Category Archives: Imagination

On innovative thought and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

During the week I listened to the first series of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy on CD. I have listened to the series hundreds of times before, the first time being the original radio broadcast on 2JJ when I was at school in Sydney. The radio series never fails to make me laugh or wonder at the clever storyline and characterisation.

But this week I also listened to the CD that explained how the original BBC radio series came about. Having listened to the CD a couple of times now, I can see that there are several knowledge management and strategic organisational issues that come across.

The creator, the late Douglas Adams, first had a thought about a hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy one drunken evening lying down in a field looking up at the stars in Innsbruck, Austria in 1970 or 1971. A few years later Adam’s creative, yet eccentric, writing talents and ideas were picked up by a radio show producer at the BBC who could see the innovative and creative talent of this chap Douglas Adams but wasn’t sure how it could be utilised for the best.

They met for lunch, discussed a few ideas, and the first formative writing of a series began. The initial plan was to have a series of single episodes with different stories but with the same ending. However, Adams looked to find a more satisfying and meaningful storyline that became a single series of episodes, continuing from one episode to the next.

Suffice to say, the first episodes were written (often on the fly, as Adams was renowned for his procrastination and late delivery of story content) and the first series completed. And of course, there was the whole production process working to complete a quality radio show – actor selection and voice recordings, taping and editing (using an eight-track tape machine – all pre-computer and digitisation) and the ingenious people from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who created all the sound effects. The radio series and subsequent books were an enormous success.

The point of this summation is this. An idea was born but that circumstances for that idea to become something tangible did not come into play until a few years later. Conditions and circumstances matter. Secondly, an individual with innovative thoughts and imagination is not always recognised or appreciated within the organisation where such an individual works. There needs to be awareness, recognition and vision. Fostering innovative thought needs a supporting environment, and open and attuned decsion-makers so that an idea becomes realised into something more than just a thought. Thirdly, the production of the idea into a tangible product also relies on the existing social and professional networks to bring people into the project in order to deliver a finished output – a number of actors and production people for the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy came on board due to friendships, university contacts, and having worked together on previous projects. Professional and social networks are important in the workplace.

I wonder what would have happened if Douglas Adams’ talents had gone unnoticed and unappreciated at the BBC. Imagine if the BBC hierarchy had simply said that “we don’t do that kind of thinking around here”. Would Adams’ Innsbruck idea ever have become anything more than an idea? Thinking beyond what is considered the norm or the usual is something we need to encourage if we are to fully realise innovative thoughts within organisations.

And in putting the various members of the production team together, could it have worked out as well as it did if not for all the networked connections between people and past associations?

Listening to how the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy came together has highlighted some key thinking that good knowledge management within organisations must take on board.

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On digital games

In late 2006 I met up with Euan Semple over a few hot beverages at the hotel I was staying in for my London visit to Information Online. As part of our discussion, Euan recommended the book, The kids are alright, by John Beck and Mitchell Wade (actually somewhat dated now). I bought the book in Charing Cross Road and it stood on my bookshelf at home in Sydney for some time before I got around to reading it late last year.

But before I read that book, my interest in online games was stimulated by a couple of items I haphazardly found on the web and downloaded for interest. One was a 2006 article on games and learning, and the second was a podcast by Richard van Eck of the University of North Dakota (USA) on the thinking behind the effectiveness of games in teaching and learning (I listened to the podcast again this evening and it is still very relevant).

Since then, I have read quite a few more articles on the topic and I am gradually changing my previously sceptical viewpoint about digital games. Now this is quite a revelation to me since I have always had the opinion that play and games are vital for learning. When I was at primary school and in the early years of high school, I made games myself with cardboard, cards, tokens, and spin-wheels. I created characters, currencies, and problems that were developed for the board games and I did all of this for fun. Moreover, my research to make the game and the rules was also fun!

But somehow, as an adult, I have clung on to the notion that board games are good and digital games are bad (and this is despite the fact that I spent considerable time playing Galaxians during my early university years, and becoming quite proficient I might add). I have held the view that board games are “more than just fun” but digital games are just leisure, not something to take seriously.

But I am now reviewing my attitudes more and more about digital games and learning. I have become much more interested in the role of digital games within the educational domain. To a lesser extent, I am interested in understanding and using digital gaming as another form of entertainment. I’d say my lack of spare time prohibits my full exploration of digital games for fun but the prevalence and variety of such games is astounding.

Having said all this, I have some doubts as to the effectiveness of online training systems. I have completed a few workplace-based online training sessions (funnily enough, most often dealing with compliance issues) but always felt that the learning session was more interested in checking off tick-boxes rather than any meaningful learning. Essentially, the online training sessions relied on the ability to memorise a few bits of information, answer the multiple choice questions, and move on. But did I really learn anything??

When it comes to digital games I am more positive given their emphasis on problem-solving in particular. It was therefore interesting to read today that gaming can indeed be a positive learning and thinking medium, using alternate reality games (ARGs) such as World without oil. Not only does the game look at dealing with real world problems like global oil deficits, but the nature of the game is indeed very collaborative.

