Innovation in unexpected places

Spent part of last weekend at the annual conference of the British Society of Dowsers – the folks who do water-divining (‘water-witching’ in the US) and similar skills. I’ve worked with them at various times over the past thirty or more years, and as writer I’m probably best known in that field, with some half-dozen books to my name on various aspects of the subject. But although I do know how to do it, and have done some useful work with it in my time, I wouldn’t describe myself as much of a dowser these days: more a theorist or methodologist, really. My real interest there is that it’s one of the best test-cases for identifying the processes by which people learn judgement and awareness – the key components that are common to every skill.

Being an ‘alternative’ field, dowsing does suffer from more than its fair share of kooks and flakey ‘New Age’ types, but at present there’s a much stronger emphasis on practicality, professionalism and discipline – hence my book on Disciplines of Dowsing that I co-authored last year with archaeographer Liz Poraj-Wilczynska, and a set of related articles (see summary [PDF]) that we wrote for the society’s journal, which was the reason why I was at the conference. An interesting bunch.

So for me it was no surprise to find some innovative ideas there – some of which were definitely relevant to other fields, including business-architecture and enterprise-architecture.

One which bridged the gap between dowsing and technical world was a lovely Google Earth ‘mashup’ by Hugo Jenks, linking traditional dowsing techniques to current GIS (geographical information systems) with a purpose-built embedded-controller and an ingenious software hack. One of the standard dowsing techniques uses a single horizontal rod with a vertical handle as a mechanical amplifier to highlight small hand-movements. Hugo had made up a version of this with twin sensors to record the deviation either side of straight-ahead (the dowsing ‘signal’); he then fed this in real-time into a laptop which also had a GPS card to record position. A button on the dowsing-rod handle could also be used to trigger a GPS ‘waypoint’ marker to record specific key points of interest. With this array, he was then able to map the signal – again in real-time, if required – onto Google Earth, as a direct trace of response. A simple grey-scale indicated response-intensity, using a mid-grey as neutral, with white and black as the two extremes. The demonstrator video showed a clear mapping of below-surface structures on an archaeological site. Given the increasing use of dowsing in archaeology as a rapid non-destructive survey technique, this looks to be a really useful addendum to that toolkit – especially as this approach enables us to do away with the cumbersome stick-and-string survey-grid typical of many site-surveys, and also allows arbitrary granularity of search. Interesting.

Somewhat earlier I’d had a lengthy conversation with an engineer (whose name I forgot to record, much to my chagrin) about Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model – one of the cornerstones of systems-theory in organisations, that I reworked into a whole-of-enterprise ‘viable services model’ for my book The Service-Oriented Enterprise. This guy had done his Masters degree with Raul Espejo – Stafford Beer’s right-hand man on the Cybersyn whole-of-nation information-system in Chile in the 1970s – so was able to tell me a lot more about that ground-breaking work on organisational complexity.

Finally, an excellent conversation with an architect (Elizabeth Phillips or Catharine Fortlage, I think?) about physical architecture supporting organisational architecture, and the need to link the organisational silos or ‘tribes’:

Design the floor-plan to be like a wandering path through the jungle; each tribe has its own patch, its own personal space, yet there are shared ‘watering-holes’ – neutral spaces owned by everyone and no-one – where anyone from any tribe may meet any other.

This reminded me of some work we did a few years ago with state-police in Australia, where our brief from the executive was to create a metaphoric ‘totem pole’ to “unify the tribes” within the police-force itself. That conversation pointed me to the burolandschaft (literally ‘office-landscape’) movement of the 1950s; then to a really useful 1993 article – “A Vision of the New Workplace” – on the impact of management-theories such as Business Process Reengineering on office-design; and thence to ‘Origins of the Office’, another useful resource on working environments, office paradigms and interplay between management-theory and workspace, embedded in a website by architects Caruso St John for the Arts Council of Britain.

The moral of this story? Innovation and ideas can arise from anywhere, and the most useful ones often arise from unexpected places. As Louis Pasteur once put it, “in the field of research, chance favours the prepared mind”; if we only allow ideas to come from the expected places, we’re limiting our chances!

1 Comment on “Innovation in unexpected places

  1. Many thanks for the generous comments on my device. I have placed a brief video describing it on the Dowsing page of my website. Hopefully it will be an invaluable tool, for accurate and efficient recording of results in a repeatable manner.

    Thanks also for spending time with me, describing the various pitfalls that a novice dowser needs to avoid. I am taking note of the experience encapsulated in “The disciplines of dowsing”.

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