com/

But this is a film of human strength and prowess, strong team work, and genuine leadership.  From the pilot and his co-pilot, to the crew, the ferryboat operators, air traffic control, and many other responders, the rapid response to this unprecedented event demonstrated the value of consciously preparing (across disciplines, stovepipes, and other boundaries) for the unexpected.    In this case, one imagines that such pre-crisis teamwork contributed to enhancing preparedness for an unprecedented situation.  Remembering the importance of the  “human factor”, as per Sully when he explains himself to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), is the critical difference.  His performance seems to be an example of “rapid reflection” crisis management in action; this film carefully adheres to the facts of the crisis as it actually unfolded and, therefore, truly is a “must-see” for all those in top management, whatever the field.

I’ve been reminded regularly that true artists respect unintended consequences  whereas experts of other stripes too often don’t.  Artists regularly experiment with techniques and materials, and absorb others’ approaches like sponges; many experts of other stripes too often don’t. There is seemingly an important paradox in this.

In an age when many clearly believe it is more acceptable to bash experts than to emulate them, the aspiring artist knows that study of others’ solidly perfected techniques–and, beyond this, historical appreciation as to what has been humanly possible and achieved over time–leads to greater consciousness of our individual shortcomings and more rapid recognition of the truly exceptional (as the film, Sully, also reminds us).  Recognizing these gaps can inspire us to be more curious and to learn more.  At the same time, experts themselves must prepare for circumstances never before seen (and, thus, for which there is no sketch, textbook or field of expertise). Indeed, a certain cognitive and doctrinal flexibility seems necessary, at a minimum, lest very deep expertise lead us to think that everything can be scripted, measured, and predicted ahead of time–as the differences between the NTSB and Sully demonstrated in the film.

The artist with skill in applying paint (or ink or any other medium) to paper or canvas–and expertise such as pilot Sully’s extraordinary tacit knowledge of the limits of his airplane, his ability to derive quickly from different inputs the most sensible course of action, as well as his abiding awareness of the value of human life–demonstrate human capacities  that total reliance on computers, for instance, or checklists can never achieve.

So, while it is true that you generally don’t want the pilot of your commercial jet to be creative in getting you from point A to B, the movie, Sully, does show us that adaptation in the face of the unexpected requires a degree of mindfulness  (and openness to ongoing learning) that cannot be assumed.  At their best, therefore, artists and experts of all types, whether commercially successful or not, seem to combine deep knowledge with a degree of cognitive flexibility that is hard to sustain from deep within “stovepipes” of all types, from academia to industry.  Dealing effectively with this conundrum seems to me to one of the most important things we could do these days.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

“Creativity, Inc.”, Innovation, and an “Energy Miracle”

At last, we are underway with our classes at the university, with the onset of a “Spring” semester which, delayed by some wintry weather, has so far not felt very spring-like.  With inclement weather, though, it’s been easier to get some work done on projects related to what we are covering in class, and a chance to compose a blog post on some of this. Hence, this post is a bit less about sketching present every-day scenes and more about designing alternative frameworks for the future.  (The eventual goal is to combine both in an accessible format for different audiences.)

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink study for "Waiting for Spring" by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink study for “Waiting for Spring” by Black Elephant Blog author

We have moved rapidly through diverse science and security-related issues and zoomed across the land masses of the planet to understand different climatic zones, the extent of challenges to arable land, and how incidents or policy changes at a local or national level–even on the other side of the world– can have global impacts. Not yet a month into the semester, therefore, we are confronting the realization that past experience will no longer be a reliable guide to managing many looming challenges, including the necessary transition to no-carbon and low-cost sources of energy.  Innovation thus is inescapably urgent.

