living in truth, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Wandering through older sketches to make sense of the present

Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately.  Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity.  The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.

This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below.  Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….

Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one.  While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:

dupont circle

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “Dupont Circle,” by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…

vangogh

Illustration: Watercolor sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach.  Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.

Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward.  I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently.  People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role

Rodin The Thinker

Illustraton: Watercolor, “”The Thinker’ at the Entrance to Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, PA” (2017) by Black Elephant Blog author

to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future.  And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.

It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.

We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present.   Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead?  These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded.   As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.

 

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Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketch of the Day

Illustration:  Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the "Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950) exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Illustration: Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the “Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950″exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Uncategorized

The Shape of the New (unfinished)

Already the week is nearly over and it’s been quite full, making it impossible to get through the nearly 500 pages of the new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. At least, I’ve made it through the section on Adam Smith, and partially through the section on Marx.  Still to come are the chapters on Charles Darwin and Thomas Jefferson. Amid warnings in the media about the state of the global economy, and on the heels of the UN General Assembly Meeting focused on sustainable development goals, it seems safe to say that this book is super timely. It’s clear that it’s well-written and thoughtful, making one want to know how the authors bring it all together in the end. It’s just that, with the spectacular weather we’ve been having, it’s been hard to avoid the stronger pull of the outdoors, and some very special sketching opportunities.

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

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

Apropos of the “shape of the new,” one of the sketching sessions this week occurred alongside the Cylburne Mansion in Baltimore where a metals magnate during the “Gilded Age” in the late 19th century built his home. Situated today on a large parkland which comprises the Cylburne Arboretum, this is a spectacularly beautiful place, where flowers and trees are abundant and crowds non-existent.  As one reads in The Shape of the New, the onset of the Industrial Age which gave rise to a new elite made mansions like this one possible in the late 19th century.

The Freer and Sackler Galleries were another stop earlier in the week on an equally majestic day weather-wise.  There is a small exhibit about the ancient city of Palmyra–once known as the “city of palms”–in modern-day Syria, there. It is impossible not to reflect on how the antiquities so recently destroyed managed to last, outdoors no less, for nearly two millennia up to our present times.

Palmyra statue

Illustration: Photo of the sculpture of Haliphat

Here it is possible to wonder where the shape of the new is headed.  The lone statue of an elegantly dressed and wise-looking young woman, known as “Haliphat,” seems to be trying to tell us something across the ages.  Unlike so much in Palmyra, she survives, here in this exhibit, so we may yet learn what this statue conveys across nearly 2,000 years.

On the way out, a muscular statue of a guard towered over us, and seemed to demand to be sketched.  He represents one of two guardians (the other was positioned at the far end of the hall) of Buddha and hails from the 14th century.

A subsequent post will return to The Shape of the New.

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch of a

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

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Surprise

Germany Sketchbook

Now that the little holiday in Germany has come to an end, a few rough sketches made there will be incorporated in the next few posts as this blog returns to its focus on resilience, surprise, and complexity, as well as “black elephants.

The sketches here were composed in the German university town of Tübingen on a perfect day for exploring its gorgeous cobblestoned streets. Below, some of the university students who make up about a third of the town’s population lounge on the wall above the Neckar River.

Illustration:  Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

And, not far away, “poled” boats jostle for space as they navigate underneath the bridge over the Neckar River.

Tubingenn 1

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Frame Innovation in Change-Resistant Organizations

An important book has accompanied the traveler/doodler author of this blog, making it possible, at least, to consider taking some notes on it.  The book is called Frame Innovation:  Create New Thinking By Design, by Kees Dorst (The MIT Press, 2015).  Dorst is a Professor of Design Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia and at Endhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Illustrations:  Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Sketchbook on-site illustrations: Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

As one reads the book, it is clear that the book’s author has been researching and developing case studies of the concept of design thinking–as applied to practical and often seemingly intractable social and urban problems–for many years.  Although the text of this book is necessarily abstract in places–explaining, for instance, the difference between traditional analytic approaches of “deduction,” and “induction” and design thinking approaches of “abduction” and design abduction”–the author is quick to remedy this through his use of case studies and helpful word-graphics. ((To fast-forward a moment to the topic of a future blog post or two, the basic issue here is a very big and momentous idea.  It is that our traditional methods of analytical reasoning, deduction and induction, “are not enough if we want to make something. If we want to create new things–or new circumstances–we need different approaches, for which even “normal abduction” (the reasoning pattern behind conventional problem-solving using tried and tested patterns of relationships) is insufficient.))

As explained in the series foreword by the editors of this new MIT Press series on design thinking and theory, design challenges today “require new frameworks of theory and research to address contemporary problem areas.”  Often problem-solving for modern challenges requires “interdisciplinary teams with a transdisciplinary focus.”  According to the editors, three contextual challenges define the nature of many design problems today.  These issues affect many of the major design problems that face us in whatever field we’re working.  They include:

–a complex environment in which many projects or products cross the boundaries of several organizations and stakeholder, producer, and user groups;

–projects or products that must meet the expectations of many organizations, stakeholders, producers, and users; and

–demands at every level of production, distribution, reception, and control.

Past environments “were simpler,” write the editors, and “made simpler demands.”   To meet modern challenges, experience and development are still necessary, but “they are no longer sufficient.”  “Most of today’s design challenges require analytic and synthetic planning skills that cannot be developed through practice alone,” they write.  What is needed, they say, is “a qualitatively different form of professional practice that emerges in response to the demands of the information society and the knowledge economy to which it gives rise.”

