A Smarter World

An Interview with Richard Ogle, author of Smart World
By Vern Burkhardt
We are making our world “smarter” all the time by creating more and more “idea-spaces”. Idea-spaces are those places, outside ourselves, where we store information, allowing us, as brain scholar Andy Clark says, to “be dumb in peace”. These spaces can be as mundane as a grocery list or as sophisticated as the computers that help spacecraft reach their destinations, do their jobs, and return to earth.

Richard OgleCreative breakthroughs, what we typically call works of genius, have mystified mankind for as long as the concept has been with us. In his book Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas Richard Ogle takes us on a thorough exploration of what might be behind those breakthroughs. He shows how by marshalling imagination, intuition, insight and intelligence and using them to navigate a variety of idea-spaces we better position ourselves to be creatively successful. By linking diverse idea-spaces and allowing ideas from one to influence another, new ideas can be generated.

He talks about the value of ‘hotspots’, those fertile idea-spaces that are quickly generating new ideas and inventions. Also good are “coldspots”, idea-spaces rich in opportunity because they lie quietly unexplored.

He says: “Some of the most significant creative leaps occur as the result of imaginatively transferring powerful embedded intelligence from one idea-space to another across a weak tie—in other words, between worlds that previously were relatively distant from one another.”

A great deal has been learned about how the mind works. And yet there remains a great deal to be learned about the mental processes involved in breakthrough creativity. I had the distinct pleasure of posing some questions to Dr. Richard Ogle about his ideas.

1. Question: You say that in the past people had no idea what changes were going to occur in business and science, or from what direction, and that in today's world this type of not-knowing is "increasingly intolerable". Why is it less acceptable now than in the past?

Richard Ogle:
Well, let me first qualify by saying that for many years now businesspeople have had tools at their disposal for seeing into the future. The problem is that these tools, which are largely analytical, don’t do a good job of anticipating the sudden emergence of game-changing products like Napster, or YouTube. This problem is compounded by the fact that in a flat, digitally interconnected world, change is happening at much greater speed, allowing less of a margin for error.

No company or business willingly goes blindly into the future, but now it’s becoming more essential than ever to see the future before it arrives, because when it arrives it may be too late to respond effectively. That’s the lesson the music industry is learning now at great cost.

2. Question: Change is now happening with ever increasing speed and impact. Where do you think this will eventually lead us?

Richard Ogle:
Digitally-driven speed-up plus globalization are bound to result in shortening the lifespan of many companies, large and small. Along with that, trends may also appear and disappear much faster. All of this will require better tools for “seeing round corners,” as Bossidy and Charan put it in Confronting Reality.

The current vogue is for more analysis—for example, analyzing micro-trends, crunching more and more numbers—but I’m not convinced this is going to really solve the problem. As I point out in the book, game-changing breakthroughs like printing, the personal computer, or the discovery of DNA result from the interaction of network laws and principles that give rise to non-linear changes in science, technology, and business. So my guess is that academics, consultants, and others who advise business executives are going to have to pay a lot more attention to network science in the future.

3. Question: You say we need to increase the use of our “less rational faculties”—namely intuition, insight and imagination—in order to be creative and successful now and in the future. Do you think integrating these faculties into our historically rational business world could lead to an ultimately more humane and compassionate world?

Richard Ogle:
That’s a very interesting question. Quite honestly, though I’d like to think that it would, it's hard to argue logically for such a position. History is full of leaders who used their imagination, intuition, and insight to achieve major success, militarily, politically, and in business. But I don’t think that what they produced was necessarily more humane or compassionate. That said, I do think we need to use our imagination more vigorously and effectively to envisage a better world and the means to achieve it. This was a point the late philosopher Richard Rorty made repeatedly.

4. Question: Do you think we are headed toward a future in which there will be less delineation between our professional and private personas and/or lives?

Richard Ogle:
I think that’s happening in various ways already. For example, because of ever more sophisticated digital communication technologies, many people now live in a 24/7 world in which they’re unable to decouple from their work even on vacation.

At the same time, the knowledge economy is also morphing into the creative economy, and that means that more people are finding or inventing work for themselves that is truly satisfying and that reflects and fulfills their personal ideals. Such people don’t experience the split between their professional and personal lives in the way most of us do. And they tend to use their imagination more.