None other than Bill Gates, who describes himself as an “impatient optimist,” admits that “time is not on our side” when it comes to globally applicable means of reducing carbon emissions to zero.  He puts his hopes on a “miracle” in energy R& D even as it’s plain to see investment in energy research by developed nations remains far below that in other areas.  (Gates says that the scale of innovation needed requires government investment as it involves risks that the private sector is poorly equipped to assume.) Conventional approaches to problem-solving in this area simply will not work.

energy research OECD

Illustration:  OECD chart

Already in our class there is focus on the social,  institutional, and cross-boundary aspects, as well as cognitive and psychological facets, of the problem. (It seems that, even this early in the semester, we are beginning to hear more readily the overly specialized or “silo’ed” limitations in the thinking on offer at some conference panels around town.) What does it take to harness innovative ingenuity on a global scale?  What can we learn from those who have studied processes of innovation and creativity?  Where do these subjects enter most conversations and efforts about transitioning rapidly to a low-carbon, or no-carbon, energy system?  While proposals on the global “table”, as it were, have merit, how to ensure that the collective “we” is not “betting the farm” on a strategy that will not pay-off?  Whose responsibility is it to even consider these things?  (Such are the issues we are dealing with in the classroom.)

Innovative approaches to solving complex problems, including developing the “energy miracle” Bill Gates has called for, require more than technological investment and novel financial arrangements.  They require organizations to invest in developing and sustaining creativity and strategic thinking in the workplace.  But who knows how to do this?  And have we any idea on how to be creatively collaborative across myriad institutions?  It seems that much of the material published on these topics is aimed at managers or, less often, educators.  But that may be too late for most people.  The concepts  involved must be introduced earlier in people’s careers so they have time to evaluate and internalize them with their peers. Thus such material is worked into our course at the graduate school level where students typically already have a few years of professional work experience. Understanding the obstacles to innovation–and its “fuel,” creativity–is fundamental to making progress on the complex problems, (especially “super-wicked” problems s0-called because they require the engagement of society as a whole), of today.

In many workplaces, however, the efforts of talented people are typically stifled in “myriad unseen ways,” according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation in his book, Creativity, Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration,  (Random House, 2014).  Despite constant emphasis (belatedly in many cases) these days on the need for innovation (and creativity, and disruptive breakthroughs), rarely is any thought given to how such creative work is nurtured, evaluated and sustained…to say the least.  So it seems timely to take a few notes from the book, Creativity, Inc., to see how these issues are dealt with in an industry (producer of the films, “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” among others) that most everyone assumes exemplifies the best of creative workplaces.

Catmull credits his experience as a graduate student at the University of Utah, where he received his Ph.D in 1974,  with introducing him to the importance of leaders who understand how “to create a fertile laboratory.”  Much of the research in the university’s computer science department was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (now known as DARPA).  The university laboratory leaders understood “they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy.” Catmull writes that the most valuable thing he gained from the university “was the model my teachers provided for how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers.”  One of the lessons from ARPA that stayed with Catmull was:  “When faced with a challenge, get smarter.”  He thus knew that, in order to “attract the sharpest minds,” he needed to put his own insecurities away.  When starting out as the lab director at the New York Institute of Technology while still in his 20s, therefore, one of his first hires was someone who seemed to Catmull more qualified to lead the lab than he was.

Catmull’s book is the story of his journey in learning to sustain a creative work environment.  Nearly every page contains a memorable lesson applicable in other fields, such as:  “Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”  The challenge for him and his colleagues in the mid-1970s was to solve technical problems involved in applying computer animation to the film industry.  There were a few companies working on these problems and most, Catmull writes, “embraced a culture of strictly enforced, even CIA-like, secrecy.”  By contrast, Catmull and his colleagues decided to share their work with the outside world instead; his view was that “we were all so far from achieving our goal that to hoard ideas only impeded our ability to get to the finish line. [emphasis added]”   (Might this view be relevant as well to the energy challenge mentioned at the start of this post?)  Catmull notes that the “benefit of this transparency was not immediately felt” but that the “relations and connections we formed, over time, proved far more valuable than we could have imagined, fueling our technical innovation and our understanding of creativity in general.”

