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From strategic management to intentional design in tourism

Regenerative tourism meets intentional design.

We have reached a turning point in how we think about tourism and its management. We are all at different points on this journey depending on our experience of the current crisis, the knowledge that flows across our paths, the capacity to imagine a different future, and access to the resources needed to influence and drive change. How we rise to the challenge depends not only on leadership, cultural change, and systems innovation but also the presence of a special ingredient - our capacity to tap into a deeper way of seeing, knowing and doing together.

The Greeks called this phronesis - a kind of integrated practical wisdom that comes from crystallising life experience, action and knowledge. But let's not start with Greek philosophy. Ideas about how to know, understand and act in the world extend well beyond the last 2000 years. Let's try 40,000 years or more.

My Christmas reading included a book called The Power and The Promise, the first in a series of really accessible readers about First Knowledges. In the book, Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly outline how 40,000 years of Indigenous knowledge about ecology, geology, resource management, climate, astronomy, law, sociology, religion, art and culture are integrated, captured and communicated in the knowledge systems, or Songlines, that emanate from Country. Put simply, history and its knowledge are written in the land and communicated through story, dance, performances that guide and inform future generations. The book was full of captivating insights, and I felt instantly at home with many of the key messages contained in the book.

"The trouble with white fellas is that they keep their brains in the books"

These words were spoken by Inuit man, Dempsey Bob (p.45) who was drawing attention to the limitations of white western knowledge. We need to dig deeper than the 'white soil' if we are to understand how to manage the resources - natural and human - that sustain us.

This idea swirled around in my thoughts connecting with all my reading about the importance of cognitive diversity, alternative forms of knowing, and how little we actually understand about how head, hearts, hands and gut work together to help us understand our world and our relationship with it. Neuroscientists have found that we each have three brains: the “head” or cephalic brain; the heart (cardiac); and a gut (enteric) brain. Each has sensory neurons, motor neurons, ganglia, and neurotransmitters, and are able to take in information, process it, store it and access it when required.

Scientific method, derived from white western European philosophy, has become a dominating force in how we think, know and understand the world over the last three hundred years. In the process we have backgrounded, ignored or denied the existence of other kinds of knowledge. The heart brain, for example, gives us empathy, the capacity to view and understand the world from the perspectives of others.The gut gives us instinct - a kind of embodied patterned knowledge - that when someone says "How do you know that?", you just do because its patterned and instinctive. Trouble is, scientific management requires that we ignore the cardiac and enteric brains and use only our head or cephalic brain.

The consequence of the almost total dominance of one way of knowing - the scientific way - has taken us on a three hundred year journey and created blinkers, blind spots, and path dependencies. This scientific approach has been embedded in our western education models which have been copied around the world in emerging economies. It's present in the way we conduct and evaluate the quality of 'scientific research', it's affected how we frame, write up and communicate 'reliable' knowledge, and it's framed the thinking capacities of the teachers and their graduates - our future workers in tourism. It's created a narrow funnel, a blinkered landscape of what we see as the challenges, how we frame and seek to understand those challenges, and the toolbox we use to confront them.

Such is the power of this knowledge system that, in spite of researching and publishing on topics including education, learning, praxis, phronesis, knowledge dynamics and networks, shifting knowledge paradigms in tourism planning and policy and path dependencies, it took leaving a 20 year career as a professor for me to be able to think again. To really think again, and to step outside the metrics, standards and protocols of knowledge generation in the academic industrial complex, has been truly liberating. The irony is that during my time in the academic environment I had been described as a thought leader by those outside, and at the same time bullied relentlessly by co-workers for thinking differently. Putting my head above the parapet or thinking outside the box went dangerously against standardised thinking and resulted in a phenomenon called mobbing, which is prevalent in higher education. I am not alone in my experience. Many creative thinkers wear this straight jacket in academia and their survival rate is low.

The growth of mindfulness and its activation in many workplaces (but sadly not so much the academic industrial complex) comes at a time we need it. Yet mindfulness, slowing down and re-evaluating the values embedded in our work, in our worldview, and in the way we understand and frame the issues are challenging. We need practices, skills and new ways of working to incorporate mindfulness into our work.

My own journey into thinking again without restraint started by closing my eyes and making contact with all my knowledge and sense-making capacities. Sitting in the mess and complexity. Staying for a while to make sense. Connecting with my values - past, present and future. The capacity to see, think and feel again must start with learning, sharing, activating, reflecting and repeating. I encourage others to engage in contemplative assessment of their thinking style, values and the blinkers they may wear.

"If you look behind you can see the footsteps of the future".

