THESE MSN ARE MEMBERS OF CANADA’S FIRST THINK-TANK. THEY WANT TO DRAIN LAKE ERIE
Well, why not?
CONSIDER THE PROBLEM: Lake Erie is polluted almost beyond redemption. Scientists, engineers, conservationists, ecologists — the experts who rule our lives by right of their specialized knowledge — say we should spend billions to clean it up, which is not much help, since we can't or won’t afford it. And so, one balmy Wednesday evening in Vancouver a few months ago, a dozen men who pride themselves on not being experts sat down in somebody’s living room and decided that the solution to Lake Erie’s problems is to pull the plug and drain all that dirty water away.
If this solution strikes you as extravagantly improbable, then maybe you’re not plugged into the fact that a funny thing has happened to Canada on the way to its second century; and that the men who want to pull the plug on one of the Great Lakes are neither dreamers nor put-on artists, but quite possibly the forerunners of a new race of anti-experts who are about to take over the world.
The man who got the notion first happens to be a high-school teacher named Wayne MacCulloch. And the man in charge of that Wednesday-night meeting was Frank Ogden, a man who makes his living as an LSD therapist, and who is the founder and chief guru of Canada’s generalist think-tank. A generalist is somebody who is capable of thinking in a way that is both very new and very old: by using his imagination to leap across the barriers that specialized knowledge imposes. By definition, he avoids the obvious; he is, therefore, unafraid of proposing the outlandish.
And it’s precisely because Ogden and his fellow thinkers, who have incorporated themselves as the International Synetics Foundation, are not afraid to dream and fail and perhaps look deceptively foolish that they’re somehow a perfect symbol of what’s happening in Canada. The same spirit made Expo a mind-blowing experience, when everybody sort of expected we’d build a glorified country fair.
It’s what elected Pierre Trudeau, a man we knew nothing about — except that somehow we all wanted to touch him. There were any number of Blue Meanies (Winters, Stanfield, et al) we could have chosen. But we listened to our blood instead of our bellies. And at that instant the control of this overcautious country began to pass from the people who ask “Why?” to those who say “Why not?”.
Why not? That should be the slogan of the psychoelectronic revolution that is happening in Canada, and it might as well be the corporate motto of the International Synetics Foundation. At the moment, the foundation is a legal entity with no corporate assets except the men who meet weekly to solve problems that have beaten the experts. Once they think up an idea, no matter how bizarre, they turn it over to a peripheral group of experts, who try to assess its feasibility. If the idea looks sound, they present it to whoever might be able to use it. And they hope to be paid for their contribution. The foundation has even incorporated a subsidiary company, the International Synetics Development Corporation, which has the right of first refusal on any ideas that look as though they might be profitable. The group’s “inner core” are from a variety of fields. Some of them are already looking to the day when they’ll be able to quit their jobs and make a good living solving problems they know nothing about.
Ogden’s imaginative amateurs include a businessman, a microbiologist employed by a brewery, two commercial artists, a sculptor, a free-lance photographer, a high-school teacher, a botany professor from Simon Fraser University and a broadcaster. This is the core group that meets each week in a variety of locations. They’ve met a mile underground, at the bottom of a working mineshaft; and in the gondola of a barrage balloon, which one of the group’s associates — in a typically Synctic solution — uses to haul Jogs from inaccessible areas; in a yacht cruising in Georgia Strait; and in a cabin on Grouse Mountain (they call it the Cerebrarium) that Grouse Mountain Resorts Ltd. has donated.
Besides the core group, and the peripheral team of experts, the foundation has set up an “outer galaxy” of / continued overleaf
big-bore thinkers who have agreed to keep in touch. These include Patrick Watson, Dr. Albert Schatz, the co-discoverer of streptomycin, and Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and the granddaddy of all futurists everywhere. Ogden talks long-distance to Fuller as often as several times a week.
The product of all this cerebration has been a collection of ideas that range from preposterous to brilliant. Among the groovier notions: to cool down tensions in Asia, why not sell Australia to the Chinese, and move the Australians to Canada? The suggested price would be $250 billion, to be paid over a 30-year period. This would cost the Chinese $10 per capita per year, and make it possible to pay each Australian man, woman and child a flat $25,000 compensation fee. As an afterthought, the Synetics group also propose moving Australia’s 170 million sheep to Canada, too. “Okay,” says one Synetician, “so it’s a bit of a put-on. But remember Seward’s Folly?” He was referring to Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State, who bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867. At the time, a lot of people thought that was a put-on, too.
Sure, it’s a nutty idea. I, for one, would sooner risk a nuclear confrontation with China than be engulfed in my own country by 11.6 million back-slapping, beer-swilling Australians.
But the fact that no sane diplomat would suggest such a thing is exactly why the Synetic method could be valuable. Since they’re not experts, the Syneticians are free to dream up anything that teases their fancy. The first 100 ideas so produced might be worthless, but there’s always a chance that the 101st could be a brilliant solution that has evaded the experts for years.
