Will exposure to heterotopic spaces get the fleas out of the jar?

Me in a heterotrophic play space (no fleas).

It’s been another one of those weeks where I’ve heard a lot about the enormous challenges we face, the need for big changes and big transformations. It all leaves me feeling a bit… meh!

It’s all well and good telling people that they need to transform, but how exactly? Do we have the necessary skills? Do we have the motivation and imagination to do it?

This is where heterotopia and heterotopic spaces comes in, a possible approach to understanding what you might do next. But first, the fleas.

Getting the fleas out of the jar. In lots of workplaces (and society more widely) considerable effort goes into making sure things are standardised and compliant. Compliant not only with rules and regulations, but also processes to deliver the ‘best’ results and value for money. In some places there is almost as much effort put into compliance as there is put into doing the actual work. The stuff that matters to the customers, service users or stakeholders. If you have been in the ‘system’ for a number of years, there’s a good chance that custom and practice will have become embedded. Your behaviour (conscious and unconscious) will be focussed on delivering what the system requires.

Is it any surprise then, that when we ask people to change or ‘transform’ it can be a bit of a challenge. Even if we tell them (passionately) that you are; ‘free to innovate’, ‘free to think differently’, ‘free to try new and risky things’.

A while back I was prompted by Andy Middleton to write this post about ‘The Fleas in the Jar Experiment’. The basic gist is that a group of fleas will only move as far as the boundaries of their world (the jar). Even when the lid of the jar is removed, they don’t jump higher than the jar rim, because that’s what they have been conditioned to do.

The fleas’ behaviour is fixed, even though they have been given permission (by removing the lid) to jump higher. Does that sound relatable? “You are free to be innovative / creative / transformational… just do it!”

Foucault’s Heterotopic Spaces. I was introduced to this idea by Innovation Specialist, Dr Lisa Whitelaw at an Ideas UK conference. You can read Lisa’s PhD thesis here; Organising for disruptive innovation: everyday entrepreneuring efforts at an incumbent technology company The image below is from the thesis and identifies ‘heterotopian spaces for play’.

Image from PhD Thesis. Dr Lisa Whitelaw http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/4204/

If you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got. To be blunt, I wouldn’t get away with talking about Foucault, Heterotropia or Spaces for Play with most of the people I meet on a day to day basis. So, in very straight-forward terms this is why I think it is interesting and possibly useful.

  • Do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always got; a truism.
  • We need to go into a different ‘space’ if we want to think and do things differently.
  • Foucault’s Heterotopia are spaces that are different.
  • The word heterotopia comes from Ancient Greek, meaning, ‘other or different’ and tropia meaning ‘place’, so they are literally an other or different place.
  • Foucault talks about these places as being in some way ‘other’ to the ‘normal’ world around them.
  • This leads to a feeling of being disturbed, intense, incompatible or indeed, transformed.
  • These spaces are around us in everyday life and can be things like libraires, cathedrals, cemeteries or ships.
  • They can also be social situations.
  • The point is that they are different from the ‘normal’, you are different as a result, so there is an opportunity for something different to happen.
  • In the context of what Lisa was doing (heterotopic play spaces), this allows people to come up with different / new / creative / innovative ideas.
  • Where I’m coming from is the idea of thinking about heterotopic spaces as something that will help people with the changes or transformation required by their jobs.
  • Use the heterotrophic spaces to stimulate different ways of thinking about things.
  • That’s it.
  • If you want more on Foucault’s Heterotopia as Play Spaces, have a look at this by Tom Hutchings and Jason Giardino in the International Journal of Role Playing.

Great theory, but where’s the reality? Two things to mention here, nuclear fallout bunkers and journeys to north Wales

Over the years I’ve spent many joyful hours travelling across Wales, I’ve even written about the glorious A470 highway that runs between Llandudno and Cardiff. If you are taking the trip for work purposes, whether you travel by train or drive, there is something heterotopian about it. It definitely feels like a different space to everyday work. If you have a work colleague along with you, for me, that feeling of ‘different’ is amplified. The nature of conversations is different in depth and scope. I wonder if there is an opportunity to solve all our problems by putting people on the Bangor to Cardiff train, on continuous loop, until they come up with some different ideas?

The second point is about physical spaces. Years ago I used to take part in Civil Emergency Planning Scenarios. They were fascinating on their own but what sticks in my mind are the ones that were run in a redundant nuclear fallout shelter. This truly was a different space, with pin boards, maps, bakerite telephones and other paraphernalia. I think about it now and how differently lots of people behaved in that space, compared to when I’d met them in other settings. There might be a bit of mis-remembering on my part, but the space certainly did have an impact. I wonder if the choice of space was deliberate?

Isn’t this just Liminal Spaces in disguise? Liminal space is a concept from Anthropology. It is the ‘space’ where there is a transition from one state into another. It’s neither one thing (the old space) of the other (the new space). Something in between. I think there is some common ground, but that’s the topic of a follow up post, just in time for the transition from the Old Year into the New Year. Apparently that is a liminal space, where all sorts of unusual stuff can happen.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. Something has to change if you want different answers to problems. That might be the space where you think about it.
  2. If you’ve spent years getting people to standardise and conform, behaviours are likely to have become deeply embedded. Saying that you are now free to ‘think differently’ and ‘transform’ is unlikely to change things overnight. Taking the lid off the jar might not get the fleas to immediately jump out.
  3. Heterotopic spaces (places that are ‘different’) are around us in everyday life. Recognising them for what they are, and what they do, could be useful. Holding a meeting in a nuclear fallout shelter might generate some interesting and different results?

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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