The questions that animate this Open Lab are meeting some of my preoccupations. That’s the explanation of my presence among you.
Let me introduce myself: I’m the managing director of a social work company. It’s a non-profit organization that accompanies people with social difficulties: Children, parents, excluded minorities, people with disabilities, old dependent people, political refugees, pupils, young workers, among others. I’m responsible for around a thousand and two hundred employees divided in thirty-four establishments within the department of Finistère. Apart from that, PhD in sciences of the information and communication, I lead theoretical research on social work, management and work organizations.
Let me tell you how your questions interest me:
- What’s the difference between the public and the private space? This question is at the core of institutions’ lives. What makes the institution is the way human beings organize a « common law » among themselves, by marking out the spaces, the level of responsibilities, the different places of activities… Particularly with social work, the line is sometimes thin between what is professional posture and personal involvement, even militant engagement. I postulate that it’s this articulation between public and private, never really fixed, that is structure the organizations (therefore is also the city).
- Where is the unknown in a city? This question is not only concerning the city but any kind of human organization. We are experience a time of rationalization of every life form. It’s a sort of scientism that is feeding a myth that says that living things can be perfectly understood, enclosed, identified, mastered and controlled. Yet, in any form of organization, there are grey areas, unknown elements. I postulate that these « unknowns » are major organizational stakeholders.
- How is the city transforming itself throughout our perception shifts? This question represents the core of my researches – Founded on a constructivist approach. The way of perceiving an organization (a company or a city) is determined by preconceived representations, ideologies, thinking patterns. This perspective is « conforming » to the structure the organization. Shifting the way you look, modifying your point of view is changing the way the organization is « conformed ». That’s what I’ll try to show you with the concept of threshold organization I’m opposing to the self-centered work organizations.
- Where is the space for social and sensorial meeting within the city? Contrary to popular thinking, the space for meeting is not the center of the organization. Everything happens in the thresholds, that are the sceneries of welcoming. These thresholds are not necessarily at the periphery because the meeting places are a network of apparatus that draw the relational space. We’ll get back to this.
Now that you perhaps understood a bit more why I was interested in participating in your exchanges, I will try to develop some of the points brought up by your questions.
- A sensorial approach to organizations
Approaching an organization « sensorially », it’s considering it through its peripheries, it’s thresholds. Indeed, the body senses are not located at the center of the organism, but at its periphery. The eye allows the immersion into the physical space, the ear permit to orientate, but also to communicate, the smell is mainly a way to identify and label the context, the skin is an immense zone of contact and perception/welcoming, and, finally, the taste brings us the flavour of the environment in which we evolve. None of these senses is withdrawn onto the organism, they are all open to the outside.
- Sense = Frontier
The sensorial approach of organizations brings us naturally to focus on it’s frontiers. This zone, delimitating the borders of the organization is not hermetic. The limits, necessary to the identification of the organization (the geographical limit of a city, the enclosure of an establishment), are not partitions but porosities. The frontier is, by definition, a place of passage, of exchange. Thinking the organization on the base of permeable frontiers draws our attention to the flow, the streams, the energies coming in and out, traversing the organization. The sensorial approach preserves us from common thinking consisting of limitate the perspective on looking merely at stocks (the number of inhabitants of a city, the turnover of a company).
- Sense = interface
Getting interested in the sensorial dimension of organizations is disrupting the notions of « inside » and « outside ». Indeed, if the ear perceives external sounds, it integrates them immediately in the inside and assimilates them to process it. Can we say that the sounds are « outside » or « inside »? This question, within a sensorial approach of phenomena makes no sense. The senses have an interface function meaning they allow the integration of what is outside the organization and externalising what is internal in the organization. This conception deconstructs the xenophobic myth of an organization totally foreign to its context.
- Sense = immersion
Contrary to what rationalists’ approaches can make you think, an organization is not limited to the surface it’s assigned (the entry sign of a city, the surrounding walls of the establishment…), it’s an element of a system in which it interacts. The sensorial perspective totally ensuies this environmental immersion of any organization. The organization sees, feels, touches, hears, tastes, the environment in which it evolves and to which it is totally dependent, to which it survival relies on. Any human organization is part of an « eco-socio-system ». Being fully aware of this allows one to consider a real ecological relationship of the organizations among themselves and with their environment. The sensorial perspective restrains the predatory relationship the organizations can develop with their environment when, instead of being acknowledged as the breeding-ground fertilizing them, it is experienced as a danger (the competitive environment of companies or the rural/urban relation of big cities) or worse, like a resource to be consumed.
- Sense, threshold and organizations
A sensorial approach of human organizations leads us to consider their thresholds rather than their centrality. It’s a shift of viewpoint. I postulate that changing your point of view is basically transforming the organization itself because different elements are valued, different phenomena are unveiled. Focusing our attention on the « weak signals », we show another face of the organization, probably closer to what’s really structuring it. This change of point of vue modifies the organization.
In order not to be too long, I will only develop two essential aspects of what is the concept of threshold organization: polycentrism and polyarchy.
