Knowledge is the condition of understanding something that is meaningful, and potentially useful in some capacity. As such it is deeply subjective. What may count as knowledge for one sentient being may not have the same meaning for another. In other words, objective truth for you may not be the empirical truth for me.
Existing at differing levels of cognition and aptitude, knowledge ranges from autonomic information acquired both prior to and following birth, data absorbed on a second-by-second basis, mostly utilitarian in nature, that allows us to think and take action in real-time, information we discover through practice, intentionally and otherwise, and sudden insights or epiphanies that hold the deepest ontological meaning for us personally.
Although our society institutionalized learning in terms of front-end loading experiences as the basis for cognitive development, via models of compulsory schooling, for example, acquiring knowledge is a quest to which there is no end.
Most people feel uncomfortable using this definition of knowledge and not just because it signifies there can be no universal truth. The lack of certainty can be disturbing, especially when individual perspectives and practical experiences clash, thereby creating cognitive dissonance, or when bias enters the equation — which is actually most of the time.
Knowledge, along with knowing or not knowing, have been the source of most challenges facing the human species through the ages. We access knowledge in making decisions all day, every day — decisions that deeply impact our lives, and the lives of those around us.
Once we resolve more fundamental problems, like survival for example, and deal with the many trivial matters that occupy us, like how to spend our leisure time, whether to follow a religion or not, or when to embark on that new exercise regime, we are confronted by any number of more profound knowledge issues on numerous fronts — from figuring out who our real friends are, to what can be done to make the world a better place.
Today we live in a world of profound disruption, A world in transition between industrial models and practices and new, as yet unused, futures. Four learning-related hurdles stand in the way of assuring a positive metamorphosis and outcomes:
1. Habituation, satisfaction with the status quo, ennui concerning most forward views, and our linearly compressed experience of progress and time, have conspired to generate a crisis of imagination. It is not that we have lost our innate capability for transformative change, it is simply that we do not have the energy any longer, least of all the impulse to step into new ontological frameworks as the basis for change. It has all become too tiresome. And we have now come to deem it unnecessary.
2. Only now are we beginning to comprehend the complexity of a world in which we, as a single species or family, comprise myriad cultures, beliefs and truths. There is a need to act together, from a shared sense of unity and legitimacy. Unified action cannot derive just from an accrual of individual experiences. Rather, it must evolve in terms of our collective knowledge of the human condition, in its context, taking note of the need to embrace culturally distinctive viewpoints when interpreting or translating the emergent civilisational narrative. We are not set up, nor sufficiently organized, to achieve such unanimity. The urge to compete is a hindrance. It gets in the way.
3. As we constantly fail to address the planetary crises impacting all 7.7 billion of us, it is becoming clear that the intellectual processes we use to enquire, reason, discuss decide, and act are insufficient for our needs — particularly given the complexity we have knowingly created. In some ways our capability to think and act expediently, and in harmony, has been surpassed by the digital intelligence we have invented. We might have reached the edge of our ability to solve wicked problems. If so, it is possible we are all in a cognitive gridlock from which we can only be released by using machine intelligence in conjunction with new methods for the renewal of our most ingrained belief systems. Resistance to this idea is common. Nobody likes to be told their thinking can be improved.
4. Our civilisation is comprised of a richly diverse milieu of cultures, values, and tribal mindsets. There are as many different epistemologies in this pluriverse as there are individuals. While such variety should be a cause for celebration, the ensuing lack of tolerance has resulted in conflict and war. The sad truth is that opportunities for each individual to express what it means to be human in their own inimitable way, conflicts with the desire held by those in authority to enforce universally-applicable societal standards, practices, laws and norms. Equally, while some form of global governance is essential in dealing efficiently with pandemics or climate change, for example, ordinary citizens object to the loss of state sovereignty this implies, which they mostly associate with feelings of patriotism and excessive national allegiance.
So, we are left with apathy, competition, a rebuttal of alternative thinking, and ingrained prejudice. If the future of the human project depends on the application of fresh insights and wisdom, this is hardly a great place from which to start.
Facing up to this evidence the question now becomes: How can we break free from those prisons of invention we have unknowingly assembled in order that ignorance and bigotry can be set aside?
Totalitarian-imposed governance might be one way. But even the many far right-wing-leaning autocrats in power today are repulsed by that proposition. They are not about to give away their hard-won authority without a fight. A reformed UN? Doubtful. Toothless tigers are one thing. But states are not yet ready to hand over sovereignty to a powerful global government with veto powers. A social grassroots revolution is equally unlikely. So where does that leave us? Hmm…
What if we are not looking in the most relevant spot? Sometimes it is not the façade that requires restructuring but fundamental practices. Morphological analysis of the rituals and procedures in an entity like the Australian parliament, for example, points to the need for a broadening and deepening of knowledge within the organisation — not another round of new, expensive, exterior changes that are unlikely to improve its overall effectiveness.
