Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Cathedral Thinking - Designing for the Next Century

“Though there are many instances to which Cathedral Thinking can be applied, they all require the same foundation: a far-reaching vision, a well thought-out blueprint, and a shared commitment to long-term implementation.” 


Cathedral thinking dates back to the medieval times when architects were tasked with building cathedrals none of which would be completed in their own lifetime. The challenge they faced was how to use long-term thinking and engage with others such that there was a strong commitment to the shared vision. Although the idea of cathedral thinking originally came from architecture, it has been applied to different fields including corporate visions and individual road maps. 

I came across the concept of cathedral thinking back in 2014 through Jory C. Faibish. In his talk recorded at an event in 2014, he shares the importance of cathedral thinking, leadership and strategic innovation. In this video, he mentions how cathedral thinking involves enrolling other people into your vision, to truly think beyond your own lifetime and detach one's self from the final results. He shares a few historical examples and leaves us with a key question, 'How do I communicate something that is bigger and beyond me and make other people participate in that vision?' He says the first thing it takes is 'getting out of our own way and imagine something big.'


Rick Antonson, an author and former President and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, spoke about cathedral thinking in a TEDx event in Vancouver. In Rick's words, cathedral thinking is about keeping the present generation tethered to the future.


Cathedral thinking involves taking a leap and imagining the bigger picture and realizing that while it may seem that you are a small part, you play an important role in how that bigger picture will eventually emerge. It means realizing that your decisions today will lead to consequences in the future that you may or may not live to see but others will. 

Needless to say, the concept of cathedral thinking has been applied to many fields including space exploration, design and development of cities, visions for big organizations, tackling climate change and conservation of plants, animals and other resources, etc.; basically anything that requires long-range thinking and being okay with always thinking about and continuing to invest time and money in 'unfinished work'. I'd also connect the philosophy of 'slow' with the idea of cathedral thinking. In some ways, both the concepts focus on the idea of finding the right pace to do things and focusing on quality over quantity. But I will save those ramblings and reflections for another blog post. 

I think the concept has a key role to play in how we design for learning especially considering the future of work and the future of learning including multi generational learning in the context of Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and other adaptive learning technologies. 

With the cathedral thinking mindset, there are many questions that I am pondering about:

  • Do we really know where we are going or are we only fixated on getting somewhere faster?
  • Are we thinking of learning innovation in the truly long term or are we being driven by agility and short-term gains? 
  • Are we finding the time to slow down and reflect on our decisions or are we focused on being hyper-active, always on, always doing? 
  • What are the decisions that we make today about learning and technologies (such as using AI and machine learning) that will have consequences down the road? Not just thinking about 10, 15, 20 years ahead but thinking at least seven generations ahead. Do we have that kind of vision for learning?
  • Are our learning visions truly embracing the shifts that are happening and will continue to happen long after we are gone?
  • How can we use cathedral thinking to envision modern learning interventions that are more diverse, inclusive and ethical?
  • What active steps can we take today that speak to that shared vision for the future? 

As a learning professional, I obviously focused the cathedral thinking lens on design for learning. But I do realize that there is scope and a good need to apply cathedral thinking to every aspect of my life. Reflecting about the cathedral thinking mindset reminds me of my role in making the design for the next century come into fruition and how powerful my actions of today are towards building a better future for someone else tomorrow.


"You can't build a long term future on short term thinking."- Billy Cox

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