Phase I - US, Mexico, Canada
The Fairwitness Project
The term " fair witness" is borrowed, with appreciation, from the Robert Heinlein novel, Stranger in a Strange Land in which Fair Witnesses were professionals trained to observe the world around them as literally as possible and report exactly what they see and hear, making no extrapolations or assumptions. They circumvent the most common biases. and blindspots to register the rich specificity and systemic fullness of the world.
The same interest in the translation of observation to understanding is illustrated by the mathematician, physicist, and engineer, riding a train through Scotland.
"The engineer looks out the window, sees a black sheep, and exclaims, "Hey! They've got black sheep in Scotland!"
The physicist looks out the window and corrects the engineer, "Strictly speaking, all we know is that there's at least one black sheep in Scotland."
The mathematician looks out the window and corrects the physicist, " Strictly speaking, all we know is that is that at least one side of one sheep is black in Scotland." *
Expanding the frame and precision of our understanding is a precursor to any contextual engagement and an essential component of cumuluslab's process. On complex topics and in complex environments, we are suspicious of certainty and quick conclusions.
In ways that are difficult for most large institutions to do internally, we go to strategically important environments and pay attention long enough to notice, receive, and learn from what exists there already.
The Fairwitnness Project will provide the lab and the public access to a more complete and useful version of "what is" at this moment, through the eyes of those closest to the ground.
This project launches in response to a moment of unforeseen and unprecedented societal change.
A moment when few have escaped the upheaval of the global pandemic, the polarization of political identities, the fracturing of long-standing security paradigms, the perils of climate change, or the corrosive repercussions of endemic racism.
A moment when the governments, institutions, and large organizations we count on to understand complex change are confronting new challenges to their relevance.
It is in this context of new uncertainty that we are all searching for sources of reliable information on which to base a more useful understanding.
It is at this moment that cumuluslab undertakes an experimental response.
This project is an attempt to access and assemble the perspectives of individuals who have an uncommon ability to see and understand their own complex contexts within larger cultural, economic, and ecological frameworks.
Over the course of a year, the project will take us to the places and individuals who are on the front lines of some of the most complex questions facing communities, cities, and organizations across North America; individuals who go beyond competence and resilience to thrive in the face of uncertainty, particularly in complex settings, including:
Artists, Community Organizers, Educators, Economists, Detectives, Farmers, Gossip Columnists, Imams, Judges, Military Leaders, Gang Members, Guards, Hostage Negotiators, Meteorologists, Nomads, Nurses, Ombuds, Prisoners, Poets, Politicians, Reporters, Runaways, Sailors, Scientists, Social Workers, Spies, Statisticians, Stewards of Change, Teachers, Tribal Elders, and Shadchans
We will focus on how each, as part of formal and informal traditions, has learned to derive systemic insight from their respective settings.
We will ask and observe how their refined reading of complex settings enables them to imagine better anticipate and imagine their futures, including...
Interpreting indicators of imbalance, inequity, and injustice.
Nurturing productive and emergent potentials of interdependence
Balancing the needs of complex local ecologies with external pressures
Communicating contextual insight to distant sources of influence
A portfolio of our conversations with these exemplars of contextual wisdom and the settings in which they operate will serve as an archive of complex subjective insights; a collection that will bring these evolved practices and methodologies to the public and those in the position to shape larger futures.
Next, we will integrate our learning into cumuluslab's programs in which purpose-driven organizations deepen strategic insight by engaging equal terms with these exemplars in places of future strategic consequence, reimagining their common relationship to the value and potential of what is free, familiar, and relevant.