Is “cathedral thinking” still feasible?
The recent fire at Notre-Dame de Paris recalled to mind a concept I’ve thought a lot about over recent years: cathedral thinking.
The basic concept, articulated in a nice talk by Rick Antonson, is that in the Middle Ages, architects and builders would commence work on a cathedral such as Notre-Dame fully aware that they would not live to see the project’s completion. Notre-Dame took at least 150 years to effectively complete (which is quick compared to some other medieval cathedrals), and there were numerous additions and expansions during the following centuries. Antonson seeks to highlight and celebrate this form of long-term thinking—the kind that pursues a legacy project that will take decades or even centuries to accomplish, and that will outlive its creators.
I fully agree with his sentiments about the power and worth of cathedral thinking, but I’ve been wondering lately how feasible it really is in the 21st century. Have the changes in modern society so shrunk our field of vision that we simply can’t pursue these kinds of ambitious, multi-generational projects anymore?
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Here’s an important point: in the Middle Ages, there was little if any sense of “progress.” Technological innovations were few and far between. Meaningful political change was almost unheard of. People looked to the past for guidance and clung tightly to tradition.
Medieval folk pursued the same sorts of occupations and lived in the same sorts of societies for centuries. An adult had no reason to believe that their children, or grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren would live a life substantially different from theirs. The world seemed largely unchanging.
Also, the perception of time was radically different back then. There were no clocks to relentlessly drive people, keeping them tightly on schedule. Instead, people lived by the natural rhythms of the day and of the seasons. While our modern society has become increasingly enslaved to the relentless ticking of time—we measure it not just in hours but in minutes and even seconds—such measurement was absent from the Middle Ages. People instead acknowledged time in broader strokes: the changing of the seasons, the cycle of births and deaths, the transitioning from one monarch to the next. As such, their horizon stretched far further into the future.
Finally, there was the religious motivation. Medieval Christians knew life to be harsh and unforgiving, but they held out hope for an afterlife, and this desire to reach paradise motivated them to glorify God and build works to honor him while they were alive.
Religion, despite the doctrinal conflict it also incited, was an inspirational idea and a unifying factor that brought people together in the service of something greater than themselves. It encouraged people to live not just for the present, but for the eternal future, and so again the time horizon was expanded.
These conditions greatly facilitated cathedral thinking. Because people did not expect the future to be radically different, because they were more used to thinking about time cyclically instead of linearly, and because they were inspired to celebrate and pursue causes far greater than themselves, they were eminently capable of building cathedrals that could take much more than a century to complete.
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Life in the 21st century is vastly different, in many ways even the polar opposite. Whereas medieval folk looked to the past, we look to the future, which we hope will be better but know will be radically different. The rate of technological change has intensified such that each decade seems light years beyond the previous one. Whereas the difference between the years 1100 and 1200 was negligible, the difference between 1900 and 2000 was enormous, and even the difference between 2000 and today is almost as substantial.
We live in the era of what Alvin Toffler called “future shock.” There is no more sense of permanence; instead, people change jobs, relationships, residences, and ideas with increasing frequency, making adaptation a tough task. We have an anxiety-inducing uncertainty of what the future holds; we only know that change will come quickly and that it will be disruptive, and this inability to comfortably predict the future—even ten years out—makes it risky to undertake long-term projects. The increasing inundation of change that we now face greatly shrinks our time horizon and keeps us hyper-focused only on the immediate future.
Furthermore, we moderns perceive time very differently than the ancients did. We function according to artificial timepieces that regiment our day down to the minute. We no longer live according to the rising and setting of the sun or the changing of the seasons; thanks to artificial light and the communication revolution, we can be “productive” at any time or place. We are determined to get things done as quickly as possible so that we can rush on to our next project. Evidence of this change is revealed in the declaration of French president Emmanuel Macron, who insisted that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt and repaired within a mere five years. What took over a century to build with patience and loving craftsmanship must now be hurriedly reassembled with no room for delay!
And of course, there is the decline of religion in modern society, which is not usually something I bemoan but which in this instance does have repercussions. While the advance of science and reason has certainly put religion on its heels, I would also argue that the growing cult of individuality in the West has dealt it another egregious blow. Even those people who have not essentially abandoned religion nonetheless now seek “spirituality” instead, doing so as individuals who attend churches (if they attend one at all) as free agents who can come and go based on their personal feelings. Loyalty to a greater cause or established tradition is replaced by a quest for personal fulfillment. Religion in the West is no longer a massive, unifying force that can channel the efforts of thousands of people toward a common cause, prompting them to give their treasure and talent to a project (cathedral or otherwise) that will persist through the ages. And there is little else that can match religion’s power; political parties and secular ideology can sometimes unify people, but they lack the transcendent power of religion.