If, instead of ideologically-shallow parliamentary debate, we concocted a more nuanced discourse that allows for subtle shades of grey to emerge, how might that reframe public policy?
If instead of artefacts from the past staring down at company directors sitting in their leather chairs, board meetings were held in immersive visualisation environments, to what extent would the ability to simulate alternate strategic patterns aid ethical corporate governance?
And instead of an army of bureaucrats attempting to negotiate reductions in emissions at annual COP extravaganzas, why not commission one hundred of the world’s brightest to put their heads together — 50 men and 50 women across all generations and nationalities. By using an online stage like run-the-world, governments would be able to vote instantly on actionable policies instead of aiming at zero-net emissions by 2050.
Would that lead to more effective outcomes? The answer to all three of these questions is a resounding yes! We have ample proof.
So instead of modifying existing international bodies or instituting new ones to assume existing roles and expand present-day operations in impotent entities like the UN or the WHO, perhaps we should firstly try to upgrade their cognitive capacity by supplying them with a range of new conversational methods and decision tools. There are many models from which to choose — including appreciative inquiry, integral theory, and causal layered analysis, for example.
One “soft” solution that warrants further investigation in this context is the new approach to structuring and processing cognition developed by Marvin Oka and myself for use by the Centre for the Future and its members.
I have always found it helpful to imagine the total expanse of human knowledge — past, present and possible — as an ocean in which different life forms co-exist, currents and tides generate motion and fluidity, and numerous external factors, such as the sun, moon and weather events, determine every granular detail — from salinity and heat, to erosion and hydrothermal vents.
Using the ocean as a metaphor we can examine the differing knowledge states that exist, or must be acquired, depending on your degree of interaction with the ocean. A swimmer will be conscious of the need for surface information, vital for staying safe and close to the shore. Tidal and other data will be used by fishermen using driftnets to steer them to the best locations. Deep sea divers, on the other hand, need a more complete picture of the ocean using sonar devices to map its topology, ecosystem dynamics, and the geology of the sea floor.
These three parties ask different questions of the ocean because they are motivated by a need for different information from which they can then make decisions. The same is true of any category of person requiring specific knowledge. Prior to any interrogation of data, and in order for any inquiry to be viable, we must know what kind of knowledge is called for, where we can find relevant information, how it can be verified, and what we can do if it is not available. That is where learning comes in.
In 1984 David Kolb described the experience of learning — an instinctive cycle we use in the course of an average day to make decisions, as the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Kolb identified four discrete stages: sensing a concrete experience; making sense of that experience by reflective observation; designing an appropriate response; and actively experimenting with those responses.
In 2010 Richard Bawden developed this basic model in his benchmark study of learning as a social system. Bawden’s seminal insight was that learning was a social function and was therefore intimately related to communities of practice and, consequently, of prime importance to those working in fields ranging from city development and agriculture, to education and public policy.
I found Bawden’s model inspiring and instantly set about integrating his model into my own parallel inquiries. The result was a conversational process I named Odyssey from its exploratory nature. Odyssey is a process predicated on the need to link experiential and conceptual states in order to improve and amplify possibilities in terms of design.
By tracing a recursive and iterative path between exterior and interior realities, invalid and misleading observations, in addition to obsolete assumptions, values and beliefs, can be exposed and transcended, new wisdom given legitimacy, and resilient systems designed around the intention to consciously evolve on the basis of whatever novel design criteria seem most appropriate.
On a more obvious level, Odyssey merges experiential learning about the external world of behaviours and systems (a cycle, as we have seen, comprising sensing, making sense, designing and enacting) with transformativelearning about the internal worlds of beliefs and cultures (a cycle of deconstruction, deep reflection, renewal and legitimation). This latter process would be more familiar to those working in community development or undergoing therapeutic counselling.
At this stage we began to talk about various ways of bringing data to life. We began to take Odyssey into immersive decision theatre environments where digital technology, together with high resolution imaging and augmented reality, allowed us to visualize complexity, play with dynamic patterns, and simulate foreseen and unforeseen consequences in alternative design fictions.
Although each discourse we curated at this stage was by far the most sophisticated I had personally encountered, we began to challenge the lack of other dimensions, particularly vis-à-vis time which was needed if we were going to step into new epistemes of inquiry.
