Finding the right frame

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Entrepreneurial programs and other incubators encourage a narrow version of success. Focus on one problem, give it one solution. There is pragmatic wisdom to this approach, but is it enough to solve wicked problems? And if it isn’t, then what is the point?

I’ve always worked across multiple projects. For the longest time, I was embarrassed that I could not identify one industry, or name one role description. Yet wherever I found myself, it always felt like problems were not understood fully, and solutions therefore partial.

A friend was joking on his Facebook page: ‘We speak a lot about the progress of Artificial intelligence. What I’m observing is the growth of natural stupidity’. We have more and more data, for sure, but no more capacity to make sense of it.

In how to think, John Dewey describes two movements of the mind. ‘As analysis is emphasis, so synthesis is placing; the one causes the emphasised fact or property to stand out as significant; the other gives what is selected its context, or its connection with what is signified.’

We understand problems based on the frame we use. Finding the right frame is as important as finding the right definition within the frame. A signal is only significant within a system. And how are you gonna find the right frame, if you spend your life focusing on just one sector?

I always resisted the lure of the single project. Instead, I deliberately cultivate variety, in what I read, in what I hear, even in what I eat. So that I can be more able to detect weak signals in the noise, frame problems appropriately, and suggest original approaches to tackle them.

On categories

When I lived in Paris, I had a friend who worked in auction houses. He taught me this: “There’s a collector for everything. My art is to place an object in the category most appealing to collectors.” Is this chest of drawers an heirloom from a Belgian celebrity baron, or a rare piece of Art Nouveau furniture? Is this a letter about the first World War, or a rare autograph from a famous pacifist?

We carry categories in our heads, by which we make decisions. Breakfast food, lunch food, snack food. Person I could work with, person I could sleep with. There’s a collector in all of us. Some are simply more overt about it, or their collections are more immediately visible. What is yours? Dates, shirts, food photographs, or vintage teddy bears?

Our world is a complex web of relationships and comparisons: things, people, we rarely let them ‘be’: we sort and filter Or if we do let someone or something ‘exist’, it’s only because we decided that they should belong to that category, ‘things that are unique’.

As these networks intersect, constant struggles occur, to debate where things and people fit, and how they relate. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, useful, useless, familiar, foreign. It is a rhetorical battlefield with clear practical stakes, where strategies differ. Confrontation is one: my things are better than yours; another one is stealth: the things I want, let’s hide their true value from others; seduction is a third: the things you want are things I have.