Exemplar Projects

In today’s complex and turbulent world it is vital to have futurists who can collaborate on collective projects, focus on action codified in exemplar projects and validate actions towards a better world. Unfortunately current ‘education’ systems focus almost exclusively on the individual learner and have separated the learner from the praxis of the lived life. Furthermore classrooms separate the learner from design, production and integration of learning into community life. The author argues that overcoming this separation of thinking and doing is one of the key challenges for modernity and in futures in particular.

A way in which we may be able to meet this challenge is known by the term ‘Artificers’ in Australia – innovative individuals who look forward wisely and solve collective problems today through applying their ingenuity with what is available, thus integrating thinking, doing and being in what in ancient times was called Poiesis and in Medieval times ‘artificing’ and today can be seen in Action Learning and the Artificer. The four principles, as well as examples, of the Artificer approach are discussed including their exemplar projects. Finally, the importance of the Artificer approach to ‘futuring’ and creating living breathing examples today of a future our children can live with is emphasised and collaboration sought.


Artificer Learning, Futuring, Critical Futures Praxis, Artificer, Action Learning


In today’s complex, turbulent and often incoherent world it is vital to have futurists who can collaborate on collective projects, focus on action codified in exemplar projects and validate actions towards a better world; and actionists who can think of the longer-term and the big picture in which we, and our actions, are located (or situated). Unfortunately current ‘education’ systems have separated the learner from the praxis of the lived life; and classrooms separate the learner from design and production of artifacts for our lives, and more generally intergenerational community life.

In Australia there is a term for someone who can act forward wisely and solve problems with what is available while developing innovations ‘in the field’ so to speak that respond to broader needs – this person is called a ‘Artificer’. NB: A Artificer is committed to the use of personal ingenuity for self reliance and excellence at her task of developing innovative exemplar projects[1] and is not to be confused with a ‘backyard mechanic’ who does shoddy work.

The Artificer is deeply ingrained into the Australian national psyche indeed the runner up for the national anthem – Waltzing Matilda – is about a bushie who steals a sheep for food and ultimately takes his own life rather than be caught by the law. Conventionally a bushie is someone who can fix a practical problem with ‘fencing wire’ and do a great job to boot and the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Artificer series (see web site section in resources) literally shows just that particularly in indigenous communities.

In order to understand the Artificer approach, we need to embrace the vital role of praxis in the design process viz. Idea | Design | Implementation (action). I have found that, in social innovations in the ‘real’ world, up to nine tenths of project energy is absorbed in implementation and compliance rather than (re)conceptualising an idea or active experimentation towards improving the concept’s application. This compares, for instance, with up to nine tenths of the energy expended in the conventional academic process in conceptualisation. And regrettably in Vocational Education today, which is assessed by correct behaviour not understanding, up to nine tenths of energy is directed to action, not as praxis or poiesis, but in behaviour, not to understanding as in conceptualisation let alone active experimentation. Additionally, the actions of those concerned with implementation tend to be limited in scope to operations only and bigger conceptual issues are seldom engaged.

This fundamental structural mismatch in education (action-less conception and concept-less action) has emerged over the past 200 years and been identified and explored previously by many educational innovators, yet possibly has not been adequately applied to futures/foresight. This article maintains this as one of the fundamental critiques of the positivist and post positivist paradigms by action learning/action research circles, and one of its key areas in urgent need of redemptive innovation.

Emergence of the division between thinking and doing

Boyte after Arendt, explains that it was Plato who introduced ‘the division between those who know and do not act and those who act and do not know’. Boyte [1], Arendt [2]. The Judeo-Christian belief of original sin – where the manifest world, and potentially our actions therein, are seen as tainted compared to seeking the divine in the life of the ascetic including renunciation of the senses, or at least suspicion of the joy found in manual dexterity and its fruits to some extent maintained, extended and deepened this Platonic division.