As his project teams grew, Catmull had to move his organization from a flat team-like structure to more of a hierarchical approach.  He realized that his team at the New York Institute of Technology actually functioned more “like a collection of grad students–independent thinkers with individual projects–rather than a team with a common goal.”  Catmull describes the influence of “Starwars” and George Lucas on the field of computer animation, and traces the trajectory of his own career, and long partnership with Steve Jobs, through the lessons he learned along the way.

To give some sense of these lessons and their broad applicability, here are a few from the book:

  1. “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.”
  2. Books with advice like “Dare to fail” divert people from addressing “the far harder problem: deciding what they should be focusing on.”
  3. “Being on the lookout for problems…was not the same as seeing problems.”…”The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.”
  4. “Originality is fragile.”
  5. “We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.”
  6. “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture…was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”
  7. “Ideas come from people.  Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”
  8. “The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”
  9. “…without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust.  And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”
  10. “The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive.
  11.  “By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new.  The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
  12. “The pressure to create–and quickly!–happens at many companies…and its unintended effect is always the same: It lessens quality across the board.”
  13. “When we put setbacks into two buckets–the “business-as-usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket–and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble.”
Unexpected 1

Illustration: Watercolor wash and pen-and-ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Dealing with “The Hidden”  Catmull’s book is exceptional for its sophisticated treatment of many tough management issues that arise in virtually any field, including learning to see “hidden” issues in the corporation and, just as important, realizing that just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they do not exist.  He says that one of his core management beliefs is “If you don’t try to cover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.” He also emphasizes that our ignorance about randomness affects our ability to face the unknown.  Catmull writes, for instance:

“We are quite adept at working with repeatable events and at understanding bell-shaped variance…[But] how can we think clearly about unexpected events that are lurking out there that don’t fit any of our existing models?  Catmull notes that there is a “human tendency to treat big events fundamentally different from smaller ones.”   This sets us up for failure, he explains, because we fail to realize that some of the small problems have long-term consequences and are, therefore, “big problems in the making.”

In another excellent section, “Learning to See,” Catmull describes how he hired an art teacher to come in to the organization to teach everyone “how to heighten our powers of observation.”   People who draw better than the rest of us, he says, “are setting aside their preconceptions” and everyone can learn to do that.  His point is that there are ways of learning to overcome biases while considering a problem.

In Sum:  It is easy to forget that the lessons in this book are derived from managing computer graphics and animation laboratories and not from the daily occurrences in organizations closer to one’s own experience.  It is thus relevant for people trying to move their organizations into a mode that makes the most of the talent within, and without (!)–or outside–, them. Understanding the forces that block our inspiration and effective creative collaboration both inside and beyond our organizations today  is key to moving forward on the many formidable challenges (some of them metaphorical“black elephants” ) facing the globe. (This is why, earlier on this blog–such as here and here and here— there has been a focus on the work of various experts regarding the barriers we face to even thinking effectively about these problems.)  Facing as many unconventional and complex challenges as we do today, it’s safe to say there are not enough books like this one and, for many people, not enough time to read and absorb them.  Some of the needed changes might not be “news-worthy” but still hugely impactful: Learning to draw, counterintuitively, may be part of the solution at the societal level, to inculcate ways, per Catmull, to overcome our ingrained biases and to sidestep cross-cultural barriers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Uncategorized

Burghers of Calais Sketch

Illustration: Touched up watercolor sketch of the Burghers of Calais

Illustration: Touched up watercolor sketch of the Burghers of Calais

Photo:  Scene at the Hirschhorn on an Indian Summer day

Photo: Scene at the Hirschhorn on an Indian Summer day

Indian summer is a time of surprises, that’s for sure!

One cannot tell what season it is but it is a tremendous light for sketching.  Those who can will stop and enjoy the view, surely.