That, at any rate, is the theory. And the foundation’s track record, after less than a year, is impressive enough to suggest that the theory is working. One Synetic idea — they won't say what it is — was sufficiently feasible that John Hoegg, president of Grouse Mountain Resorts Ltd., will propose it in the fall to his board of directors. Another suggestion has interested Arthur Block, western Canada’s biggest real-estate developer, to the extent that he’s willing to invest up to $10,000 / continued on page 73
The great thing about snorkeling and scuba-diving is that you really feel like you’re a fish. You’re right in there with them and, as any snorkeler will tell you, the experience is almost psychedelic. That’s why most aquariums don’t do the fish justice: the people are always on the outside looking in. They can’t participate.
The members of Vancouver’s International Synetics Foundation got talking about this problem one night, and came up with a solution: an aquarium shaped like a giant bowl, with a plastic tube running through it for the people to walk through. They took the idea to an amusement promoter in Victoria, who thought the idea was great. He wants to build several of them. When and if it happens, Synetics will get a cut of the gate receipts.
This idea isn’t nearly as dumb as it sounds. The fact is, Lake Erie is a giant cesspool and there’s no way we’re going to clean it up. The solution, which only a nonexpert would dare propose, is to say the hell with it and make it into a river. You build a dam near Detroit, then deepen the river trench behind Niagara Falls. The lake level drops 70 feet, exposing
five million acres of precious land.
You sell this land to pay for the construction. Several deep spots in the existing lake now become ornamental mini-lakes. You lick the sewage problem with pipelines and implosion chambers. Since all this will reduce the drop of the Falls," you build a geodesic dome —and create the world’s biggest indoor rock garden.
One reason the world Is such a mess Is that bottles, cans and other containers don’t decompose when you throw them away. They just sit there, rusting and breaking and cluttering up the landscape. The Synetics' solution: a bottle for milk, Coke, yogurt or what have you that’s made of some material — still to be developed — that rots away when you bury it. In the skin of each bottle you imbed a seed. In the fullness of time, a flower blooms. This idea is too beautiful to ignore.
A forest fire is raging across the landscape, a solid wall of advancing flame. Currently, one of the best ways to stop it is to dig a trench with bulldozers, then light another fire between the trench and the flames. The two fires then advance upon each other and burn out. This is called a firebreak. At present, you can’t build a firebreak much closer than three miles to the advancing flame. You waste a lot of trees this way. The Synetics solution: Instead of a trench, an airborne water-bomber soaks
a strip of forest. Then you send in a helicopter equipped with a laser gun to start a blaze between the soaked strip and the forest fire. The principle is the same, except that this way you can lay down your firebreak as close as 300 yards — and save millions of trees. Will it work? Nobody knows. But after the Synetics group thought it up, they approached BC’s Department of Lands and Forests. They're interested. This is what synetics is all about: it’s never been done, but why not give it a try?
continued from page 19
In a Synetics aquarium, you’re inside the tank looking out
in a feasibility study. James Lovick Ltd., an advertising agency, has paid them to suggest new sources of revenue. And at least two departments of the provincial government are studying Synetic ideas with much more than routine interest.
One idea is actually close to happening: a new design for an aquarium that features a plastic tube that the people walk through. This way, you’re not on the outside looking in; the fish and their environment are all around you. It was Chuck Diven, a free-lance photographer, who came up with the concept at one of the Wednesday meetings. What happened from there indicates that Synetics is much more than a put-on.
They decided that, since Vancouver already has one of the world’s best aquariums, Victoria would be a logical place to build it. So they approached Victoria’s Mayor Hugh Stephen. He steered them to Bert Enman, who is associated with Victoria’s Tussaud Wax Museum. Enman was excited by the commercial possibilities, and put up $500 for an engineering feasibility study.
One of the group’s members, engineer Bob Devault, was assigned to the job. Working with designer Lutz Haufschild, he came up with a bowlshaped aquarium 70 feet deep, shaped like an opening flower. The tube running through the -middle curves right around the inside of the bowl, and it’s shaped like a chain of bubbles. In mid-July they presented the whole package to Enman — a workable design and a cost estimate of from $150,000 to $200,000. Enman bought the deal, and signed a contract with the foundation’s subsidiary company, the International Synetics Development Corporation Limited, that will give the group’s members a percentage of the gross when and if the aquarium is built. Enman says he can finance it already, and is prepared to go ahead if market studies confirm that the aquarium could make money. He’s already scouting locations in Victoria and San Francisco. And so it is now close to a probability that one of the world’s most remarkable aquariums will be built within a year — as a result of an idea generated by a group of imaginative people, who don’t know anything about aquariums.
