In Search of the Missing Elephant – Selected Essays

Denis Loveridge (Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 1 June 2012




Loveridge, D. (2012), "In Search of the Missing Elephant – Selected Essays", Foresight, Vol. 14 No. 3, pp. 272-273.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

These are two sharply contrasting books that bring out issues that plague thinking about the future under whatever title one wishes to conduct it. Aaltonen and his co‐authors attempt a philosophical discussion of the phenomenon of robustness, a long established notion in operational research and futures thinking. In contrast, Graham Leicester's selected essays from Donald Michael's portfolio of writings is simply that: to those long in the futures “game” Donald Michael's writings will be familiar.

“Robustness” is a collection of essays. Edited books run the risk of presenting widely different ideas in an incoherent way and that is the fate of robustness. In the thoughtful preface the term “chronotope” indicates the genre of the material presented. The Soviet literary critic Bakhtin formulated the notion of the chronotope to attempt to ascribe to language and anthropological analysis the flavor of Einsteinian space‐time. The intention was to give literature “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that it expresses artistically.” What counted for Bakhtin was the expression of “the inseparability of space and time.” However, in Aaltonen et al.'s book the chronotope does not act in an integrating way. The different threads are hard to follow amidst a pseudo academic cum supposedly philosophical discourse. The text is also badly edited making the book even less appealing to the reader. But what do Aaltonen and his co‐authors try to say in amongst the mass of impenetrable language? Robustness is a systemic property meaning the ability of a system to remain undisturbed in the face of uncertainty and discontinuity; it must have a high capacity for absorbing change in a way that is reminiscent of the ecological safe‐fail metaphor (Holling, 1977). The safe‐fail principle is not one that can be designed into a human contrived system but may, with some caution, be akin to Lovelock's Gaia theory that has described how the Earth has adapted to truly monstrous changes and will continue to do so until the solar system collapses. It is hard to understand whether Aaltonen and his appreciate that robustness is then not about change but continuity. The future is a form of “black hole” though the analogy should not be taken too far. There is a fuzzy event boundary, through which events appear, sometimes fleetingly, before disappearing again and sometimes re‐emerging to remain in view. There is nothing new in the book. Some of the material seems to have little or no connection with robustness. The combination of obscurantism, graphs without defined axes and a fixation on the methods of science, especially Newtonian, that are inappropriate to a field that is heavily influenced by art and qualitative perception makes this a book that is plainly difficult to read and unnecessarily so. To many people it will be hard to justify the effort needed to read the text in terms of the rather small reward for doing so: I derive no joy in reaching this conclusion following the considerable effort needed to complete a book. Sadly it is the only conclusion I can reach.

On occasions there seems to be an idea abroad that anything written more than ten years ago is of no consequence now as science, technology and social change have moved on so far and so fast. These assumptions about change are difficult to support and clearly Google do not judged by their contested effort to make out of print books available. Collections of essays, diligently gathered from the past, however selectively, as Graham Leicester has done in this small book of Donald Michael's essays, perform a valuable service. The five essays included in the book are “Technology and management of change” (1973), “Forecasting and planning in an incoherent context” (1989), “With both feet planted firmly in mid‐air” (1985) (a commentary on futures studies), “Leadership's shadow: the dilemma of denial” (1988) and “Some observations with regard to a missing elephant” (1998). All five essays have insightful gems that remain relevant to the world of today thirteen years after the last of them was written and nearly half a century after some of the earliest predecessors. For example, with respect to futures studies (with both feet planted firmly in mid‐air) Don Michael dwells on story telling, often now rejoicing in the world of scenarios, commenting that “well told stories about futures […] [will require] appropriate questions […] about a changing and turbulent world and to learn how to discover and evaluate temporary ‘answers’” a sharp departure from the ever present notion of problem solving. The last essay written in 1998, for an Honorary degree ceremony, is perhaps the most telling for the twenty‐first century. In it Don Michael uses the well known story of the Sufi, the blind men and an elephant in which each blind man is asked to feel the elephant and to give an opinion about the nature of the object. Each comes up with a different definition of the object, “what is out there”, depending on which part he had touched. The hinge of the story is the Sufi who can see the elephant and can appreciate the fumblings of the blind men. The question Michael asks is “What if the Sufi too is blind?” Perhaps there is no elephant. In that case the Sufi will not know what he's talking about. Translated into modern parlance this comes down to one of the four forms of ignorance (Rumsfeld, 2002) that plague the modern world and have become a major issue.

These are two strongly contrasting books. While both are collections of essays one (randomness) wrestles unconvincingly with the established topic of robustness: in the other (In search of the missing elephant) the essays come from long experience that is both broad and deep to expose issues that still plague the modern world some decades after they were first written. Perhaps the link between the two books ought to be Don Michael's conclusion that “all who create and use thinking about the future do so on the bases of values and myths about what is real, valuable and meaningful.” Thinking about the future remains an art form, painting pictures of something that does not exist but come from an engine of imagination based on current knowledge. The “black hole” of the future in which unknown unknowns, the deepest form of ignorance, reside cannot enter into thinking about the future but is the source of those events that escape across the event boundary to create those “impossible to predict” happenings that cause major discontinuities across the world when they do escape.

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