Situated meaning, a reflection

March 14, 2010

201003140853.jpg  I’m sitting in my room at The Residence in the Singapore Recreation Club looking out of the window onto the Padang. T. As happens in Singapore at this time of the year the heavens have opened and I can barely see the cricket club at the opposite end of the field through the downpour. The weekend softball tournament participants have all scurried into the pavilions in consequence. My iPod is connected to the rooms hifi system playing Adés opera The Tempest , I was lucky enough to be at the Premier in Covent Garden and its a favorite piece. I am catching up on email before moving on to complete a book chapter and thence to an evening reception for the RAHS conference.

The chapter title is Situated Meaning and it will appear in Palgrave’s International Place Yearbook I have argued elsewhere that the key source of power in the modern age is the ability to situate a network; which does not mean controlling a network, it means giving it coherence, a key distinction. A few years back at an Academy session in Washington I had presented my thinking on the use of complexity theory in knowledge management. I had two respondents, Max Boisot and JC Spender. The later suggested that the key aspect of my presentation was the recognition than the idea of meaning had become problematic. That comment has stayed with me since, it was insightful and something that I hadn’t recognised. JC has this really interesting idea that words/concepts become problematic when we reach the limits of our understanding. He argues that this happened with knowledge in the late 80s and thus gave rise to knowledge management. I think JC was (and is) onto something here. Meaning is a complex issue, we need it, we imply shared meaning in our communications but we rarely think it through or articulate it. I am reading Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life at the moment and he references Wittgenstein referencing Lear: I’ll teach you differences. Differences are critical to meaning, if we can’t distinguish between things then knowledge is impossible. Creating distinctions however does not mean creating barriers.

So how does all of this connect together? Well the Padang is an interesting place, it was laid out for recreation by Raffles who founded Singapore as an international centre for trade. The Cricket Club at the far end, from and centre of the view from my window and slightly to the left of centre in the photograph, was a colonial institution. The Recreation club was founded by Euroasians excluded from that club. Singapore has since its foundation almost 50 years ago fallen between cultural boundaries. It provided a safe place for European and American companies to set up in the Far East, it became the centre of a complex set of relationships that gives it influence beyond its physical size and population. It has the highest rate of inter racial marriage of any country in the world; overcoming that most ancient of taboos is a tribute to enlightenment. Increasingly it is a centre for biotech, providing the type of resources to researchers that are difficult or unnecessarily encumbered in the US and UK. It has understood that ownership is not the paradigm of the modern age, instead its access to knowledge, the ability to integrate and connect, to serendipitously synthesise different bodies of knowledge. OK its not perfect, there are too many engineers trained in too many US institutions for one thing. Net result the best airline and airport in the world, but creativity and invention are more problematic.

I’ll quote from a published speech of Peter Ho, Head of the Civil Service here and one of the most enlightened people I have had the privilege to work with over the years.

While Trust is why people will consider Singapore, and Knowledge the reason why they will do business with us, we also need people who will walk with us…..

…To achieve this, we have to move beyond the functional and utilitarian, into the emotive and culture. We need to take a more coherent and deliberate effort to manage our national brand. But more than branding, we must be prepared to seek real changes in strategy and policy. This means making a sustained effort to build and maintain links with people who have studied, worked of lived here. It also means changes in our education system to develop a more international and cosmopolitan outlook among our young.

…we also need to move beyond being efficient in implementation towards being more flexible, more nimble, with strong bias for action

Now this illustrates the point I am making, to situation meaning is not to own physical things, or to control flows. Its a dynamic concept that recognizes the constant fluidity of the evolutionary potential of the present. We manage that though interactions and connections; a constant series of safe-fail experiments that focus on dynamic linking of concepts and issues, of ideas and problems to allow the emergence of meaning. One of the reasons I love the Adés opera is the way it respects the text of Shakespeare, but builds on it. I have a growing collection of fusion art; paintings and sculptures by indigenous artists using modern techniques. Singapore in terms of ideas (and food, this is the cuisine capital of the world) understands fusion.

The RAHS conference which has brought me here is now in its third manifestation and was Peter’s creation. It provides a focus for work on horizon scanning and I am looking forward to meeting old and new friends. My job at the conference is to attend, listen and then summarise the event in the final session. I was chair of a stream eighteen months ago so I think I have been promoted! That probably means I can’t conference blog as I will need to focus, however I will post a series of reflections over the period.

Picture from the Flickr photstream of Lipjin, acknowledged with thanks

Recent Posts

About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


< Prev

The vexed issue of language

In our work at the Foundation, we have developed a language of our own with ...

More posts

Next >
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram