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Addressing Tipping Points for a Precarious Future$

Timothy O'Riordan and Timothy Lenton

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265536

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265536.001.0001

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Commentary 7.6

Commentary 7.6

Beyond the Linear

The Role of Visual Thinking and Visualization

(p.289) Commentary 7.6
Addressing Tipping Points for a Precarious Future

Joe Ravetz

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Tipping points can be approached by processes of visual thinking. These forms of understanding and connection assist communication and overall confidence in analysis. This is a process of complex adaptive thinking for grasping wholes, combining transdisciplinary thinking with creative design, and the connectivities between discrete and aggregated phenomena.

Keywords:   tipping points, visual thinking, self-organizing communications, multichannel communications, complex adaptive thinking

If tipping points are more than just technical events – if they are equally significant in human hearts and minds – it follows that we need more than just technical means to understand, anticipate, or respond to them.

So here I would like to explore the role of visual thinking and visualization in the understanding and communication of tipping points. This is part of a wider programme on ‘synergistic thinking for the one planet century’ (Ravetz 2012), which brings in a parallel track as experience as an occasional ‘graphic facilitator’, with basic drawing skills from my previous life as an architect. During the Kavli Tipping Point workshop, I was keen to explore some of the more wide-ranging themes from alternative perspectives, in parallel to the more linear ‘text and reasoning’ mode of thinking. A sketchbook was filled in 24 hours with original raw materials, some of which have filtered through to this commentary.

My aim is both to argue the case for the visual thinking approach, and to demonstrate it. This draws on the help of some virtual friends: like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, such characters remain quite fuzzy, but they seem to follow me around everywhere – arguing, questioning, thinking aloud, and flying off on crazy tangents.

There are four main stages to this argument: each has a section of graphic storyline. The first stage looks at the understanding of tipping points through visual thinking, in order to appreciate multiple forms of cause– effect and of human agency. The second is about the understanding of tipping points, which are complex or ‘beyond complex’, where visual thinking may be more effective than rational analysis. Thirdly we look at the communications side, where the flow of information and knowledge becomes part of the system. Finally, there is an overarching role for (p.290) communications as catalysts for social tipping points which can respond to such interconnected problems. To set the scene, here are some background comments on visual thinking.

Background: visual thinking for research and policy

Generally, visual thinking (and/or visualization) can be a powerful enabler for new insights on complex problems (Tufte 1983; Horn 1998). There is a more technical-analytic approach which can focus on human–computer– information interfaces (Humphrey 2008; Huang et al. 2010). In parallel there is a more experiential and creative approach, which uses the visual medium to access the unconscious, right brain and lateral types of thinking (Nachmanovitch 2007; de Bono 1985). Such visual thinking then points the way towards more holistic ways of ‘complex adaptive thinking’, which might be better equipped than ‘linear rational thinking’, for the inter-connected and multi-scale challenges all around us (Waltner-Toews et al. 2009). Through many diverse channels, techniques, audiences, and cultural platforms, visualization can offer the following for the research task:

  • A trans-disciplinary perspective, grounded in social experience, with open and inclusive cognitive processes;

  • Applications, on a spectrum from systems analysis and problem mapping to experiential envisioning and creative policy design and synthesis.

This suggests a landscape of visual thinking possibilities with two main axes (Ravetz 2011):

  • One axis spans between analytic and mechanical concepts (focusing on abstractions), over to synthetic and holistic experiences (focusing on figurative substance).

  • Another axis spans between discrete and disaggregated objects (specific purposes such as building designs), and fuzzy/embedded fields (general purposes such as artworks or other aesthetic communications).

This analytic approach is useful for mapping out the possibilities. But there is an alternative approach where the visualization speaks for itself, rather than as an explanation of text. In the fine arts, there are many interpretations and levels of analysis, but the primary purpose is clearly (p.291) aesthetic and experiential. Likewise if we approach tipping points as ‘experiences’ as much as technical objects, then a fine art approach can be at least as significant as rational analysis. This can be applied to process-oriented deliberation, which again is about experience as much as technical information. For instance, ‘graphic facilitation’ is now established as a valuable technique in process-focused workshops, with a London institute and practitioner network (www.vizthink.co.uk). In parallel the practice of ‘relational visualization’ emerged from sustainability research and futures workshop processes, where visual material (from on or off site) can be a powerful catalyst to creative group thinking (Ravetz 2011). To summarize, there are two strands here:

  • Visualization as a process – used in workshop or discussion situations– visioning, consensus building, conflict mediation, strategy forming, negotiation, and bargaining.

  • Visualization of a process – directly capturing dialogue, debate, argument and even conflict. The classic cartoon strip is one example where a dialogue can communicate a nuance of thinking and multiple meaning which is hardly possible in any other way.

Visual thinking to understand multiple cause–effects

Our characters are trying to plan out a TV documentary on our subject – ‘tipping points and the role of visual thinking’. The unplanned tipping point of a glass then sparks off various trains of thought. One is about visual technical analysis with charts, maps, or systems diagrams. Another is about experiences, sentiments, literary nuances, cultural resonances, all wrapped up with the drinking or wasting of wine. One consequence of such joined-up thinking is that the physical tipping point of another broken glass, leads to a possible social tipping point for an alcoholic on the path to reformation.

Visual thinking to understand multi-scale complexity

In search of an iconic visual theme, the image of the planet Earth turns up, but this is a very large and complex system to understand. If we zoom in, then any one tipping point – such as a forest fire – seems to be entangled with other tipping points or ‘balancing points’ at other scales. If we look (p.292)

Commentary 7.6Beyond the LinearThe Role of Visual Thinking and Visualization

Figure 7.1 Visual thinking to understand multiple cause–effects

for the ends of the chains of cause and effect, we have to zoom back out to the global scale. Here there is a very complex technical system of feedbacks and amplifier effects, combined with human effects such as denial, displacement, conspiracy, and corruption, along with positive features such as learning, creative innovation, social responsibility, etc. The result could be summarized as ‘beyond complexity’ – in which case we would need all possible channels of communication to access the subconscious and supra-conscious human psyches. Then, as we are faced with multiple and existential tipping points – climate change, water and energy, food and soil, nitrogen and phosphorus, mass extinction, political terrorism, financial (p.293)
Commentary 7.6Beyond the LinearThe Role of Visual Thinking and Visualization

Figure 7.2 Visual thinking to understand multi-scale complexity

crisis, and mental illness (to name but a few) – then we can better access other parts of the human psyche which are implicated in such problems.

Visualization in communicating tipping point situations

The focus now shifts from ‘understanding’ to ‘communications’, and the role of images is clearer. We are surrounded by images, many generated for profit, and most striving to be iconic and memorable. Perhaps the most (p.294)

Commentary 7.6Beyond the LinearThe Role of Visual Thinking and Visualization

Figure 7.3 Visualization in communicating tipping point situations

famous for our generation is the ‘earthrise’, as seen from the moon (Poole 2010). But the implications are not so clear – did this image enable new kinds of global consciousness, or further layers of manipulation by global interests and corporate elites? To explore such questions reveals a debate on communications: starting with the communications theory which paved the way for the digital age (Shannon and Weaver 1949). But this points towards something more – the role of communications as enabler for complex feedback systems, which interpolate between complex tipping point ‘objects’, and observation by complex tipping point ‘subjects’. We can (p.295) start to envisage a holistic tipping point system, in which object, subject, and media are all interconnected.

Visualization for synergistic tipping point responses

Ultimately the role of visual thinking (and other multiple channels of communication) can emerge. The example of the multi-scalar problem – including a house fire / forest fire / corrupt planning / irresponsible urbanization / climate-induced desertification – shows this graphically. The humans involved here work with multiple ways of thinking and ‘intelligences’ – technical intelligence, social, entrepreneurial, ethical, ecological, political intelligence, and some others. So how can decisions be made in ‘wild’ situations of urgency and controversy, which can respond to such a tipping point in an integrated way, using local resources and enabling global synergies? (Ravetz et al. 2011). Again, self-organizing and multichannel communications are not the whole of the solution, but enabling resources for solutions to emerge. This of course is not easy to ‘communicate’ in the two-second sound-bite culture of modern visual media. So again there is a search for iconic images which have depth and resonance – which contain or evoke conceptual mappings, so that participants can better appreciate where they are, places where they want to be, and possibly ways to move towards them.

Conclusions and ways forward

This brief think-piece or ‘looking-piece’ explores some territory which is maybe intuitively obvious. Faced with a crisis or catastrophe, we humans need to ‘see’ it. And such visual thinking is not only about technical information on risks or responses, but a multilevel multichannel experience which resonates with different parts of the human psyche.

So what to do next? There are global-level tipping points in all directions, and the technical evidence for existential crisis for our civilization seems overwhelming. Yet to generate any kind of response needs political legitimacy, economic acceptance, behavioural change, collective responsibility, psychological resolve, and similar qualities. Few of these are technical in nature or respond to technical stimulus – rather they are socio-cultural dynamics of learning, creative action, shared intelligence, and so on. The (p.296)

Commentary 7.6Beyond the LinearThe Role of Visual Thinking and Visualization

Figure 7.4 Visualization for synergistic tipping point responses

role of visual thinking, and other types of media, is crucial in appreciating the problems and designing effective responses.


Bibliography references:

De Bono, E. (1985), Six Thinking Hats: An Essential Approach to Business Management (New York: Little, Brown).

Horn, R.E. (1998), Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century (London: Macro VU Press). (p.297)

Huang, Mao Lin, Nguyen, Quang Vinh, and Zhang, Kang (eds) (2010), Visual Information Communication (Berlin: Springer).

Humphrey, M.C. (2008), Creating Reusable Visualizations with the Relational Visualization Notation, Interactive Visual Communication working paper: available on www.iviz.com (accessed April 2010).

Nachmanovitch, S. (2007), ‘Bateson and the Arts’, Kybernetes 36 (7/8).

Poole, R. (2010), Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (London: Yale Books).

Ravetz, J. (2011), ‘Exploring Creative Cities for Sustainability with Deliberative Visualization’, in Girard, L.F. and Nijkamp, P. (eds) Creativity and Sustainable Cities (Oxford: Heinemann).

Ravetz, J. (2012), ‘Urban Synergy Foresight’, in Forward Planning Studies Unit (ed.), Urban Governance in the EU: Current Challenges and Forward Prospects (Brussels: EU Committee of the Regions), 31–44. Available on: http://urban-intergroup.eu/wp-content/files_mf/corurbangoverancefinal.pdf (accessed 31 October 2012).

Ravetz, J., Miles, I., and Popper, R. (2011), European Research Area Toolkit: Applications of Wild Cards and Weak Signals to the Grand Challenges and Thematic Priorities of the ERA (Manchester: Institute of Innovation Research, University of Manchester), http://community.iknowfutures.eu/news/toolkit.php (accessed 31 October 2012).

Shannon, C.E. and Weaver, W. (1949), The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Champaign: University of Illinois Press).

Tufte, E.R. (1983), The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (New York: Graphics Press).

Waltner-Toews, D. with Kay, J., and Lister, N. (2009), The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty and Managing for Sustainability (New York: Columbia University Press). (p.298)