- Centrism, acentrism, polycentrism
The concept of threshold organization can be conceived as an act of resistance to the self-centered conception of structures. The common thought is a centralist, centralistic one. It’s the center that counts (the city center as an exclusive and excluding identity of the city, the management direction of the company as the only operating reality). It acts then as a « black hole », meaning an energy absorber of the system.
For example, that’s what happens when a company regroups at its head office the accounting department, stripping off the peripherical offices of its competencies. Historically, that is how the relationships between the city centers, the peripherical areas and the suburbs were built. Centers are provided with the services and fitted out with care. Suburbs are under provided with services for the public and with an approximative urbanism.
This centralistic manner of thinking out the organization has counterproductive effects: when a stable organization must profit from an equally divided institutional density at all its points, the self-centered organization has a consequent density in its center and a very weak one in its surroundings. The edges of the organization are then seen as fragile – when they are on the contrary the strong points of its capacity of exchange with the environment – and therefore, the intent is to consolidate them by raising walls to protect them from a threatening environment. The external/internal connection is then built following a protectionist logic of closure.
In truth, an organization, in reference to the complex thinking of Edgar Morin is all in all marked by its centrism, its acentrism and its polycentrism. These three concepts do not disagree with one another, they are complementary and interacted:
- The centrism of the organization can be, for instance, its directing body that requires a certain centralization (the mayor, the city council, the director, the executive hierarchy);
- Acentrism is the idea that the center cannot be really occupied, that there’s always a certain vacuity of the central space, a void witch is the condition for the system to function (the center cannot control everything, the peripherical elements don’t always need the center);
- Polycentrism sheds light on the structuring knots of the organization, forming precise but informal networks, strong but fluid and flexible (these are the places of counterpower, marginal spaces, subvertion of some members…).
- Hierarchy, Anarchy, Polyarchy
The self-center thinking focuses its analysis on the hierarchical system of the organization symbolically represented by a pyramid. A pyramid is not an unstable system, when it’s the necessary condition for life. The only known stability of living systems is metastability that associates catabolism and anabolism. In short, hierarchy cannot be seen as a stable system, established once and for all. The threshold organization is interested in the unstable elements of the system, the energies that destabilize it. If a hierarchy is necessary to the steering of the organization, it must be seen in all its systemic components. It’s counterweighted by anarchy, meaning a state of disorder in which the organization find itself due to the weakness of the central power. Hierarchical power is never almighty – even dictatorships prove their weaknesses – because it constantly has to deal with other threatening forces. Anarchy is the contestation of power, it’s the dissipative structures that challenge what’s neatly organized. Anarchy participates in the construction of the organization by repeatedly reconsidering what seems acquired.
For example, in a company, the ratio of power introduced between the direction and the syndicates of employees – relationship often anarchical because nobody is really grasping it’s very nature – highly structure the organization. For example, in a city, the illegal installations (Slums, refugee camps, Romani camps…) participate into the urban topography.
In fact, every human organization is polyarchical. In other words, made of the intertwining of multiple structuring lines each adding to the construction of the system. Hierarchy – confronted to anarchy and controlled by it – crosses the functional lines – the complex articulation of competencies and expertise of the stakeholders – but also key lines of a whole other kind: affinities, solidarities, and individualisms, cordialities and acrimonies, groupements of interests, etc… Each of these lines contributes to the ratio of power that shapes the organization.
To illustrate this with an urban terminology, one just has to look at the architectural way the city is structured, with its streets and avenues, it’s penetrating arterial roads, its peripherical ways, but also the way it’s transformed when a metro is added, like in Rennes, a tramway, like in Nantes and the form it takes when the pedestrian areas restructure the city center. All these ribs can be seen as figures of urban polyarchy. Whether you cycle, walk, drive or use public transportation, the lines that order the city are not seen in the same way, but all of them make up the « city » for everyone. To draw a metaphor with a company, whether you are the managing director, union delegate, employee or service user, the paths of the organization aren’t the same.
- Seeing the city through its thresholds
To finish, I’d like to come closer to the theme of the Open Lab and concentrate on the city. I suggest you try to see what could be the concept of threshold organization applied to the city
- The open
Seeing the city as a threshold organization – and not a self-centered organization – is to see for what it is, in its form and way of being, is openness, interface, interaction with its environment.
The thresholds of the city are the scenes of welcome, the places of alterity. Alterity is the dual dimension of the identical – the ego – and the difference – the alter – it’s the experience, with the other, of our common humanity and the radicality of our individuality. These thresholds, spaces for the meetings, are not solely located at the edge of the city but also inside of it. In order to understand what the thresholds of the city are, it’s important to identify all the places where the welcome, the alterities and meetings are played – in a theatrical sense, with scenarii, stagings, intrigues and temporalities.
