How the 20th Century Rocked Our Foundations

From Danny Quah (Professor of Economics and Kuwait Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science):

At (the Penang Free School) I’d excelled in mathematics and science, but that is now only a small part of what I need to do to be a productive contributing member of the community. What matters more instead? A good sense of what is artistically compelling and linguistically convincing. A political awareness of what ought to matter to people in international society. Articulatenesss in writing and speaking, and an ability to debate effectively. Physical acuity and a feeling of confidence and security in my own skin.

The Limitations of Mechanistic Thinking

Though we may not be consciously aware of the models that are implied by our thinking, much of the language that forms our conceptual toolbox is still founded in 19th Century enlightenment concepts of mechanistic materialism. This is true even though science in some cases no longer supports some of these outdated common ways of speaking and thinking. This reductionistic rational foundation to understanding is quite different from Bakhtin’s dialogic approach that opened my last post.  Any first step in moving beyond this limited way of thinking and speaking must begin with better language rooted in a new dialogical paradigm.  Of course the materialistic mechanistic models are still very important, but our language should help us see where these models are appropriate and where they are perpetuating limitations that are holding us back.  As Danny Quah implies above; just when science is taking on an even bigger societal role; the role of a scientist is being transformed.

W. Barnett Pearce in Thinking about Systems and Thinking Systemically pointed out that Einstein, Godel, Wittgenstein and Whitehead; all began to expose the anomalies of a mechanistic materialism early in the 20th Century:

  • Einstein’s thoughts opened the world of quantum mechanics demonstrating the limitations of Newtonian mechanics.
  • Wittgenstein, in his Treatise on Logical Philosophy, wrote one of the clearest statement of logical and language. He always was against dogmatism and the presuppositions of philosophy and he understood that much of the real meaning we need was not to be found logical premisses, but in how people acted in everyday life. Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • Godel also found that any logical system could not be both consistent and complete. Kurt Gödel
  • Whitehead first sought a complete logical foundation to mathematics, only later to be inspired by quantum science and came to view his prior project in logic as wrongheaded. He moved on to revisit Process Philosophy; to understand the world’s foundation as dynamic and the world as an ongoing process. Science gives very accurate snapshots of that process, but in many situations we need to understand the process.

The assumption of scientific materialism is effective in many contexts, says Whitehead, only because it directs our attention to a certain class of problems that lend themselves to analysis within this framework. However, scientific materialism is less successful when addressing issues of teleology and when trying to develop a comprehensive, integrated picture of the universe as a whole. Alfred North Whitehead

Pearse reached the conclusion that;

. . . If the task is not so much to see how well our knowledge fits the Enlightenment criteria as to figure out what are the appropriate criteria for our knowledge, then we can move on with confidence . . . we should be less concerned about the hypotheses and propositions that we can assert than our abilities to enter into a wide variety of systems (or aggregates, or not-so-well-formed systems) and act effectively. The emphasis might well be on what we can do rather than on what we know – that is, on our ability to think systemically in the contexts in which we find ourselves.

Can Design Thinking Be a New Way of  Productively Talking.

In many ways I believe that good Design Thinking begins with an acknowledgement of these systemic anomalies, but I also think it needs to develop better foundations and conceptual tools so we can truly move beyond them. The shallowness of our common rational language often stands in bleak contrast to the depth of our experiential understanding and nowhere does this standout more than in design thinking. Hence, we get phrases like “playfulness”, “out of the box” all of which exist over there inside “innovation laboratories”. The challenge in both working in a design way, and in communicating this type of work with others, can be found in the inadequacies of these common ways of talking, thinking and acting; all founded in the language of the prominent techno-rational paradigms of the 19th Century. When we speak of “playing” at work we are straining against a common understanding of work that is not helpful for new ways of conducting our daily economic activities. Work is linear and object oriented within a specified process. The vast majority of today’s jobs can only be successfully accomplished if we act dynamically, relationally, cooperatively in dynamic processes and with an eye that seeks innovation.

These needs are all dialogical needs. Not only are most organization struggling to understand and support this new way of working, our very language steers us in the wrong direction, often without our conscious awareness of the contradictions that are created. If we need to think out of the box, what is the purpose of the box. Where do we find the boundaries of that box and can we feel really comfortable when we or our coworkers leave it. How can we be playful at work when work and play have opposite meanings. Do we need playing boxes and working boxes.  Can we really go between them and how do we derive our thinking boxes in the first place?  Are we not straining against the limitations of language conventions that are foreign to design thinking?

Boundary Crossing as a foundation of Design Thinking

Innovation often depends on serendipity as we dialogue with an entire world of people and ideas. A large part of an organizational Innovation lab might be termed a serendipity lab, but of course serendipity cannot be reliably found in the lab.  Even the idea of a laboratory is in some ways a reflection of a 19th century rational scientific mind set.  Design thinking requires working in environments and cultures that are multidisciplinary, multi-purposed and dialogic, that is, dynamic, relational and engaged, especially with others that might be alien to our own way of thinking. It requires a dialogic exposure that is well beyond the diversity of any organization, that crosses all organizational boundaries. To a great extent it is living on the edge and dialoging with others living on their own edges. How to do this will be the topic of my next post.