First published on November 2011.
I grew up in Portsmouth, a city sandwiched between the sea and the countryside. My dad’s Welsh émigré family were seamen – my mum’s, farm labourers. I remember being impressed by the way my grandparents were able predict the weather or the behaviour of animals or birds due to the time of year or atmosphere. They recognised the slightest nuances of change in the landscape or the sea. These skills – knowledge or bullshit (I was never quite sure) – were acquired by years of taking notice of the world around them, whether they were on deck or fetching in the hay.
Formal education values concentration and diligence; gazing out of the proverbial window is discouraged. Our increasingly urban and conformist landscapes make it more difficult for people to look at the world differently. Taking notice is an acquired art, requiring time, practice and a good eye. I drive to work every day, 20 miles across the B roads of Suffolk. I’ve tried to train my eye to observe difference. This year I’ve seen 18 ‘orphan’ apple trees on the roadside or at traffic junctions; last year I’m sure there were only 15.
To face the drastic environmental and social challenges of the next 30 years we’ll need adaptable, skilful people. Workplaces or communities should be viewed not as a system but as collections of individuals who can learn, teach and observe, and pass on and share with others. A notion of being multi-skilled should not be restricted to the possession of multiple layers of knowledge. A knowledge economy needs people who harness technology for innovation, but these same people might benefit from a closer understanding of making, craft and the world around them. The future workforce should have web designers who also know how to lay a hedge or engineers who can coppice a wood.
Illustrations by Paul Davis - http://copyrightdavis.blogspot.com/