The article cites Andrea Phillips, an ARG writer and producer, who says that the key appeal of these games is in the art of crafting a collaborative narrative. “Collaboration in storytelling is an old tradition, even older than print,” she says. “So you could say we’re working to reclaim something we lost hundreds of years ago when we first started recording narratives with pen and paper, and later with film.”

[And interestingly, there’s a conference next week on narrative and interactive learning to be held in Edinburgh, Scotland. Could be worth a look to anyone living in the British Isles. I have also been alerted to the 2nd European Conference on Games-Based Learning to be held in Barcelona, Spain, in October].

Digital games as a learning media are certainly gaining some traction. As the book, “The kids are alright” argued, our doubts and fears about the online digital space in which these games are conducted need to be re-examined in the light of the positive digital gaming taking place around the world. And like most things, the good and the bad are determined by the context, not the technology.

If we can use digital games for educational learning, and to generate new ideas by examining real world problems in a collaborative environment, then we should be supportive, shouldn’t we?

On cartoons for learning and knowledge management

When I was a kid at primary school, a favourite project of mine was cutting out the word balloons from cartoon strips in newspapers, pasting the cartoon strip down on white paper, then rewording the balloons with a story of my own invention. I remember that the Fred Bassett comic strips were a particular favourite.

One of the initiatives I am looking at in my knowledge management work at The Fred Hollows Foundation is the use of cartoons for knowledge discovery and for use in simple interactive games. It’s not a big focus for me at the moment, but the thinking is working away in the background.

My thoughts were triggered by a discussion last week at the Cognitive Edge course in which we talked about the displacement of personal stories into another character, thereby overcoming the potential reluctance to reveal negative experiences, in a non-threatening way. One of the exercises we did at the course was in developing a set of representational characteristics to develop an archetype. I am not necessarily looking to do the same thing, but I am interested in exploring cartoons (especially the word bubble variety) to generate story fragments for learning and knowledge discovery. 

Whether something comes of this interest in my current role remains to be seen. However, a cartoon character drawing of the iconic Fred Hollowswould be a great start (by the way, there’s a travelling information and photography display on tour through NSW public libraries about Fred – here’s the itinerary). Unfortunately, my artistic skills in caricature drawing are rather poor, to say the least!

My strong interest in the use of cartoons for knowledge discovery has an education side to it too. I remember many years ago when I worked at Australian Freedom From Hunger Campaign, we used a ventriloquist (his name was Kit, if I recall correctly) and his puppet to promote our development education message to primary school kids – a most successful and entertaining project for us. 

From puppets to cartoons and comics, how effective can they be in today’s world? How can I use cartoons in the context of developing more meaningful educational engagement with school kids and the youth market, particularly in the area of international development, blindness prevention, and the work of The Foundation?

I’d be interested in hearing if anyone out there in the big wide world has been actively developing and using comics or cartoons in international development education or youth engagement projects. Please feel free to make comments on my blog (if you’re the first, click on the no comments tag to start the ball rolling).

On imagination

I was reading this article about an address to Harvard University students by the author of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling. Rowling is quoted as saying:

“We do not need magic to transform our world,” she said. “We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already; we have the power to imagine better”.

Rowling addressed the fundamental importance of imagination – that anything is possible, and that imagination gives one the power to feel empathy.

On anything is possible, imagination truly is a wondrous gift. Yet I fear that it’s a gift that our social and political systems try to beat out of us (metaphorically) to conform to the “real world”.

Children have boundless imagaination. I well remember a science lesson in junior primary school in which we discussed the possibility of life on other planets in our solar system (back when Pluto was in the team). One of my classmates, Ian Ball, said that life could be on any of the planets, to which he was roundly shouted down – how could there be life on Jupiter or Pluto – ha, ha, ha! Ian replied that there could indeed be icicle men on Pluto! And of course, why not? Just because our human concept of life requires a certain environment does not preclude a system of life existing beyong our present knowledge. Afterall, look at what Star Trek and Alien and Farscape imagine is possible!

You can see how what happens with children who have tremendous imagination but have it gradually worn away by “growing up” – what we know in the present rather than what is possible beyond us.

The capacity for imagination in the board rooms of corporations, in the offices of politicians, proprietors, and principals, are sadly lacking today. Let’s deal with the present, they say, and hope that we may straighten out the future with the tools and thinking that have got us to where we are today. Yet the future is craving to be discovered through imagination.

And empathy? How can humans respond to people if they cannot share their experiences? They can share or approximate the experience by imagining what it must be like to be in the shoes of the other person. That is empathy. That is how we can feel connected, no matter who we are or where we live. It is why we need to think of the big picture as well as our own small worlds.

People like J. K. Rowling (perhaps a Jules Verne from another time) challenge the way we see the world. They challenge our thinking to see what is possible even if we can’t understand how to get there now. We must nurture imagination and we must learn how to use imagination to solve the present real-world problems and take on new opportunities.

Imagination is an asset that needs greater attention in our dealings with others and in looking beyond what we see and accept now. Let’s start using it!