At that stage we added a second infinity loop. Epiphany is the flow of macro-history from the present, via the present moment — which we refer to as the here and now — and out into potential futures. Epiphany delays (or interrupts) any impulse for action without adequate reflection. It achieves this through an exploration of past, present and possible issues and influences, from a variety of levels. As new narratives, literacies and practices evolve from this process the ideas themselves begin to express a paradigm shift to cultural renewal and conscious evolution.
Because the conversational space was already getting a little overcrowded at this stage, we imagined the two infinity loops intersecting at 180 degrees: Odyssey cycling from right to left in front of us, constantly ebbing between concrete and conceptual worlds, and an expanded “now” of consciousness — Epiphany — accelerating from the deep past, through our present point of alertness, and reducing speed as it flows in front of us into future decades and centuries. The importance of this added time dimension cannot be exaggerated: it had the dual function of speeding up our learning metabolism, from the inclusion of large-scale trends from the past, while simultaneously slowing it down in order to reflect on possible future patterns.
By now, we realised the power of the model was potentially unlike anything we had ever encountered in facilitated dialogue. It was creating an almost infinite conversational space in which we could forensically interrogate countless human activities, events, structures and decisions.
But there was still a missing piece to the puzzle — particularly in terms of morphological relations within and between various information domains. While it was always easy enough to talk about surface phenomena, especially those more easily observed, a lack of imagination and experience in using alternative contextual frameworks made it difficult for learners to transcend their own ingrained ontologies and epistemological preferences.
This missing morphological analysis we depict as an iceberg — which is why I started this essay in terms of oceans of knowledge. The iceberg is the central fulcrum on which both Odyssey and Epiphany loops are finely balanced. Try to imagine the entire conceptual structure floating in an ocean of possibility.
These two interwoven strands, poised on the morphological iceberg, bobbing around in an ocean of actual and potential knowledge, define four basic conversational domains. Topics within these domains can be examined from differing altitudes and through a variety of lenses. The most common of these are the interior-exterior and the individual-collective filters, derived from Ken Wilber’s integral theory, which I have written about extensively in describing the cycle of desire and consumption in which we are trapped.
Observable events appear in the tip of the iceberg. Our awareness of surface activity is often a distraction because we can only react to its presence. Yet most news items and policy formulation are attracted to this veneer. Everything happening below the surface is treated as a lower risk, when in fact, the deeper one dives, the greater meaning can be found. In the knowledge ocean, the fisherman will see patterns that he must anticipate and the tidal dynamics that can lead to an improved understanding of where to find the fish. But only the deep-sea diver, cocooned within a mini-submarine exoskeleton, can truly grasp the secret subterranean crevices and mysterious life-forms that occupy the deep.
This symbol of the iceberg, with the bulk of the structure hidden under the water, points to levels of knowledge and related understandings that will be needed if we are to find adequate solutions to certain problems — depending on their closeness to the surface of our awareness. It also indicates the kind of action we might take given the kind of inquiry we are able to conduct. And it implies the degree to which we can alter and shape more fundamental aspects of the human condition, if we have a mind to.
By their very nature, global-scale socio-economic and political transitions demand the ability to create new knowledge, then use that knowledge to turn conversations that matter into actions that make a difference. Discourse that is radically honest, courageous, expansive and out-of-the-box. Discourse that take you in surprising directions and that opens up entirely novel possibilities.
Sadly, strategic discourse of this kind is mostly missing in organisational and public life at a time when it is most needed. Organisations from local and state governments to the UN and WHO are trapped in a cognitive gridlock. Unable to break through this threshold they continue to use politically-correct, time-honoured practices, including routines that make matters far worse. This is why these organisations, founded in less chaotic times, albeit with good intentions, have reached the limits of their capacity to solve humanity’s most existential problems.
This method, which we call the Wayfinding experience, is by no means the only solution that has been developed to help reframe cognitive, discursive and design activity. Nor is it recommended for investigating complicated phenomena. It is tricky to curate and taken out of context can be confusing. In practice a little knowledge can so easily overshadow the flow of free dialogue that is essential for effective strategic design.
On the other hand, it is engaging and reveals complex structures with ease. The strength of the curatorial approach, unlike conventional facilitation, means that participants remain unaware of the varied processes informing the experience in which they are immersed. To them it is simply a richer than normal conversation that is challenging and enlightening. An alchemical experience that resonates in the memory only because it allowed them to be at once a swimmer, a fisherman and a deep-sea diver in an unexplored, previously unfathomable, knowledge ocean.