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So, is cathedral thinking merely wishful thinking? What can we do as a society to once again stretch our time horizon so that we give greater weight to the future, including a future beyond our own lives? This is a particularly concerning problem given that many of the challenges looming before us—climate change, AI creation, energy and water crises—will require thoughtful decisions that will address not just immediate challenges but also generational effects. We’ll need that cathedral thinking if we want to survive.
Republished with permission
Jonathan Thompson | TEDxPensacola
Cathedral Thinking Design Strategy – By Jim Meredith
An architectural metaphor that seems to have some resonance in the business world is the concept of “cathedral thinking.”
I first came across it in a commencement speech delivered by Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, when researching their corporate culture before engaging with their executives in a portfolio strategy and headquarters engagement. The concept showed up again recently in an interview with Alan Mullaly, CEO of Ford published in the New York Times.
Each were using the image in different ways. For Rogers, the concept was about the care and commitment of people who contributed to building the cathedral, a decades-long task, yet would never see its completion. Its implications on vision and strategy development seemed to be about their outcome, a recognition that the successful implementation of the strategy may not be measured until long after it authors have moved on. More specifically, Rogers was looking at the influences and impacts of energy on the environment, noting that climate change is not immediate and that policies and practices put in place today will have their benefits measured only decades from now.
Mullaly, seeming a bit wistful about his old role building cathedrals in the sky at Boeing, used the metaphor as a reference to scale, collaborative action, shared motivation and team performance. His reference to the image is more short-term, a lesson in articulating a vision that is larger a car as product as a means of inspiring a hgher level of performance from those involved in its making.
The higher the calling, the higher the compelling vision that you can articulate, then the more it pulls everybody in.
Key considerations for me in this type of reference are intentionality and responsibility. In one aspect, “cathedral thinking” is a bit of hubris, a call to imagine and believe in the grandeur of our pursuit and to equate it with the divine. Another aspect is the call to mindfulness of the future in all that we do, evoking a certain humility and humanness in what we do.
As a profession, we have successfully brought consideration of a longer-range influence of design back into our practice. We developed business-aligned tools for strategy design, design strategy, program development and performance measurement, and have incorporated sustainability considerations in every design decision we make.
However, I am not sure that the consideration of “those not yet born” is a yet sufficient part of the design process. Engaging most clients in conversation about measures beyond “on-time” and “on-budget” is still a very rare activity. Measuring the quality of design is most typically by design awards that consider the object and not its impacts. Reducing the energy and environmental impact of buildings seems to stop at certification (recently published studies suggest that the energy performance of buildings promised in their LEED applications is not successfully delivered in practice). And scenario planning, imagining alternative futures in the life and use of buildings, is never part of developing design strategy.
For those of us conventionally aligned with the design of “cathedrals,” it seems that imagining what happens after we’re gone might be a good discipline to master.
© Jim Meredith/MEREDITH Strategy & Design LLC
The following video excerpt is part of a sermon titled “Cathedral Thinking” delivered by Pastor David Jones on January 26, 2014.
The lost art of the long view in advertising
By Tracey Follows
“The future is now.” I have read that statement perhaps 40 times in the last 30 days within documents and editorials. Not only is it untrue, obviously – it is confusing, and I would suggest downright irresponsible. It suggests that we are a generation living in such special times; that the usual laws of physics don’t apply to us; and that technological change, exponential as it is, has brought us advances before we are ready.
Of course, that is codswallop – but it doesn’t stop people regurgitating the phrase without thinking about its implications. In fact, I would argue that there has never been a more important time to think about the future as something we still have time and opportunity to influence now. In some ways, we have started to live in a world where consequence is not treated with the same importance as action. It’s surely time to oppose that.
In 1991, Peter Schwartz published a book called The Art of the Long View. It is a tour de force in the art of scenario-creation; an education in the nature and importance of thinking seriously about the future. In the book, he offers up three possible scenarios for the future in the year 2005. One of the driving forces that influence these scenarios is population growth and migration. He anticipates the waves of migration, the inability of most industrialised nations to properly deal with cultural diversity, and the rise of demagoguery.
We have of course, seen some of this come to fruition in the wake of the migration crisis that escalated over the summer, and one wonders if a man who had worked at Shell (albeit a pioneer of scenario-planning) could have foreseen this possibility in 1991, why not national and international governments? Or perhaps they could, but like most people, they viewed the future as something mysterious, unknowable, or not a priority until it becomes the present.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we can predict the future. But I am suggesting we can imagine different futures and plan for them; that we can rehearse these in our minds, personally and collectively. In a way, the purpose of this isn’t so much the need to be right, as the need to avoid being wrong. Being wrong about the future is a costly business, emotionally and commercially.