5. Question: How can we cultivate those “three core mental capacities”: imagination, intuition and insight?

Richard Ogle:
First of all, we’re all born with a healthy capacity for these. Children, for example, don’t need to cultivate their imagination. The problem is, as a teacher said to me the other day, it’s often suppressed in grade school, where a focus on developing IQ, learning critical thinking skills, and absorbing facts tends to take over. We are also pattern-perceiving animals—from an evolutionary point of view, our survival depended on it—and intuition can usefully be defined as pre-conscious pattern recognition. Finally, without insight, intelligent behavior would be virtually impossible—we’d just be automatons with very little capacity to make sense of new situations.

Smart WorldThat said, we still need to use these capacities on a daily basis in meaningful ways. The trouble is that we’re taught in school and college that rationality for the most part trumps these capacities. Good scientists know differently, as do most truly creative people. But it's all too easy to fall prey to using analytical reasoning to deal with most situations. Part of the problem is we don’t trust our imaginative faculties—I’m including intuition and insight here. Leaders are repeatedly advised not to “trust their gut” but rather to “run the numbers” or do more analysis. They’re told “the vision thing” isn’t a good way to come up with strategic change. And they’re assured that the only good kind of insight is the kind that comes from analytical thinking.

The other part of the problem is that too few people are given time and permission to engage in truly creative thinking, where they can really exercise their innate imaginative capacities. And that becomes a negative cycle—the less you use them, the more difficult it appears to be to do so.

6. Question: It is interesting that great successes, such as the printing press and Barbie came to fruition because their creators linked knowledge from a number of disparate idea-spaces. Is the enduring success of such creations and inventions not also dependent on the fact that these new creations also feed into, or meet the needs of, other idea-spaces?

Richard Ogle:
Sure. Great, enduring inventions invariably wind up giving rise to the emergence of new idea-spaces that were neither involved with their development nor even envisaged at the time. That’s certainly true of printing—think of the scientific revolution—and the personal computer. Early models of computers weren’t conceived of as communication devices. Breakthrough products and services, not to mention scientific and artistic ideas, become hotspot idea-spaces in their own right, attracting further links through the principle of preferential attachment and exporting energy and ideas through these.

7. Question: You have explained a lot in your book about idea-spaces and how to navigate them. In the end you say it is necessary to use “intelligent imagination” to both find the good ideas and bring them to fruition. Is this type of intelligence a gift some are born with, can it be learned or nurtured—or must it remain a mystery? After all, part of the world’s charm is its mysteries.

Richard Ogle:
I’m a linguist by training. Noam Chomsky used to say that there are problems and there are mysteries. Problems are things we at least have some idea about how to solve. For example, we know which questions to ask. With mysteries, we don’t even know where to begin.

I think we’re all born with a degree of imaginative intelligence, and can cultivate it by undertaking challenging creative endeavors. So we can grasp it at a practical level. But right now we have a poor theoretical understanding of what this is. This is hardly surprising. The imagination has been largely neglected as a topic of inquiry by philosophers and psychologists over the last hundred years or so. And intelligence has largely been reduced to what can be measured by IQ tests. That said, I think that there is some hope that imaginative intelligence—the mental capacity to envision something that is both a leap forward and that gives us new power to understand and act effectively in our world—is beginning to move from being a mystery to becoming a problem that seems tractable. The twin emergence of so-called e-theory—the theory of the extended mind—and network science in the last decade or so is making this possible, though a huge amount of very challenging work remains to be done.

8. Question: Is intelligence contagious in any way? Or can it be taught?

Richard Ogle:
It depends how you define intelligence. If it's what IQ tests measure, it’s probably not contagious, but can be taught to some extent. That’s why there’s a controversy about intensive coaching for the SATs and other such tests that are based on intelligence in this sense.

Personally, I like what John Holt, one of the founders of the home-schooling movement, had to say: “Intelligence is not the measure of how much we know how to do, but of how we behave when we don’t know what to do.” That suggests to me that intelligence is partly a matter of one’s mood in confronting difficulties. It suggests confidence, boldness, openness to new ideas, a willingness to trust one’s natural mental abilities, including one’s imaginative faculties. And mood is definitely contagious.

We can also learn these things by working with others who share this approach. That’s why breakthroughs often come from certain highly creative environments, such as the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge, where Crick and Watson worked, or Bell Labs in the sixties, or Silicon Valley. As to whether intelligence, at least in the sense John Holt meant, can be taught, yes, I think it can, though probably not using conventional educational techniques. What is required is a much better understanding of the extended mind; that is, what it means to live in a smart world, how to surf networked idea-spaces, and how to let the space of ideas think for us.