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon ink sketch in Stillman & Birn Alpha Series Sketchbook at Hirschhorn Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon ink sketch in Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

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Uncategorized

Superforecasters and Dragonfly Eyes: Booknotes

Despite my best intentions to get through an ever-growing stack of books, a brand new one crept into the mix and demanded my immediate attention, so here goes, with a few notes on it:

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon black pen and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon black pen and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Superforecasting:  The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, (Crown Publishers: New York, 2015).

In this book, the authors, Tetlock, a professor of psychology, political science and business and Gardner, a journalist and author, note that “we are all forecasters,” in the sense that we need to make decisions that involve uncertainty (as when we buy a home or make an investment or decide to relocate, etc.).

When it comes to really big events, like market crashes, wars, etc., however, we expect to turn to “experts.” Unfortunately,  according to the authors’  research results, the experts we might most expect to be able to “forecast” events with precision are less able to do so (against certain types of problems) than “ordinary” well-informed people who are not experts in the subject matter.

These “ordinary” people have some extraordinary characteristics, the authors realized when they analyzed their research results.  These include an ability to step outside of themselves and get a different view of reality, something the authors note is really hard to do.  But the ordinary people who did the best in the forecasting tournaments run by the authors, exhibited a remarkable ability to do just this:

“Whether by virtue of temperament or habit or conscious effort, they [the successful forecasters] tend to engage in the hard work of consulting other perspectives.”

In conducting U.S. government-backed research, the authors found that people such as a retired computer programmer with no special expertise in international affairs  could successfully answer very specific questions such as “Will the London Gold Market Fixing price of gold (USD per ounce) exceed $1850 on 30 September 2011?” People they worked with, such as this individual,  were enabled by the rules of the research project to update their forecasts in real time, incorporating new information in their estimates as they came across it.  (The process is explained in detail in the book.)  Over time, “superforecasters,” such as this retired computer programmer stood out among the pack.  Such people, write the authors:

“…have somehow managed to set the performance bar so high that even the professionals have struggled to get over it…”

The results made the authors inquire into the reasons for the “superforecasters'” better performance.  They write that “It’s hard not to suspect that [so-and-so’s] remarkable mind explains his remarkable results.”

Indeed, some of their superforecasters have multiple degrees in various subjects from various top-notch universities, speak several languages, and lived or worked abroad, and are voracious readers.  But, assuming that knowledge and intelligence drive strong forecasting performance would send us down the wrong path, concluded the researchers.  To be a superforecaster “does not require a Harvard PhD and the ability to speak five languages,” they concluded.  Many very well-educated and intelligent participants in their study “fell far short of super forecaster accuracy.”  They continue:  “And history is replete with brilliant people who “made forecasts that proved considerably less than prescient [citing Robert McNamara — defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as one example].”  So, the authors conclude:

“Ultimately, it’s not the [data/brain etc] crunching power that counts. It’s how you use it.”

Well, duh, you might say.  Isn’t this obvious?  Apparently not.

Dragonfly Forecasting So how do these superforecasters do it?  What do they have in common?  The authors survey a number of case studies from their research to provide some insights.  What they discovered is a capability they call “dragonfly forecasting.”  The researchers observed that the super forecasters, while “ordinary” people, have an ability to synthesize a large number of perspectives and to cope with a lot of “dissonant information.”  They have more than two hands, write the authors, because they are not limiting themselves to “on the one hand or the other hand thinking.” (Sidebar:  I just attended a seminar on energy and climate challenges where one of the speakers, an engaging, colorful and normally compelling orator, clearly), made the comment that “on one hand you have total environmental disaster or, on the other hand, total commercial disaster,” concluding that “we need to get on the right side of this.”

Illustration: Seminar sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Seminar sketch using Black Sharpie pen on Stone Journal notepaper by Black Elephant Blog author

This sort of binary thinking can be quite limiting, particularly when there is no “right side” as is the case, more often than not, when facing a world of increasingly complex challenges.  I heard more examples of this “either-or” thinking problem again just yesterday in an all-day conference, with people literally saying that they don’t see an option beyond the frame they’re in.)