The Syneticians don’t know anything about fighting forest fires either. But they’ve conceived several ideas for attacking the problem that are already being considered by the provincial Department of Lands and Forests. Among them:
□ Infrared sensors — instruments that can detect and distinguish between heat sources, from a burning bough to a lighted cigarette — strung from a network of barrage balloons.
□ A network of radio receivers that would monitor thunderstorms in remote areas and, with triangulation by computer, instantly feed the location of lightning strikes to spotter airplanes. “The problem now,” says Ogden, “is that most of British Columbia’s big forest fires are caused by lightning. And a lot of the time there’s no way of detecting the blaze before it has
become a full-scale conflagration.” Although the group has little direct experience of hospitals, one of their ideas is under serious consideration by the BC Department of Health. The concept: a privately financed apartment-hotel. probably erected near a hospital, equipped with a small medical staff and diagnostic facilities. It
would be a “halfway house” for the sort of patient who needs non-intensive hospital care — the man with a broken leg who needs three weeks in traction. for instance, or the patient with a tricky health problem who’s been hospitalized for a month of observation, or the woman who needs two weeks in hospital to recover from an
operation. The idea of convalescent hospitals is not new: but the idea of having one built by a private developer is unique, and uniquely attractive; preliminary cost estimates indicate that, with each patient-tenant in the 144-bed building paying less than $200 per month rent, the costs to the BC Hospital Insurance Service would be one fifth of the present hospital rate. Health Minister Ralph Loffmark is already considering whether or not such a project would be eligible for
BCHIS coverage; and Arthur Block, the developer whom the Synetics group approached with the idea, says he’s ready to gamble $10,000 on a feasibility study if BCHIS decides to support the scheme.
Ogden says he decided to form his own free-lance think-tank last year, during the solitary hours he spent on a 24,000-mile helicopter journey he took around Canada as a personal Centennial project. He says the trip “started me thinking about the fantastic potential in Canada, and how we waste so much through a failure of imagination.” He coined the word synetics (a variant of the Greek word for the study of creative processes) and says he didn’t discover until months later that a similar organization — the Synectics Group — has been operating in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for several years.
Ogden is entitled to his advanced views on the subject of imaginative processes. For the past six years he has been a therapist at New Westminster’s Hollywood Hospital, a private institution that has acquired a continent-wide reputation for using LSD to treat alcoholics and the mentally disturbed. Ogden — working behind closed doors and a sign that says: “Positively No Admission. Do Not Knock. Do Not Enter” — is a “trips guide” who helps prepare patients for their hallucinatory journeys, stays with them during their trips and helps bring them down afterward. “What I’ve seen behind that door,” he says, “helped convince me that the imagination is a fantastically powerful force, if we can only free it from the structures that limit human potential.”
“Maybe you don’t need a bridge”
Ogden talks like this all the time. He is a rumpled, owlish man of 48 who possesses no formal academic qualifications, but has an obsessive fascination with the future. He dropped out of the veterans’ class at the University of Manitoba after one year, and has been a pilot, a highly successful insurance salesman, and proprietor of a swimming - pool company that went broke. He became interested in LSD after reading Sidney Katz’s accounts in Maclean’s of early experiments in Saskatchewan and at Hollywood Hospital, and persuaded Hollywood’s director, Dr. Ross McLean, to put him on the staff. He spent two years gradually acquiring the insight and expertise that today permits him to hold a job that ordinarily would require a trained psychologist. The experience has given him an irreverence for experts of all kinds — men whose training is of such narrow scope that they’re unable, or unwilling, to see the larger aspects of a problem.
"Engineers know how to build bridges,” Ogden explains. “But that doesn’t mean an engineer is necessarily the best man to consult when your problem is getting traffic from one side of Burrard Inlet to the other. The engineer will tell you to build another bridge, and he’ll tell you how. But maybe you don’t really need a bridge. Maybe the best solution is to figure out a way of inducing people to leave their cars at home. An engineer isn't likely to take that approach. But a generalist is. And that's all
syndics means: bringing together a bunch of imaginative amateurs who can take an overall view of any problem."
The technique is hardly new. The great American think-tanks, such as the Rand Corporation and Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute, pioneered the use of “war games,” in which teams of experts in diverse fields dream up imaginary crises and decide what to do about them. In the 1920s. adman Bruce Barton invented “brainstorming" as a technique for generating creative ideas. (The crucial element in Barton’s method is that, during a brainstorming session, no one is allowed to say, “But that won't work.”) And in San Francisco, there is a joyous manifestation of the synetic principle embodied in a firm called Generalists Inc., which has invented, among other things, Ramparts magazine, the Scientific American paperairplane contest, and the Beethoven Sweatshirt.
The company’s resident geniuses are an advertising man named Howard Luck Gossage and Dr. G. M. Feigen, a San Francisco surgeon who doubles as a TV personality and spends two or three days a week with the firm.
