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  • Geoff Mulgan

Elephant safaris: organising meetings that help us grasp complexity

"Reality is one, though wise people speak of it variously" Rig Veda

You may be familiar with the ancient Indian story of the blind men and the elephant. Here I suggest how this story can be used to design meetings that help us get to grips with complex, many-sided phenomena. It's a suggestion partly prompted by having sat through too many deadly online conferences in the last two months (the bigger, grander and more self-important they are, the worse the quality seems to be).

The story – whose earliest form is a Buddhist text from around 500BC - has spawned many variants but its core involves a group of blind men who have never encountered an elephant before. Each gets a chance to touch one part of it and then tries to describe what the object is. One touches the trunk and concludes it’s a thick snake; another touches the ear and thinks it’s a fan; a third feels the leg and concludes it’s a tree trunk; a fourth feels the side of its body and says it’s a wall; the man who touches the tail says it’s a rope while the man who touches the tusk describes it as a polished spear. In some versions each then concludes that the others are liars and they end up punching each other.

I’ve heard several suggestions for using this story as a prompt for organising events that can enhance knowledge and improve our ability to understand complex phenomena without being trapped in disciplinary silos and narrow perspectives.

In the simplest version you invite a group of experts to discuss a topic, each from their own vantage point, and then discuss the overlaps and differences. Like the blind men each provides a partial picture, which the audience can then try to synthesise into something more whole.

Pandemics are an obvious live example, with very different perspectives from epidemiologists, psychologists, economists or political scientists, from people who have had the virus, or nursed others suffering from it. Cutting carbon and going to net zero is another very live example, which can be understood through the lens of engineering, the science of emissions, the psychology of behaviour change, the economics of incentives and regulations, the perspective of law and regulation or campaigning. Riots can be understood through the lens of history, crowd psychology, economics, urban design, sociology, political science and community organising. Similarly, slavery can be seen through the lens of history (ideally with historians of different eras and regions), politics, economics, sociology, psychology and literature (in 1900 a third of the world's population were slaves ...).

More abstract examples which I am working on right now are imagination – which can be grasped through literature, psychology, the history of science and futures studies – and, grandest of all, wisdom, with very different takes from philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, literature, history and computer science.

My suggestion would be to structure events, perhaps a couple of hours long, and ideally with food and drink, but bearable on zoom, in the following way:

First, a moderator introduces the topic (pandemics, net zero, riots, imagination ...). Then half a dozen people with deep knowledge (who could be university professors) describe how their discipline, profession or lived experience understands it – taking no more than 5-7 minutes each, with pictures if possible. Each speaker should then get a chance to comment on one other speaker for a couple of minutes.

If the overall group is large it should then break up into small groups of 6-10, to discuss which perspective they found most convincing or not, and why (for 20 minutes). There should then be time for a wider group discussion, including questions for clarification and challenge, for 30 minutes.

Finally each initial speaker should be given a chance to share how their understanding has been changed, with a closing wrap up at the end.

It’s a very simple idea. It can be extended - for example asking scientists from different disciplines to show their models and datasets, and set out how well (or badly) they can or can't explain or predict a complex phenomenon.

Since wisdom often starts from seeing multiple perspectives it might be useful. Once life returns to a semblance of normality I’d like to try it out at my new home in University College London, packed with extraordinary experts of all kinds.

(I’m grateful to Charles Tilly, Robin Murray and Barry Savory each of whom suggested similar ideas to what’s set out here)


Jun 10, 2020

I already use a similar format for " less complex" issues such as education. Looking at the Head teacher, Head of subject, teacher, and assessment perspectives, for instance, can be revealing. I suspect the same would be true looking at hospitals let alone the wider health challenges


Aditya Pawar
Aditya Pawar
Jun 09, 2020

I endorse this idea wholeheartedly. As I read this entry, I am preparing a discussion in Umeå, SE. We are calling it study-circles, a format organised around learning questions pertaining to knotty/wicked concepts and issues. The discussion is activated by municipal and university actors we call catalysts. The first topic we will cover is mobility justice. At the design school where I teach, we have also tried out a variant of the Knotty-Objects seminar originally held at MIT Media Lab. All in all, with the complexity and ambiguity in our times, standard knowledge exchange formats are inadequate. I would love to hear if others have tried out similar formats and what has worked for them.

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