“I’ve Looked At Things From Both Sides Now” 

By contrast, the dragonfly eye in operation, according to the authors, is “mentally demanding.”  (Already,in this mere statement, we run up against some cultural and cognitive realities in many large organizations where everyday urgent matters and matters only perceived as urgent (possibly because of this very binary winners vs. losers thinking) take up almost all available bandwidth.)

Superforecasters “often think thrice–and sometimes they are just warming up to do a deeper-dive analysis.”  Forecasting is their hobby, write the authors.  They do it for fun and also because they score high in “need-for-cognition” tests.  These tests rate people who have a tendency to “engage in and enjoy hard mental slogs.”

There also is an element of personality likely involved, they conclude.  The traits involve “openness to experience” which includes “preference for variety and intellectual curiosity.”

The authors conclude, however, that this dragonfly eye capability, which involves synthesizing a growing number of perspectives, has “less to do with the traits someone possesses and more to do with behavior.”  These behaviors include “an appetite for questioning basic, emotionally charged beliefs.”  Interestingly, the researchers have concluded that, without this behavior, individuals (forecasters or not) “will often be at a disadvantage relative to a less intelligent person who has a greater capacity for self-critical thinking.  [emphasis added]”

Those with a dragonfly eye cultivate their ability to encounter different perspectives.  They are “actively open-minded,” write the authors.  There is an actual psychological concept around this cognitive behavior.  For superforecasters, therefore, “beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasured to be guarded,” conclude the authors.

There are too many implications of this work–important implications–to cover in a blogpost.  But it must be said that the book raises implicitly at least as many questions about how to proceed in a complex interconnected world as it attempts to answer.  For instance, fewer enduring problems of real consequence can be addressed with a simple forecast, no matter how accurate, in a bounded time-wise constraint.  Inherently complex “super wicked problems” discussed earlier on this blog do not lend themselves to this sort of forecasting.  Tougher choices involve immersing ourselves in deeper questions of values and longer-term perspectives.

Nonetheless, what the authors have demonstrated with their research offers us the opportunity to pursue these challenges with greater awareness of individuals’ different cognitive and philosophical outlooks, and perhaps–from a corporate human resources point of view–to allocate jobs and tasks to people based on comparative evaluations of their cognitive and behavioral strengths.

As more and more issues require deeper thinking and appreciation of systemic interconnections, it may become ever more important (even if not acknowledged in organizational priorities) to find ways to incorporate “dragonfly eye” sense-making behaviors.   The authors have observed that “belief perseverance” can make people “astonishingly intransigent–and capable of rationalizing like crazy to avoid acknowledging new information that upsets their settled beliefs.”  When people have a greater investment in their beliefs, it is harder for them to change their views.

There is important stuff in this book which requires a great deal more reflection. So, this thread of inquiry will continue in the next post’s look at another new book called Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, by Jamie Holmes (Crown Publishers, New York, 2015).    Not at all “nonsense,” thinking about thinking matters.  Even if these books fail to provide us with concrete next steps, the relevance of these works to current challenges facing decisionmakers, and their advisors, in all sectors cannot be overstated.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Reading in a New Fiscal Year

Lake scene 2

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Today begins a new month, a new fiscal year even, and fall is in the air. Since every now and then, someone asks what I am reading, I have turned my attention to the question myself.  Some books on innovation have been covered earlier on this blog, particularly here.   But, why begin with innovation if we are not sure where, when or why, it matters?  Context can be helpful.

Upcoming on this blog, therefore, will be a few brief overviews of some important, and possibly even provocative, books which provide fresh optics on historical contexts, and which were published in the last year.  Some of these books review how we got to now and make suggestions for how to move forward.

These include:

The Shape of the New:  Four Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot.

Fields of Blood:  Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong, an expert on comparative religion.

This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein, who may be familiar to some for her investigation into “disaster capitalism.”  This book is so sweeping “and of such consequence,”  in the view of The New York Times,  that it is “almost unreviewable.”