Margo Neal and Lynne Kelly draw attention to this idea which, if I understand correctly, exists in many Indigenous cultures. It is a quote that makes one pause, think, and value what we have not had the capacity to understand until now. Indigenous wisdom. The place we are now has been determined by past actions. Our Indigenous cultures have given us a legacy and it is our responsibility to pay it forward. Our present will be the next generation's past. Accordingly, how we act now will create the next generation's challenges. Think on that.

Neal and Kelly argue that as white Australians, if we are ever to belong in this country we should connect with our own Songlines. If we want to share this continent, to really belong, we should connect with and know our own stories and how they took root beyond the last 200 years. In knowing our stories, we take responsibility for the future and we can protect the legacy that past inhabitants gave us, and from which we benefit now and in the future.

It's a challenging thought. It requires pausing, reflecting, connecting and understanding and using our head, hearts, gut and hands. These are new thinking skills which need to be nurtured.

So what has all this got to do with tourism?

Not to deny the larger significance of this wisdom, the journey with my thoughts over the last two years since leaving the academic environment has been both liberating and reinforcing. In a more limited way, and connecting with my own place with head, hearts and gut, I can draw the threads of truly transformational visitor experiences that can be woven into the warp and weft of a professional career. Whether it was witnessing first-hand the devastation of beach erosion caused by cyclones on Queensland's Gold Coast as a child, seabird and turtle research on the Great Barrier Reef, diving adventures in Moreton Bay and Heron Island, connecting with family on a Roma drive holiday (back then when kids got to sit on the front bench seat between their parents), encounters with Quandamooka, walking into an outback pub, discovering WWII plane wreckage at Kroombit Tops, or crocodile encounters in the Daintree. All of these extended my understanding of nature-human relationships, history and stories combined to influence my worldview, and my appreciation for the power and life-giving force of Nature.

Mobility and its opposite, sitting or staying in place, is a form of world-making. It's about learning, connecting, understanding and, through changing how we understand the world, changing how we act. If you are a parent or a child, pause for a moment to think and reflect on the transformational connections you have made with self, with travelling companions, with local communities, with places, and with Nature. This is the true power of travel and mobility, to unleash knowing about our world. This is not an elitist agenda, but a simple one. Travelling to the end of your street, engaging in the local visitor economy without moving from your patch, can yield new experiences and insights.

An examination of 20 years of academic research and consulting, and knowing with head (cephalic ), heart (cardiac) and gut (enteric) brains provides the warp and weft of a deeply rooted approach to nurturing tourism for good. If I look to the past, I can see the footsteps of the future. My first paper before entering academia was about designing places for tourism. And while perspectives have evolved, through pausing, reflecting, connecting and understanding, an intentional design approach to tourism, underpinned by a deep commitment to sustainability and public good, can be discerned in the suite of papers, books and presentations.

Towards an intentional mindset

Our Indigenous caretakers adopted an intentional design approach to managing the Australian landscape. They respected it and designed their lifestyle with Nature. Intentional design is deliberate and careful. As an approach it respects and values all perspectives, including those that may not be present (e.g. future generations) or have a voice (e.g. Nature). It also places emphasis on understanding what value is created in certain actions, and what value is destroyed in those same actions. It understands that value may be accumulated and that different stakeholders, including future generations, may benefit or be negatively affected.

So... it seems we may have reached a turning point in how we think about tourism and its management. We are all at different points on this journey. The idea that tourism is an economic development tool has taken precedence and, in the process, our capacity to understand the bigger picture has been corrupted. We have been incentivised to chase investment, growth, visitor numbers and expenditure. Our scientific brains have decided that these are the metrics, and we deny other ways of knowing and understanding the value of tourism.

The key is to understand the bigger picture, to map value and who benefits or loses, to open oneself up to learning using head, heart and gut, and to work intentionally with hands. How we rise to the challenge depends not only on leadership, and our capacity to make systems and cultural change, but also the presence of one special ingredient - our capacity to know differently... to tap into a deeper way of seeing, knowing and doing together.

For inspiration on Indigenous knowledge:

Songlines. Common Ground First nations.

Neale, M (2020) . Songlines. The Power and the promise. Thames and Hudson, Melbourne.

Songlines: The power and the promise. ABC Late Night Live podcast.

Influences on tourism thinking and framing:

Dredge, D. 2018. Rescuing knowledge in tourism policy. Via Tourism review.

Dredge, D. & Jenkins, J. 2007. Tourism Policy and Planning. Wiley, Brisbane. Chapter 3.


About the Tourism CoLab

At the Tourism CoLab, we believe that tourism and travel can be transformational, purposeful and regenerative. However, in order to deliver these benefits, we need to change our tourism operating system, adjust our mindset, and pivot our ways of working. We use an intentional design mindset to activate tourism for good, and we call this new way of working 'Regenerative Tourism by Design' and we're pioneering it at The Tourism CoLab. If you would like to know more about what we do, how we work, and how we might be able to help you, contact us.


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