9. Question: In your discussion about the work of Stuart Kauffman, a "mathematical ecologist", you say "there appears to be a direct congruence between the problem of the source of life itself and the problem of the nature of breakthrough creativity." And you quote him as saying "The natural history of life may harbor a new and unifying intelligent underpinning for our economic, cultural and social life." What a delicious idea! Where does your thinking take you when you consider this not just as a comment upon history and the present but as a recipe for the future?

Richard Ogle:
The congruence resides in the fact the fundamental phenomenon to be explained is the emergence of order, which is always much less likely than disorder. Kauffman’s solution to this conundrum is to posit the idea of "order for free."

In open dynamic systems, new patterns arise spontaneously as a result of the interaction of the component elements. Among other things, this is the basis of tipping points, the emergence of qualitatively new patterns from purely quantitative interactions. Order for free describes much of the outcome of network laws operating together, as described in detail in Smart World.

Looking to the future, as network science migrates over more and more into the humanities and social sciences I think Kauffman’s fundamental insight will take on new relevance. Specifically, critics of literature and the arts, economists, and social scientists may be more willing to shift to a systems approach. The current agent-driven approach, which underpins everything from rational choice theory to the idea of genius, will become integrated into one in which individual and group agents no longer play a uniquely central role in creative leaps, but rather continuously respond to the emergence of new dynamic, self-organizing systems that they themselves become part of.

More broadly, we are likely to transform our whole conception of the mind’s central creative faculties—imagination, intuition, insight, and intelligence—once we build into our accounts the idea of the individual mind as part of the self-organizing systems of the extended mind.

10. Question: You recommend people cultivate a deep and wide network of idea-spaces and “map out the major hubs that are connected to your business”. Can you comment on ways people might do this? What methods of exposure do you recommend?

Richard Ogle:
The term I use for this is "reading the world." Part of this is just staying well informed by reading good newspapers and business magazines. Personally I find The Economist invaluable as a way of keeping up on emerging trends. The important thing is to make sure you’re casting your net wide enough. Just staying informed about what’s going on in your industry is going to leave you blind to developments that come in from left field, such as YouTube. I read the other day about a Hollywood director who commits half a day a week to being briefed by an expert on some field that has no overt connection with the movie industry. That’s someone who’s really reading the world.

Be especially watchful for emerging hotspots that could become connected to your business, even though they aren’t now. Above all, make a concerted effort on an ongoing basis to imagine what the future is going to look like. Speculate freely about the emergence of new opportunity spaces that may suddenly arise as the result of unexpected convergences of idea-spaces.

11. Question: Our blindness and our clinging to the status quo seem to be innate, long-term attributes of the human animal. Do you think that with the increasing pace of change these characteristics may evolve out of us?

Richard Ogle:
Heidegger famously said that the space we live and work in, what he termed “the clearing”, reveals but it also conceals. The same is true of idea-spaces. Any idea-space reveals certain aspects of the world in a meaningful way while concealing others. The way to overcome this kind of blindness is to imaginatively move around in a lot of different idea-spaces.

As to clinging to the status quo, I think that we will be forced to change, in business at least, simply because those who don’t will (in Hamel and Prahalad’s famous phrase) move from being drivers to becoming passengers and then roadkill. Again, this puts a premium on speculating imaginatively and intelligently about the future. At KnowledgePassion, we are developing a variety of cognitive technologies to allow people to do just that.

12. Question: Genius has been a topic of interest to thinkers for thousands of years. Do you think the raw material of the human mind has always been the same or do you think it is evolving?

Richard Ogle:
That rather depends on what you mean by raw material. I doubt that from a strictly neuroscientific point of view the biological structure of the brain has changed that much during the last few thousand years. What has changed is the way we program our brains.

The mantra of my book is, “the space of ideas thinks for you.” Change the idea-spaces, as of course we have culturally and socially over the centuries, and you change how people think, and the kinds of thoughts and ideas they can have. What is evolving is the extended mind; that is, the set of all the idea-spaces we can live in and access. Does that mean more people can become geniuses? Well, if we train more young people in skilled surfing of the idea-spaces around them, encouraging them to boldly go where no one has ventured before, then certainly many more extraordinary ideas and discoveries will emerge.