But, to lighten the load, some fun reading is also in order.  I recommend:

Illustration: Painting by Giovanni Boldini (1888) - Wikipedia

Illustration: Painting of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini (1888) – Wikipedia

A Paris Apartment, by Michelle Gable, a book which also came out last year. It is based on the true story of an apartment the contents of which came to light in 2010, 70 years after its tenant had hurriedly left Paris.

Illustration: Self-portrait of Giovanni Boldini (1892), from Wikipedia

Illustration: Self-portrait of Giovanni Boldini (1892), from Wikipedia

In the apartment among antiques and other valuables, which had been untouched or unseen by anyone in all this time, was an original painting of a beautiful lady. Martha de Florian, by Giovanni Boldini.  Boldini was a contemporary of Edgar Degas, whose life and works was discussed earlier on this blog, in mid- and late-19th century Parisian artistic circles.

The painting depicts Madame Marthe de Florian whose diaries also were in the apartment when it was opened in 2010.

The novel, A Paris Apartment, recreates this true story in a fictional modern context.  The author has a fresh writing style which makes the most of her talents for creating realistic dialogue and alternating between periods of time separated by more than a century. Boldini himself–not to mention Madame de Florian–come alive here in a story that includes other better known figures of their time.  All this…a true story…and a fictional story…because of one real-life dusty old apartment filled with stuff no one wanted for nearly a century.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Ottawa Outlooks

Last week, an unusually good workshop on “Climate, Defense, and Security” occurred in downtown Ottawa sponsored by the Canadian Defense Association.  The purpose of the workshop was to assess the security risks or threats of climate change impacts.  The speakers and the audience deftly covered a wide range of relevant, forward-looking themes in the half-day allotted to the workshop.

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink of the War of 1812 Monument at sunset in downtown Ottawa by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink sketch of the War of 1812 Monument at sunset in downtown Ottawa by Black Elephant Blog author

I was one of several invitees to attend. The audience was composed of former Canadian diplomats and military officials, academics, members of the media and a few representatives from European embassies, notably UK, Germany and France.  The format featured a panel of three speakers, followed by audience Q&A with the panel, and a luncheon at the French Embassy.  (The morning session was introduced as “on-the-record.”)

stone journal notes 2

Illustration: Photo of notes pages in a stone journal

I jotted down key points I heard in a new “stone paper” journal I’d picked up out of curiosity at the gift shop in the National Gallery of Canada.  (Stone paper, as the name suggests, involves no trees and is made of “crushed stone.”  It has a different texture and is heavier, of course, than a paper journal.  Is it, therefore, more environmentally friendly?  I don’t know enough about it to say for sure, but it is fun to try out.)

These key points were:

  • Crisis is the “new normal.”  We don’t know what will hit us; “that’s the essence of crisis.”
  •  Climate change is a “ubiquitous complication” which is “not directed at you” and, therefore, “very difficult to understand with the tools that we have.”
  • Considering climate change impacts as a “national security issue” does not make sense in a German context where security issues are seen as
    collective” ones.
  • We are facing “governance issues.”  There is “virtually no leadership” on these issues.
  • “The pace of climate change is much more rapid than anyone was predicting 10 years ago.”
  • Defense agencies can be very much part of the solution, if they can be engaged in reducing fuel consumption.
  •  Since the Industrial Revolution, we have now pierced through what has been the highest level of CO2 emissions [ever]:  We are going into a place where we haven’t been in 400,000 years.
  •  The processes of climate science consistently underestimate the rate and scale of these changes.
  • “It’s not just what has to be done but who has to do it.”  There must be “mini-literalism” in addition to multilateralism.
  • We are failing at assessing risks.  (An audience member recommended a new report out from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office:  “Climate Change:  A Risk Assessment.”)

