Monday, March 19, 2012

The Age of the Generalist

Over the last few weeks I have been struck by how stuck professionals are in their expertise... The most confronting of late has been the medical profession with whom my wife and I are working towards the birth of our first child; negotiating our way between the mid-wife-led natural birth community and the conventional medical fraternity of obstetricians, medical aids and hospitals. Both camps seem to lack the flexibility of thought to adapt and allow us to walk a path between them, drawing from each side as it suits our particular need and preferences.

This same inflexibility of thought is something I have witnessed in the engineering profession and it appears to be of epidemic proportions in our 'specialist' areas of knowledge. Our modern approach to most things has been focused on increasing levels of specialisation to the point where there are few real mavericks/thinkers/jokers/game-changers left on the implementation side of life. By the time a professional can call themselves that (read engineer, lawyer, doctor etc) they will have studied and/or been a candidate-whatever for at least 7 and as much as 10 or 12 years... No wonder they feel the need to hold that hard-won ground so fiercely...

And in this stagnant marsh of specialist turf-war thinking, the shining lights are the people who can tell the whole story, bringing in the relevant areas of detail as required, but all the time keeping a broad narrative which reflects real life in all its complexity. It is these yarn-spinners who are the real hidden gems, who keep our disabled institutions limping along with promises of a new story.

In the sustainable design business we spend a lot of time talking about integrated design, yet our approach is still heavily focused on specialists each doing their bit (while at least talking to each other) we have not yet leveraged the power of true generalists and story tellers in our approach to design. In other words, we are getting to grips with multi-disciplinary approaches, but havent yet got to the trans-disciplinary approach of those disciplines which pursue an understanding of societies, communities and eco-systems and can put design in context. And context, my friends, is everything.

Which is why I'm looking forward to a new age; the age of the generalist... I want people who have enough understanding of the details to keep the specialists honest; but as a priority are able to provide context to design. We should look in the fields of anthropology, ethics, peace studies, ecology and the arts for those thinkers with the breadth of understanding to ask not just what is possible, but also what is right, appropriate and fitting. People who can describe our preferred futures in broad terms and help navigate the path to get there.

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