Newton’s view extended this Platonic perspective in that for him ‘The Universe was a mechanical one whose order was maintained by a distant God’, and the best man could hope for was to understand the mechanics of it all – not the underlying rationale. Newton, in fact, wrote more on alchemy, at essence concerned with ultimate causes and transformations, than mathematics: he saw the universe tinctured and enviviated by emotion and love. These works, however remain unpublished. Coulter [3], Christianson [4]. After the tradition shaped by Plato and enhanced by Newton, in the West, we have doggedly followed a staunchly mechanist view, that culminates in the structural separation of thinking and doing in our schools, Universities, bureaucracies and scientific research laboratories.

Society as cephalocentric – accessing the overlooked mimetic epistemology of dexterity

What this means for today’s humans – some 200,000 years after the transition from Homo Erectus to Homo sapiens – is that our learning abilities and creativity are still very deeply connected to our manual capacities. The two are linked by dexterity[2]. Cultures such as ours dichotomize ‘mind’ and ‘body’ and hold to what Wilson calls a ‘cephalocentric view of intelligence,’ whereby the importance of the hand-brain nexus is bypassed and the role of dexterity is largely ignored. Wilson [5]. As a result, we overvalue symbolic knowledge (the ability to manipulate words and numbers to describe or represent meaning in abstract theoretical linguistic symbols) while undervaluing ‘bodily knowledge’ or ‘hand knowledge’ (or what Wilson calls mimetic knowledge i.e. knowledge which uses conceptual-manual dexterity to directly transform physical reality i.e. the world around us and vice versa. Wilson [6].

Such Mimetic knowledge he severely differentiates from imitation because mimesis includes more than just copying and includes elements of intentionality and understanding and capability generally manifest through dexterity i.e. learning or as I call it here ‘futuring’. For example in car manufacturing in the 50’s and 60’s many accused Japan of just copying the design of western vehicles and selling them back to the West at a much cheaper price, however in the subsequent 25 years it has become clear that the situation was one of mimesis not simple copying as the Japanese mastered the deeper conceptual and design arts and now have generated for instance in Toyota one of the most innovative and largest vehicle manufacturers on earth, and many of the companies producing the vehicles originally ‘copied’ e.g. Leyland are not in business.

Mimetics then are acts that embody a theory of knowledge, an epistemology, that manifests in intentional, representational and concrete acts (e.g. making a stone axe 1,000,000 years ago or an exemplar project today as discussed in this article) that are not mythic (symbolic narrative) or theoretic (abstract calculus) but mimetic. Thus they are not just copying as in monkey see monkey do, but replicating with understanding including intentionality leading to the capability to manipulate the elements of our physical environment to create meaningful actions and objects in our lives. For Wilson this mimesis involves the invention of intentional socially encoded representations and their articulation into communal reality. Wilson [7]

In schools, Wilson writes, children ‘who are most successful, even virtuosos, at using their hands to conceive, understand, build and fix complicated things in the everyday world around them’ are often the same children doing very poorly on mathematically related intelligence tests. Furthermore one can see this respect for the mimetic epistemology behind the theories of education of Dewey, Kolb, Sarkar and Steiner and others and also in much of the intent of the vocational education systems. Dewey [8], Kolb [9], Rama [10], Inayatullah [11], Steiner [12]. According to Wilson then such systems are not as they are seen nowadays as secondary for students who cant ‘cut it’ in academia, they are actually discrete and equal to the symbolic systems now so dominant in our educational arena.

Wilson’s book can be rough going at times, but I highly recommend it to those of us who feel that our hands are quite literally the smartest things we own, further he maintains that the hand speaks to the brain just as surely as the brain speaks to the hand. This can be seen in any discussion where people who have to put their hands behind their back simply can’t communicate properly. From Wilson’s perspective gesticulation is part of the mimetic episteme based on dexterity. Certainly smarter than the conventional Western brain that chooses to risk either ignoring or overworking dexterity to the point of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), seldom choosing to dance with or respect it.