Designers today confront complex social and political issues, the editors note, quoting the work of Donald Norman, (“Why Design Education Must Change,” 2010).  What the authors are talking about is the fact that education today is not training professionals in ways to take integrated approaches to solve complex, inter-sector problems and imagining new futures.  The book by Kees Dorst is the first in the series and, based on this writer’s close reading of it, it represents an excellent start to this ambitious (and profoundly needed) project.

Dorst argues that society today is being “tripped up” by the “emergence of a radically new species of problem:  problems that are so open, complex, dynamic and networked that they seem impervious to solution.”  He writes:  “What all the news stories show us is that it makes no sense to keep trying to tackle these problems the way we used to.  The trusted routines just don’t work anymore.  These new types of problems require a radically different response.”

In the spirit of the focus of this blog–understanding “surprise” and the ways and whys for when we get “tripped up”–future posts will examine some of the important ideas in Dorst’s book.

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Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

The Resilience Dividend

coyoacan3

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (All Rights Reserved)

Island nations have been in the news alot lately, and not just because of the cyclone that hit Vanuatu recently.  There is new interest in islands and the subject of resilience.  It turns out that on this subject, conventional wisdom–as so often is the case–is not quite right.  Islands aren’t always more vulnerable and less resilient, according to some experts who will be speaking at an upcoming event, “Islands as Champions of Resilience,”sponsored by by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C.  At this event, the speakers will discuss replacing the prevailing notion of island nations as victims of climate change to “champions of resilience.”  I know of some people right now in island nations who would be very interested in these proceedings…

And since we have just discussed the concept of resilience in my class, and some people I know are presently preparing materials related to resilience, here are some notes on the subject.  This is a big subject and likely to spill over into a future post or two.

Rodin book coverIn her new book, The Resilience Dividend, Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, defines resilience as “the capacity of any entity–an individual, a community, an organization, or a natural system–to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.”  She notes that ideally one becomes more adept at managing disruption and skilled at “resilience building.”

The “resilience dividend,” according to Rodin, refers to new capacity that results from becoming more adept at managing disruption; as a result, one is “able to create and take advantage of new opportunities in good times and bad.”  Thus resilience is most definitely not about snapping back to the status quo ante.  It is not like a plastic ruler bent and then let go.  Instead, Rodin writes, resilience is “about achieving significant transformation that yields benefits even when disruptions are not occurring.”  The capacity for building resilience is one of the most urgent “social and economic issues” today, she writes, “because we live in a world that is defined by disruption”.  These disruptions run the gamut, from cyber-attacks, new strains of virus, a storm, economic surprises, a structural failure, civil disturbances, and so on, notes the author.

While there is nothing new about disruption, there are three disruptive phenomena that are “distinctly modern,” according to Rodin.  These are:  urbanization, climate change, and globalization.  These three factors are “intertwined,” she writes, and affect each other in a “social-ecological-economic nexus.”  And, “because everything is interconnected–a massive system of systems–a single disruption often triggers another, which exacerbates the effects of the first, so that the original shock becomes a cascade of crises.”  Rodin writes:  “A weather disturbance, for example, can cause infrastructural damage that leads to a public health problem that, in turn, disturbs livelihoods and creates widespread economic turmoil, which can lead to a further degrading of basic services, additional health problems, and even political conflict or civil unrest.”

According to Rodin, any entity can build resilience but “too often…resilience thinking does not really take hold until a galvanizing event or a major shock–such as Superstorm Sandy–brings the need into high relief.”  She describes her goal for her book as to help frame and contribute to the process of resilience by proving a template for thinking about, and methods for practicing, resilience.

Five Characteristics of Resilience

Rodin identifies five characteristics of resilience:

  • Being Aware
  • Diverse (different sources of capacity)
  • Integrated (coordination of functions and actions across systems)
  • Self-regulating
  • Adaptive

Being aware is first because without awareness you have no idea what your strengths and weakness are, what threats and risks you face…and have no concept of all the aspects of a situation, which can include “the infrastructural elements, human dynamics, and natural systems–and how they interconnect.”

Being aware is not a static condition because circumstances can change rapidly with proliferating secondary effects, Rodin writes.  The fluidity of the operating environment for most of us requires what she calls “situational awareness”–which she defines as an “ability and willingness to constantly assess, take in new information, reassess and adjust our understanding of the most critical and relevant strengths and weakness and other factors as they change and develop.”  Rodin describes several methods for enhancing situational awareness, and references what psychologists call “mindfulness,”  Mindfulness is described as “a flexible cognitive state that results from drawing novel distinctions about the situation and the environment.”

In order to be mindful, says one of Rodin’s sources on the subject, one needs to be able to develop “new mental categories, to be open-minded, receptive to different and new perspectives and new information, and to focus on processes rather than outcomes.”  In this way, a “mindful” person is “more able to understand situations as they actually are, not as you assume they should be or always have been” and “thus to respond more quickly and appropriately.”

All this is enormously relevant to people in any field anywhere, given the complexity of the systems that make up modern life and what many are finding is the inadequacy of most inherited frameworks for dealing with that complexity.  Future posts will come back to this subject as it is both central to what we are learning our class this semester and useful material for various projects of mine.

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