The scenes of welcome are marked by a double movement: welcoming / being welcomed. It’s a composition manifesting an event, seen and known by all, an action composed by stakeholders, games that are more or less determined when appearing on stage, putting on stage and putting oneself on stage. The scenes of welcoming are the spectacle of the openness of the city: openness to the other, openness to the environment, openness to oneself. The scenes of welcoming are those vacant spaces left to face the other, allowing him to come, to welcome the city that is welcoming him, to be welcomed by it and its inhabitants.
What’s at stake, here, is alterity. The other, is the stranger, the one who does not live in the city. Stranger he might be, nonetheless, he is here and now, already here, present and yet signifying the otherworldliness. The openness of the city, is at the same time the capacity to welcome the strangeness and the stranger, its capacity to integrate it meanwhile acknowledging its difference.
At the term of this process, the open of the city creates interaction. What makes the city, it’s these spaces of meeting, these relational spaces that show the scenes of the welcoming where the alterity is displayed. The entrance of the city, the streets, the squares, the terraces of the cafés, the train station halls, the bus and metro stations, the forbidden lawns, the parking lots, etc. In short, the public space, or more precisely everything that is not private space. But it’s not the public space as we commonly think of it: it’s the plural spaces (polycentrists and polyarchicals) where being welcomed and welcoming is happening.
- The in-between and the interstice
At this stage of our description of the « threshold » city, we can distinguish the fact that what structures the city is not its fillings but its voids. In other words, the spaces left vacant to allow the meeting, the interaction. It’s a hackneyed urbanistic thought, that what makes a city is not it’s buildings and blocks, but the streets and the interstices between the buildings. What makes the city is what allows one to circulate and move in it. The street is the condition of its architecture. Without interstices, the meeting of the other is no more conceivable.
It is therefore the open spaces in the city that need to be identified as the structuring sites of the city, in other words, where the « living together » builds-up, a concept cherished by the Greek city-state. It invites us not to conceive the city by its densities, its solid and massive aspects, but by its frailties, its flows, its « holes », its flaws: that’s when the decisive elements making the society, building the « common » are at stake.
We started from the questions asked by the presentation of the work project of the Open Lab. The most watchful listeners might have noticed that I left aside two questions from the initiating text of your working days: « How, and do we have to poetize the city? What is a poetic meeting? ». But in my opinion the theory of organization I’ve been outlining to you is not free from a certain poetic dimension. To underline it, I propose to quote these verses from a Breton poet and friend of mine Jean Lavoué:
Les villes se mirent aux façades
The cities look at themselves through the facade
De soleils factices.
Of artificial suns.
Elles encagent l’intime
They cage down the intimate
En des palais qui ne célèbrent qu’eux.
Within palaces that celebrate nothing but themselves.
Dès que tu le peux,
As soon as you can,
Quitte l’ornière quadrillée,
Leave the chequered rut,
Ce jeu de glaces,
This trick mirroring game,
Ce piège aux alouettes !
This trap for smoke and skylarks !
Our departure point were the questions asked in the press file of the Open Lab: « What is the difference between the public and the private space? Where is the unknown in a city? How is the city transforming throughout our perception shifts? Where is the space for a sensorial and poetical meeting in a city? »
The initiatory path we took first showed the proximity there can be between a reflection on work organizations and the city: They are both human organizations that are systems based on common principles, because it’s places that make « society ».
Then through the twist and turns of the complex thinking, we identified the singular way an organization is disclosed when we focus more on its thresholds than its center, on its flows rather than its « stocks », on its interdisciplinarities rather than it’s structures. Polycentristic and polyarchical, the viewpoint built with the concept of threshold organization allows us to enrich the way we look at cities. We’ll look for what is thresholds, sceneries of the welcoming, places of alterity, spaces for the meeting. For it is indeed by its vacuities, voids and misses that the city acquires its meaning.
As a conclusion, let’s hear another poem from Jean Lavoué:
Laisse venir la vie
Let life come right in
Qu’elle s’empare de tout
Let it seize everything
Que rien ne lui soit étranger
Let nothing left foreign to it
Que rien ne soit fermé à sa lumière
Let nothing be shut from its light
Que tout soit imbibé par son chant !
Let everything be soaked with its song!
Free the horizon
Etends tes branches vers le soleil
Spread your branches to the sun
Laisse aller vers la source la barque de ton être
Let the boat of your own self go to the source
Laisse-toi seulement guider vers l’autre face de toi-même
Only let yourself be guided to the other face of yourself.
Constructivism is a scientific branch that postulate that there can be no knowledge outside of the perception modes of the knowing subject.
 the « weak signals » are scattered elements of information, sometime parcelled out, of low intensity and weak frequency, merely visible, sometimes even deducted from others informations, that however has an influence on the system (economy, sociology, ecology…).
E. Morin, La Méthode (6 tomes), Le Seuil, 2008.
 Catabolism and anabolism are two components of the living organism’s metabolism. Catabolism is the whole of reactions of degradation when on the contrary, anabolism is all the reactions of synthesis.
J. Lavoué, Ce rien qui nous éclaire, éditons L’enfance des arbres, 2017.