The results of this split are readily seen to day in terms of the specialisation of skills, separation of academia from actual social change projects, separation of producing from consuming e.g. we are moving rapidly away from being ‘prosumers’ – having our own gardens, making our own clothes, and the pejorative position that vocational education takes in relation to higher education, and so forth. Arendt claims this is the challenge for modernity: to re-braid thinking and doing, in sort facilitating the re-emergence of mimesis.[3]


Artificers then may be seen as a type of action learning that:

· Focuses on the learner, not only the thinking (academic education) but also action (although much action is seen as ‘behaviourist’ vocational education), such that it…

· Draws from experience, yet is proactive and intentional, towards a better world and…

· Embraces the overall Design process covering Idea | Design | Implementation
(I | D | I): including intelligent understanding of the basic concept; prototype design; establishment and critical reflection on subsequent outcomes by…

· Embodying the agency of the learner; not only in seeking to address structural issues/projects but is also…

· Directed to the good of the person and the good of society (integrity and ethics) i.e. virtuous action towards the good (of) society by…

· Linking action directly to the priorities from the ‘global problematique’ and is concretised in an exemplar project or master piece, that…

· Moves from praxis to poiesis i.e. from doing to making and shaping, i.e. action as prototype development, for the general good through a focus on critically informed instrumental action.

Artificer Learning or Artificer Learning then is a form of action learning focused on the learner – who learns by making or shaping an action decided on collectively and intended for some particular application towards a better world. Such learning is always threefold – internal to the learner (integrity, values etc), external to the learner (ethics and how the world works), and bridging between the two (dexterity delivered content).

‘Artificer’, then, is based on a type of action that emphases a learning by doing approach that is designed to improve the human condition generally over an extended time period of at least a decade,.

The present condition of the West may well be a reflection of Rick Slaughter’s view of western cultures as manifestations of ‘industrial flatland’ where horizontal extension reigns and intention or vertical knowledge is deemed unnecessary – where thinking and doing remain disparate. Slaughter [13]. Any serious system of activism needs to engage this dilemma at a profound level. Historically, in Australia, I argue that one of the closest ways we can get to this ‘path less travelled’ is via. a person called a ‘Artificer’ or in this instance ‘Artificer’.


The outcome of my grounded theory whereby theory is build up from local or grounded observations not as is usually the case in ‘grand theory’ local data are sought to prove or disprove the grand or general theory[8] Glaser [17]. Based on a two year research period working with some 4 Artificers identified the following four key principles. During this period I kept a field journal and recorded learning insights therein. Grounded Theory was then applied to code these insights and identify key emergent ‘meta categories’ from this field data records. The key or paramount category that emerged, one that all other categories related to, was ‘the exemplar project’ (see Principle 1 immediately below) Glaser [17], Dick [18]. This action research protocol for this project is explicated in Wildman and Hadkins [19].

Artificer Principle 1: The Exemplar Project Principle

Exemplar project – or bricolage – means a best in class project/prototype designed to address a collectively prioritised need, and demonstrates a better world is possible for our children.

For example a project that is based on Artificer learning over a decade of praxis, such praxis helps generate a grasp of the big picture while understanding the small picture, its components and interface. Interface is that interdisciplinary surface between skill sets that are to be integrated if knowledge is to be efficaciously applied. For instance a project/prototype requires such interface/interdisciplinary integration for its successful testing and in fact much of the beta version is about working out the interfaces i.e. working out efficacious ways various skill sets/knowledge areas can interface effectively.

In this way active practical knowledge/wisdom through the exemplar project embeds interdisciplinary interface in the very ‘D’esign process and often occurs at the edges of the formal | informal economy. The project tends to be innovative rather than inventive, and combines business discipline, vocational expertise and social context, that braids thinking and doing; part and whole; individual and collective and is aimed at bettering the lot of our fellow human in line with the requirements of the global problematique.[9] In a social sense then the Exemplar Project integrates/interfaces Social Futures | Action Research and | Change Management.