Ottawa itself looked its best in the bright September sunlight, a wonderful gift for those with some time to walk around.  I wondered if the workshop signaled some sort of shift in the climate around the issue of climate change.

Illustration: Watercolor, pen and ink, and gouache depicting fountain in Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Sketch in watercolor, pen and ink, and gouache depicting fountain in Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa by Black Elephant Blog author

The last time I was in Ottawa in September was on 9-11-2001 when the geostrategic climate suddenly changed dramatically, in ways we are still living with today.  On the visit this week, the weather was seemingly similar to the day I recall with such heaviness 14 years ago: brilliant blue skies and buildings gleaming in the sunshine.

It was a real pleasure to be able at last to stroll around the city and take in the many gorgeous sights, from the locks along the canal (of both varieties: canal locks and locks locked to the railings of a pedestrian bridge over the Rideau Canal) to sculptures, fountains, the Byward Market, and an independent bookstore (they still exist!) on Eglin Street.

Illustration: Photo of locks on pedestrian bridge over Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa

Illustration: Photo of locks on pedestrian bridge over Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa

Some of the sculptures brought me to a standstill, including the one of Canadian jazz legend Oscar Peterson on a corner next to the National Arts Center, where the sound of his piano playing (coming from speakers around the sculpture) soothes your nerves while you’re waiting to cross the street.

Illustration: Photo of sculpture of legendary jazz musician, Oscar Peterson, in downtown Ottawa

Illustration: Photo of sculpture of legendary jazz musician, Oscar Peterson, in downtown Ottawa

Despite all the sights competing for my attention, I managed to get a few sketches started while exploring, adding color later.

It remains to do be seen what will be done about the climate challenges identified at the workshop, and by whom.  Given the shortcomings of traditional approaches highlighted in the workshop, some innovations in governance, science, and diplomacy seem necessary to cope with the novelties involved in understanding the risks and threats related to climate change impacts.

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Innovation, Surprise, Uncertainty

Drawing From Life

In an open life studio, where all types of artists gather to practice drawing or painting from a professional model’s pose, it is striking how differently the participants depict the model in their artwork. No “analytical objectivity” is possible here; everyone sees the same model quite differently.  It  is impossible for any two people’s drawing to be alike, or even for the same person to repeat exactly the same drawing a second time.

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

In what ways might this process of deciding what to draw, and how, be related to “design thinking”?  From considering the future of countries and even economics, there seems to be more attention being paid to the need for thinking differently, if not even ahead. Some experts on international affairs seem to be exercising design thinking, for instance, when they posit alternative futures for a country like the United States, as in the new book by Ian Bremmer, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (2015). What is different about the thinking processes that enable us to consider alternative futures or to plan for the consequences of unpredictable developments?

Certainly art students are encouraged to have a plan and to think ahead to where their brush is going, where the light is coming from, what kind of paper they have, and to pay attention to the shadows, “cools” and “warm” values. Splashing colors on a page may work for some but for most of us learning how to think about techniques, and gaining confidence through practice, are necessary. It’s a sort of strategic thought process. It is difficult to get the hang of it at first.  Being comfortable with taking risks is part of the process, clearly: an ink blot here or a dribble of water there might damage what seemed before to be coming along just fine. Alternatively, that ink blot or water stain might make this painting really special!

In art as in life, the decisions that must be made seem endless, and each one bears heavily on the final result.  But the artist gets to make his or her own decisions usually, and must live with the results.

In a more populated context with many people potentially affected by the outcome of decisions, what is the process of consultation and deliberation that must be followed? How to deal with the inevitable inkblots, and their unintended consequences?  Is the factory-model of organization helpful or hurtful in such times; what are the alternatives?  With highly integrated challenges mounting (along with the rise of intricately networked systems riding on technologies few people really understand), what insights could we be drawing now to build upon in the future? Who will create these insights, and how?  How will we know where the brush is going, and to what end? Who will be wielding the brush in an interconnected age such as ours? …  Per request a future post or two will list some reading possibilities.

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