Escalator to fame
It was Gossage and Feigen who advised Ramparts magazine, a failing journal for liberal Roman Catholics, to become a radical tract that utilizes all the techniques of slick journalism. Ardent conservationists, they designed a series of newspaper ads that mobilized public opinion to block construction of a dam that would have flooded much of the Grand Canyon. And it was Gossage and Feigen who were chiefly responsible for the popularization of Marshall McLuhan.
After reading his books, they flew from San Francisco to Toronto in 1965 for the sole purpose of having lunch with him. Then they took him to New York and set up a series of strategic lunches in such places as the Time Inc. boardroom. Within a matter of months, McLuhan’s underground reputation escalated into international celebrity. “We spent a lot of our own money promoting McLuhan,” says Dr. Feigen, “but we figured it was worthwhile. The man deserved to be widely known. We beat the normal time forrecognizing genius by about five years.
“The generalist point of view.” he says, “is that the problem as it appears is probably not the real problem. For instance, say a businessman comes to us for advice on locating a new building. But that isn’t his problem. The real problem is that this guy has domestic troubles. His desire to expand, to put up another building, is just an expression of his dissatisfaction with life. We’ve had cases very similar to that. Instead of telling the guy to put up his building, we’ve advised him to see a marriage counselor, or get a divorce, or maybe just go to Spain for a year. We take an extra-environmental look at the problem, try to see the total picture.” Gossage and Feigen may spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few months on a client’s problems; in either case, the normal fee is $5,000.
The methods and personnel of these think-tanks vary widely. The problems
they try to solve range all the way from war, peace and doomsday machines to building a better can-opener. But all of them are committed to solving problems by approaching them in new ways. And the means by which these new routes arc found is currently the subject of considerable academic interest.
In England, Cambridge University’s Dr. Edward de Bono articulated the process in a book, published last autumn, called Lateral Thinking. The brain, he explains, is a very conservative instrument; “Life would be impossible if the brain did not always assume that, things were what they seemed to be and what they had been
before.” But this biological conservatism, which creates the patterns that allow us to organize our lives, is the enemy of creative thinking.
Conventional thought — the kind that imprisons experts of all kinds — is called “vertical thinking” by Dr. de Bono. In seeking solutions, it simply reinforces previously recognized pat-
terns, which usually gets you nowhere. It is, says Dr. de Bono, like a man who wants to dig a hole in a different place, but instead just digs the same hole deeper.
Creative thinking — “lateral thinking” is Dr. de Bono’s term — consists of deliberately escaping these repetitive patterns, of deliberately rejecting the obvious ways of looking at any problem.
He summarizes the differences between vertical and lateral thinking in four ways:
(1) Vertical thinking is logical, proceeding neatly from one point to the next. Lateral thinking isn’t: “You can jump and then fill in the gap. You may also saturate the field with ideas and then wait for some pattern to emerge.”
(2) Vertical thinking uses negatives to block off certain pathways. But in lateral thinking (as in Bruce Barton’s brainstorming technique) negatives are forbidden.
(3) Vertical thinking always starts from the obvious, most reasonable approach. Lateral thinking tries to explore as many approaches as possible; there’ll be plenty of time later to decide which will work and which won’t.
(4) Vertical thinking seeks to exclude the irrelevant. Lateral thinking welcomes the irrelevant, since it may lead to a new approach.
Einstein: old stuff — and new
Einstein, says Dr. de Bono, was a classically great lateral thinker. He performed no experiments and originated no new data. Instead, “he just looked at all the old stuff which everyone else had been content to put together in the Newtonian way — and he put it together in a new way, the way that leads to atomic energy.”
My own personal demonstration of the powers of the disciplined, imaginative leap came when I interviewed Frank Ogden. Instead of talking in the clinical atmosphere of Hollywood Hospital, we strolled for several blocks to a place where I used to play as a child. Tt was called Tipperary Park then. Almost 30 years ago, I believed that the place was inhabited by leprechauns and goblins.
A New Westminster mayor with gumption and imagination a few years ago built a Japanese garden in the park, next door to the city hall. The area where I used to hide in the long grass is even more magical now: water burbling over cool rocks, miniature trees, delightful little bridges. Ogden and I sprawled on the manicured grass to talk about Synetics. The whole scene moved me. I got up and paced around, and then stood at the edge of an ornamental brook.
Ogden is very hip to other people’s moods, so he quit talking and watched me. Then, very quietly, he said, “Go ahead. Jump.”
The brook was about 10 feet wide, and I’d never jumped that far before. I sized it up, stepped back, took a run at it and made the leap. For a long second I thought I’d fall short. But then my instep hit heavily on the other side, and 1 was across. I felt good.
Ogden stood up and looked at me across 10 feet of trickling water. He was smiling.
"You see?” he said, ic