Such interface involves the following key interface/interdisciplinary arenas:

[1] Technical Interface category

[2] Human Ecology Interface category

[3] Ends Interface (Normative and Strategic) category

[4] Lateral Interface category

[5] Informal Interface category
[6] Learning Interface category

[7] Design Interface category
[8] Butterfly Effect Interface category

[9] Interface as Focus

[10] Failure Interface category

[11] Tool Interface category

[12] The Polis as interface nest

Should these be applied to a learning institution we end up not with a ‘University’ (one way of knowing) but rather with what may be called a ‘polyversity’ (many ways of knowing). That is from monophonic university to polyphonic multiversity. Wildman [20]

Artificer Principle 2: Social Betterment Principle

The exemplar project is seen by the Artificer as an example of a social betterment. Such betterment can be for the corporation and its community interactions, for the community independent of the corporation, or for society as a whole.

The exemplar project although it may manifest in an technological or organisational manner is actually seen by the Artificer as a social betterment or holon, after Koestler [21]. That is as self organising nested system which is simultaneously part and whole, hierarchically situated yet autonomous, using fixed rules yet flexible strategies, such as the heart in the circulation system of our body.

The Artificer then may be seen as a Renaissance person and sees the exemplar project at essence not uniquely materialistic i.e. a technological endeavour yet to be understood in terms of social betterment. Artificers tend to integrate life at the individual perspective with social betterment.

In overview the article calls for a concentrated action research project in the arena of the largely bypassed mimetic artificer type epistemology alluded to by Wilson and urged by Arendt in the re-linking of thinking and doing. For me this is the underlying and as yet unanswered or even unacknowledged challenge of the Western modernity project, thus this article. Potential areas that could enhance the Artificer approach’s chance of success and encourage others who now, or wish to, work on similar lines are highlighted below and the editor and I are keen to hear from anyone so interested.

This calls for a need to bias learning to action; to braid thinking with action – not separate the two. Further, I suggest the need for a pedagogy that reconciles the Platonic differentiation of thinking and doing while focusing on action, in a sort of epistemic affirmative action, and finally moving away from the ‘universe as a machine’ world view of Newton to a ‘universe as an interactive exemplar project’ view. It may well be that the development of an integrated artificer pedagogy may once again help re-integrate Higher and Vocational Education towards a better world for our children’s children.

One such approach, Artificer Learning, is more commonly recognised as Artificers. It may be that in the medium term future organisations aiming at Futures Work may wish to use some artificer or Artificer skills and approaches in order to concretely demonstrate through exemplar projects systems ideas and designs for a better world. Such a ‘futuring’ approach braids thinking and doing through exemplar projects by artificers, and artificer organisations, of integrity, e.g. the exemplar project examples in the box above. In this way the English Statute of Artificers of the 14th Century may well have relevance today.

One may see many such exemplar project examples today in the arenas of hard technology such as air and space craft and space craft design, information processing and genetic engineering and some of the better aspects of training in the health and military arenas. Little vocational education and almost no higher education today bare much semblance to artificer learning.

Sadly we see few exemplar projects in the social technology arenas of governance, restorative justice, local economy, urban design, citizen rights and responsibilities and deep sustainability[10]. Imagine if you will a FOX cable program called Return to Intentional Community which set teams seeking to join a particular community certain time critical governance and soft system tasks, the outcomes of which could then be assessed, piloted and posted on a web based exemplar project clearing house site. Exemplar project write-ups could even have a place in journals and themes such as this. Lack of development in socio-governance arenas means that for instance new hard tech processes such as weapons and information control are grafted on to existing non participatory top down delivery systems e.g. bureaucracies and other punitive systems which then just further exacerbate the problem by further reducing citizen rights and overall system sustainability.

A few of these soft technology exemplar projects are out there however they are few and far between often don’t interact with one another as they are in different sectors and have little web interface. This needs to change urgently as soft technologies are the nested system upon which hard science rests, and we urgently need improvements in, as well as the dissemination of, such soft technologies, in our social ingenuity in order to direct our hard technologies in ways that can demonstrate today a better world is possible tomorrow for our children.

In light of this challenge it is hoped that the neologism of the Artificer may play a part in providing an encouraging way forward to this more representative interactive artificing future. 


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