13. Question: A few years ago I asked an erudite artist and teacher if he thought there were any new directions left for the visual arts to go. His reply was an enthusiastic “Yes, there is no limit”. Do you feel the world of business has the same infinite ripeness and potential?

Richard Ogle:

I can’t imagine what any substantive limit on the development of business would look like, unless the world simply ground to a halt. In an open dynamic system, like the one we live in, new opportunity spaces will inevitably keep emerging, and entrepreneurs will go on exploiting them.

14. Question: Do you see any area or areas of particular readiness?

Richard Ogle:
We now live in a “flat” world in which the global digital communications infrastructure, combined with basic digital technology still driven by Moore’s law, is producing unprecedented changes and therefore opportunities in the business environment.

Emerging green technologies will also provide a raft of entrepreneurial opportunities. Of course I’m not saying anything new here. From my particular perspective I’d say one of the biggest areas of development is going to be in designing effective tools for seeing the future before it arrives, and making sense of it. Again, that’s precisely what we’re working on at KnowledgePassion.

15. Question: We know science in general has rich fields of as yet undiscovered possibilities. Do you think the science of thought is still largely uncharted?

Richard Ogle:
Only a few years ago, there was talk of "the end of science." We don’t hear much about that anymore!

In the case of the mind/brain sciences I think we’re really only just at the beginning. Big strides are being made in neurobiology, but the scientific study of thinking and imagination has lagged far behind other scientific developments. The reason is too long a story to go into here, but there are some hopeful signs.

In my book, I make a point of singling out the work of Andy Clark, a professor of philosophy and mind/brain research at Edinburgh University. Clark is a leading proponent of so-called e-theory (for extended/embodied mind), a field I think is emerging as a very promising change of direction in the study of the mind and how we think and make sense of the world. From that point of view, we’re living in an exciting time, particularly if, as I suggest in the book, we can combine e-theory with network science.

16. Question: The fact that our environment is increasingly able to be a storehouse of knowledge and inspiration suggests an increasing connectedness to, and reliance on, the world around us. Are we becoming less and less independent? If so, is it a good or a bad thing?

Richard Ogle:
We’ve always been dependent on the environment of idea-spaces we live in. The rationalist tradition from Plato on through Descartes to the present day tried to free us of that dependence. Reason has its role in doing that, but so does the imagination. Unfortunately, for the past century, perhaps because of the rise in the prestige of science, we’ve stressed the former over the latter. The imagination has suffered neglect at the hands of philosophers and cognitive psychologists, as Colin McGinn points out in his recent book on the imagination. The important thing isn’t whether we’re dependent or not on the worlds/idea-spaces we live in—without them we wouldn’t have a mental life at all to speak of—but rather whether we have the means to transcend them when we choose to. That’s the role of reason, but also especially of the imagination.

In business there’s a lot of talk these days about "thinking outside the box," which again manifests a concern with being too trapped in a particular space. But the concept is misleading. The “box”—that is the idea-space we’re currently in—is precisely what makes thinking and action possible. Plato notwithstanding! The trick is to jump to a more powerful and interesting box.

17. Question: Today’s technologies allow us access to ever more idea-spaces world-wide. Even as things become more complex, these technologies make access to information and products simpler, creating more level playing fields. What do you think the benefits of this are?

Richard Ogle:
First of all, there are two problems here. One is infoglut—just the blogsphere itself is daunting to keep up with. The second is making sense of it all. Information doesn’t necessary wear its interpretation on its sleeve. That said, it’s a very good thing that because of the Internet, people the world over can have access to the same information previously available only to those in the industrialized countries. To cite just one example, skilled craftspeople in third world countries can now market their goods directly to retail outlets in the west, and thereby command much fairer prices.

But I think the biggest change is undoubtedly going to come in education. Personally I’m a huge fan of the One Laptop per Child initiative, which will allow children even in remote villages in developing countries access to all the ideas, texts, materials and all the rest currently available online. This will enable them to transcend the idea-spaces they were born in, and surf the worlds of the extended mind to their hearts’ content. We can only think wonderingly on what that may produce in the next two decades.

18. Question: Do you think the approach to problem solving and discovery described in your book would also work for the world’s big problems, such as aggressive religious fundamentalism, racial and cultural intolerance, starvation and the ultimate looming one, catastrophic climate change caused by continued use of fossil fuels?

