Every major change begins with a skirmish. The emergent becomes known and gets beaten back by the status quo until it builds enough momentum. It feels like such a time to me.
The pandemic was a catalyst. We were forced to find new ways of being together and working and in doing so, discovered that many of the accepted norms - like going to the office - were not just optional, but often counterproductive. Many people who have come to accept the routines of the commute and office politics found themselves free of them and liked it. A whole new generation entered the workplace and never experienced it. Those whose work meant they had to be at a workplace started to ask more of it.
There has been resistance. Those with office blocks to fill and whose comfort lies in control want people back where they can see them. Politicians whose focus is on the numbers more than the nature of the Economy want the same. And yet, the toothpaste will not go back in the tube. Between October to December 2019 and January to March 2022, homeworking in the UK more than doubled from 4.7 million to 9.9 million people, and whilst the number will have reduced, it will not go back to where it was. A change is underway, and whilst we don’t know exactly how it will progress, it does feel like an inflexion point.
I’ve been thinking about what that might mean for Artisans and their kin, those for whom work is an expression of identity and purpose; those with a sense of vocation.
Robustness is progress without impatience.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
In a consumer society, it is easy to think that we replace things. Out with the old, in with the new. Except, of course, it doesn’t work like that. We progress through accretion. We build new things on top of old things, and whilst we might put the old things out of mind, they are there. Our software systems are layered progression built on legacy, and whilst that legacy may serve little useful function if we remove it, the edifice is likely to collapse. Our organisations are the same, and so are our lives.
Layers are important. Our systems are not clinical; every element has digital, cultural or spiritual ancestry. The last two hundred and fifty or so years of the industrial era evolved and formed a layer on top of the feudal era (The feudal still survives and is reflected in our politics and power structures). As whatever-is-next builds on top of the industrial era, we cannot dismiss it, even as we have to let it go.
The industrial era thrived on scale, but it is that scale that has given us the challenges we face as we consume resources faster than they can sustain, and it is difficult to envisage how we can scale solutions when scale itself is the problem.
Scale has separated us from each other, from our work, and from its consequences. From being part of nature, we have come to understand ourselves as separate from and superior to it. That’s not working out so well.
Artisanal attitudes and dispositions are important as we move away from scale and reconnect to what we do. I’m reminded of a powerful story in “Why We Make Things and why it matters.”. In it, Peter Korn, a furniture maker, recounts working on a piece of wood he wanted to be a spindle but which he sensed did not want to be one and rather than force it, he used a piece of wood that did. While that may sound like something from the woo end of the spectrum, most of us will relate to it. We’ve all done work and used force to complete it, even as we feel that questions are being asked that are not part of the brief.
Recovering that sense of connection - to our work, each other, and the small, precious planet we occupy will be central to whatever-comes-next, and will need to be encouraged even as industrial-era thinking tries to submerge its inconvenience to how it likes to operate.
One of the most important learnings for me this year has been that artisans are not alone in wanting to live outside the walls of industrial values in order to do the work that matters. There are many other groups that exist as sub-communities within and between the walled enclosures of process, productivity and efficiency.
A large system, produced by expanding the dimensions of a smaller system, does not behave like the smaller system”
Systemantics. The Systems Bible. John Gall.
Connecting these groups feels like important work in 2024, so “Outside the Walls” will be a thread I’ll weave through the year to connect communities doing the work we need to embrace.
This will be my last weekly journal for this year. I will be doing a final Reflection on the year, covering my weekly Reflections and New Artisans, on 31st December.
In the meantime, I wish everyone a very happy Christmas and a wonderfully connected 2024.
New Artisans is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.