One of the crucial skills of public leaders and managers is to be able to get the bigger picture of society, and from there to connect things and to act accordingly. Mayors and city managers among others need to keep the main focus on the bigger picture, while aldermen and directors have their specific discipline, craftsmanship and portfolio. Overview and content go hand in hand, both complementary pieces of the puzzle of public governance. Zooming out is a form of art, necessary to understand the city as an ecosystem. For this art, Alexander von Humboldt and Roelof A.A. Oldeman have been of great inspiration. The ability of zooming out is the essential skill for true knowledge, they say. Two quotes.
Naturalist, explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1856) concluded that zooming out leads to more overview and offers the possibility to interconnect things (and even sciences). Von Humboldt gave guidance on the relation between ecosystems and abiotic factors. At the beginning of the 19th century, he came to this fascinating conclusion, actually revolutionary for that time.
“Physical geography…, elevated to a higher point of view, … embraces the sphere of organic life…”. – Humboldt (1856).
He saw the connection between the life in the ecosystems and the constraints of soil, water, energy and climate. Nobody before him had done this. Also in cities these connections between in fact habitats and communities are all over the place. So we can learn here from the discoveries of Von Humboldt.
“The principle impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavour to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. Without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than vain illusion.” – Von Humboldt (1856)
Connection between sciences seems to be necessary to find the real answers. It is about the ability of sharpening one’s view from different angles and principles. Oldeman et al. (1990) underlined, in cross-border studies of forests, the need for such an holistic approach in diagnosis. He always encouraged, within the fragmented landscape of sciences, the necessity to cross the by individual universities so heavily guarded boundaries. For most of the city challenges, the process of policy making and service delivery needs to be based on a cross-border view, to come to well-founded decisions.
“The group that was responsible for the forest components theme decided to accelerate the process by starting an ambitious project, the writing of a common book. There is no way in which cooperation can be stimulated better, but this way has to be learned and practised too. The result is now before you. The book is not yet ideal in our opinion because it still contains too many traces of the old University tradition of researchers working, each apart, on such narrow subjects as they know best.
This way of executing the research of course is necessary to reach sufficient depth. But it carries the risk of loss of vision of the whole system, parts of which are studied. Still a little bit unbalanced, but on its way to improve along lines that are more clear now, this presentation in a pluridisciplinary way is a first step, however, to overcome both the limits of individual researchers and the shallowness of groups. We trust, however, that it is exactly this wrestling with integration of broad views versus the deepening of restricted views that may be as interesting to the reader as the facts, figures, conclusions and hypotheses on forests and their components which are presented in the following pages.” – Oldeman et al. (1990)
Von Humboldt and Oldeman are inspiring in this cross-scientific and pluridisciplinary discovery. Zooming out is crucial to get the picture.
Humboldt, Alexander von (1856). Kosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, Volume 1. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers. 406 pp.
Oldeman, R.A.A., P. Schmidt and E.J.M. Arnolds (1990). Forest components. Wageningen: Aricultural University, 111 pp.