Richard Ogle:
I would certainly hope so. There’s absolutely no reason in principle why the ideas and practices set out in Smart World relating to making creative leaps in thinking shouldn’t be applied to these kinds of problems. It's all a matter of using one’s imagination intelligently to envision new patterns of ideas and idea-spaces capable of opening up more benevolent, tolerable, and sustainable spaces to live and work in.

At KnowledgePassion, where we’re further developing the technologies of thinking set out in the book, our aim is to make these technologies available to not-for-profit organizations as well as businesses. Certainly, if you look at the way in which analytical reasoning has dominated our modes of thinking for centuries now, it looks like it’s time to develop powerful new technologies that can begin to address the scale and seriousness of the problems we now face.

19. Question: Given the dynamics of idea-spaces as described in your book what do you think, or intuit, may be the next hot or cold spot for you to explore as a thinker and writer? And why?

Richard Ogle:
Well of course, as the book makes clear, tipping points are by their very nature unpredictable, so you never know what interesting spaces are suddenly going to emerge that may begin to shape your thinking in a new direction.

Right now, I’m very much engaged, as a consultant and researcher, with the issue of how to improve the capacity of business executives and government policy makers to envision the future before it arrives.

There was an article the other day in the New York Times about how European officials have had to radically reassess their policy of generously subsidizing biofuels because of unanticipated problems, including increases of commodity food prices of up to 100% over the past two years. One official was actually quoted as saying that with a fuller picture of the pros and cons of various biofuels, “it was very obvious to us that we should not just push forward blindly”. Yet a lot of the time, that’s exactly what we do.

In the longer term, I’d really like to write a book about imaginative intelligence. In the latter part of the enlightenment, the imagination came to be regarded by philosophers as the most powerful faculty of mind. Somehow we’ve lost that perception, and I think it’s high time we returned to it.

20. Question: You refer to the “creative economy” and say it is beginning to replace the knowledge economy. And you say business leaders are increasingly relying on innovation rather than productivity as the key to expansion. Could you please explain this and how it relates to the fact we live in a smart world?

Richard Ogle:
Rather than trying to explain the advent of the creative economy during this interview, I’d refer your readers to Richard Florida’s books and articles on the subject. Business Week has also long been a proponent of innovation as the key to producing a vibrant economy.

So what does this increasing emphasis on innovation and creativity have to do with the claim made by e-theorists that we live in a smart world—a fact best encapsulated by Andy Clark’s saying, “Our brains make the world smart so we can be dumb in peace”? Well, if the world is full of embedded intelligence, that embedded intelligence represents a huge reservoir of largely unexplored ideas for us to tap into for creative purposes. Ruth Handler found the Lilli doll by pure accident, but it put her and her marketing team in touch with a rich series of idea-spaces relating to how women are perceived in regard to sex, clothing, gender roles, career, independence, and so forth. The result was the Barbie doll, a creative leap that transformed the doll industry.

The point is that as we move into the creative economy, the people who are successful will more and more rely on exploring the huge creative resources latent in the myriad idea-spaces around us, letting them inspire and guide their thinking. This is a very different, more entrepreneurial model of innovation than the conventional one of devoting huge sums of money to linear R&D.

21. Question: What projects or articles or books are you currently working on that we can look forward to as a sequel to Smart World?

Richard Ogle:
At KnowledgePassion I’m working with a team to elaborate what we call Smart World Thinking, a technology that enables businesspeople to improve their capacity to think imaginatively and intelligently about the future, and how to create products and services that will succeed in the emerging business environment. More generally this technology, based on integrating e-theory—which is to say smart-world theory—and network science, is aimed at enabling people to think more creatively and effectively about whatever problems they are facing. Examples might include getting unstuck from the place they’re in, dealing with blindness, transcending the boundaries of their current thinking, avoiding strategic error based on faulty views of how the future is unfolding, gaining insight into emerging situations, and so forth.

At some point all this will probably be embodied in a future book about imaginative intelligence, which I take to include intuition and insight.

A lot of research and thought have gone into this interesting book. Using the perspective of his own understanding Richard Ogle invites us to see, and function in, the world in a powerfully creative new way.

Dr. Ogle is Chief Scientist at KnowledgePassion. He has a PhD in linguistics from the University of California, Los Angeles and has taught at universities in the UK and the US.

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