The problem is that, as the phrase “the future is now” suggests, we are living in a world of immediacy and impatience and have a mindset of short-sightedness and short-termism. Especially in the world of brand building, advertising and communications, one comes across brief after brief asking for something “new and different” every quarter, rather than something that builds continuity, familiarity or evolves over time. Everything must be “radical”, “disruptive” and “revolutionary”. It’s enough to make one’s head spin. Perhaps this is why there is a new term entering our discourse signalling this mindset: “postalgia”. It means to obsess about the present. But more than that, as the futurist Jason Silva suggests, it is almost a phobia of the impending passing of the present. He describes it as: “You’re in the here and now but you are simultaneously anxious about its transience, about its finite nature.” Selfies are a symptom of this.
One of the driving forces of change and future scenario-building right now is technology, and in particular exponential change. The millennial generation is so in thrall to technology that it thinks the internet is the future. Some of this generation can’t imagine a world in which either it doesn’t exist or it exists in a way that is interconnected with political, economic, environmental conditions. Don’t get me wrong: I love technology, but there are lots of other influences on humanity, that make us what we are. Humanity is bigger – much bigger – than technology.
And the danger is that the millennials who will soon dominate the workforce see every problem through the lens of a technological solution. They have never lived in an unconnected world, or in a world in which things are not immediate. In a sense, when they look at problems, they see them as instantly solvable through technology; they can’t imagine or understand them taking many generations to solve due to ingrained social behaviour, values or other impediments to deep cultural change. In the Middle Ages, men embarked on building cathedrals that would never be completed in their lifetime, but it didn’t prevent them from having a vision and actioning it on the understanding that subsequent generations would continue the work and bring it to fruition. We are a long way from Cathedral Thinking today.
But never the dystopian, merely the “anxious optimist”, I see some signs that things are starting to change. While in San Francisco earlier this year I picked up an emerging trend in strategy. John Hagel of Deloitte & Touche who heads up Center for the Edge, describes it as: “zoom out zoom in”. What he was calling attention to is the fact that venture capitalists and new tech companies are thinking hard, almost on a daily basis, about the long-term view. In fact, they are asking themselves two key questions:
- What is the world, and our market/industry going to look like in 10–20 years time?
- What two to three initiatives can we do in the next 6–12 months that will accelerate us towards that?
This heralds an emerging alternative approach to strategy, one that integrates two time horizons rather than separates them, demanding that one thinks hard about both at the same time. That is the only sense in which the “future is now”, for it forces us to realise that the mindsets we adopt now, the decisions we make today, the choices we make in the very next moment, all impact and influence future outcomes. It forces us to see the future and the present not as one and the same thing, but as interdependent. This “long and near” strategic approach spells the death of the five-year plan but it reclaims the lost art of the long view. And for that, I believe, future generations will be very grateful.
This article was originally published at http://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/oct/09/lost-art-long-view-advertising
Our attitude towards wealth played a crucial role in Brexit. We need a rethink
By Stephen Hawking
These questions are leading to a shift in behaviour which, in turn, is inspiring some groundbreaking new enterprises and ideas. These are termed “cathedral projects”, the modern equivalent of the grand church buildings, constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and Earth. These ideas are started by one generation with the hope a future generation will take up these challenges.
I hope and believe that people will embrace more of this cathedral thinking for the future, as they have done in the past, because we are in perilous times. Our planet and the human race face multiple challenges. These challenges are global and serious – climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Such pressing issues will require us to collaborate, all of us, with a shared vision and cooperative endeavour to ensure that humanity can survive. We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.
Full article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/29/stephen-hawking-brexit-wealth-resources?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=The+Best+of+CiF+base&utm_term=183833&subid=14340562&CMP=ema_1364
Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.
Credit: @hecksign https://www.picuki.com/media/2213168534493011804
Why Conservatives Need to Engage in ‘Cathedral Thinking’
July 21, 2020
It’s about investing in the fulfilling unfinished project, and against the deification of progress for progress’ sake.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to take my time on a road trip through Italy. I wrote a column at the Caffè Florian in St Mark’s Square in Venice, ate the best tiramisu in the world in Siena, got drunk on Chianti in Tuscany, survived the hangover by praying in Assisi, fell in love with painting in Florence, and knelt with my hat against my chest, like in a John Ford film, in the four major basilicas in Rome.
Everything I touched had a certain sense of eternity about it, with the exception of those modern smartlights in my room at the hotel in Florence, upon which I would have wished a quick but painful death like the one it almost caused me when I got up to go to the bathroom just before dawn (you know that you’re living in the wrong century when you find yourself dancing flamenco in front of a light sensor before daybreak). But the atmosphere of Caffè Florian and its 300 years of history involving Goethe, Dickens, and Stendhal, the legendary tiramisu recipe in Piazza del Campo, the renewed classicism of Uffizi Gallery, or the majestic sight of St. Peter’s Basilica, evoked the heroic survival of the past. None of this was built in two days. Not the tiramisu, not the Renaissance painting, not St. Paul Outside the Walls. Everything had been bequeathed and guarded for many generations. It was the first time I felt that being conservative meant more than winning an argument on Twitter this afternoon with the type of guys Wodehouse was talking about when he said, “he had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.”