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Complexity, Hard Hats and BMX.

Governing to Enabling Constraint is a continuum. Keiran sends it.

This post makes a link between the theory and practice of Cynefin® and complexity science. I’m using video examples from BMX so it’s a fun stretch of the OODA ‘Observe’ muscles, that may not immediately be applicable to work, politics or ‘real life’ decision making.

If you can’t observe the theory in practice, you’re not going to get to act, unless as a response to other peoples actions. So this post may be useful to people who are looking to apply concepts to the real world. If you know the concepts I’ll present some examples of where they appear to me.

I’ll be spotting enabling and governing constraints, repurposing of everyday stuff, changing identities and how most situations are a mix of the clear, complicated and complex domains.

I realised at a Cynefin® Basecamp course that large parts of one of my previous lives I’d been actively looking at my environment in a way described through the Complexity Science ideas of Governing and Enabling constraints, adjacent possibles, safe-to-fail and not-so-safe-to-fail experiments. I said I’d write about it…

I’d used links to videos that show where I think these ideas show up. Click the videos to start at the relevant bits. I hope this gives the examples I show evidence in context. I’ve tagged this post as #Learning-In-Public as I may have got some of this wrong. Let me know if that’s the case.

Before I begin…

I’m going to add a content warning here. Alongside some wholesome enterprise there is lawbreaking, disrespect and belligerence for authority figures and subjectively pointless risk taking on display . Many riders are not wearing crash helmets and are trespassing. The police and security are called. I’m presenting this as it is. I’m not offering a judgement. Just an analysis.

From the Department for Content Warnings, 2020.

Firstly, A bit about riding bikes

Riding BMX bikes can help you see and act in your environment in creative ways. Riders are always looking to progress and push their skills and boundaries. Skateboarders will know this feeling too. You never see a city the same again, and the 6th sense you get when is a riding spot nearby never goes away.

Progressing and novelty is (or at least was) the most important part of BMX, the things described here need to be understood as happening in an environment that rewards progression above all. Personal progression, doing things you couldn’t do yesterday, doing things that you’ve not done at this place, and more global progression, doing things no one else had done, and doing things no one else had even thought of doing. The last example in this post involving Bas Keep jumping off the Croyden Flyover is an example here.

Bikes and Physics as Constraints

We ride bikes with some non-negotiable Governing Constraints. Gravity and physics are not negotiable, and provide rules that everyone needs to obey. Concrete is hard, bones break.

Low quality bikes that bent and broke were a constraint in the mid 90’s, a decade after BMX’s 80’s boom. This was a showstopper for progression since riders needed to trust their bikes to be able to commit to tricks, and there was no money to be made in the tiny 1990’s bmx scene by big companies. Bikes that broke stopped progression.

Riders themselves moved this constraint by creating their own manufacturing companies building high quality bikes in the USA, many raising funding selling t-shirts and stickers and using it to start metal fabrication businesses. The bikes might still break, but at much higher stress levels. S&M Bikes, Hoffman Bikes, FBM, T1 were all rider owned companies who pushed the boundaries of manufacturing.

Riders learned to work in and manage machine shops, knowing and care how things were sourced and made. When you trust your bike, you remove a constraint to progress.

The last comment on this video, Josh Corts is fabricating frames for FBM (Fat Bald Men) Bikes, and he rides an FBM after work. “And you ride?” “Yeah, we’re getting ready to go down to Bingham to ride some street today.” Skin in the Game. Click the video to jump to the right part.

”And you Ride?” “Yeah…”

The obsession with strong bikes, often weighing 35lbs then constrained riders who needed lighter bikes for more complex tricks. Newer bikes (I’m told) are much lighter and stronger. Manufacturing in the Far East has improved although FBM bikes continues making bike in New York State. Riders surfed constraints and ratcheting up what’s possible with their available equipment and money, and ending up creating a whole scene.

Constraints that help

Unlike gravity and Physics, many obstacles are enabling, and finding out how they go from stopping you to being a necessary part of the trick is all part of the fun.

Do you think that’s going to constrain me?

A fence around a children’s park is designed to keep kids in. Fences and barriers are put around skateparks to keep bikes and skateparks in, and other things out. A fence or barrier around a skatepark is also going to get ridden on, jumped over, and integrated into riding.

In the video above at 4:50 Keiran jumps the fence out of the skatepark. I’m fairly certain that the fence wasn’t designed as part of the park, but without it this trick doesn’t exist.

The video below features skater Andrew Anderson, using the fence around the skatepark as part of the park itself. The video itself has lots of examples of fences and rails – Things designed and made as boundaries and constraints enable skating. They don’t necessarily make it easy, these things are non obvious. Things that are not supposed to be ridded can be awkward to ride. Click the picture for the part of the video showing the fence as part of the park.

The fence keeps cars and motorbikes out…. Click for the part of the video where it enables stuff…

Knowing what has just been done, changes what’s possible

In BMX there is a ever moving boundary of things that have been done. Not only by you, but by anyone. Once you know something has been done it opens possibilities. What’s possible from here, in complexity is called adjacent possible. Just knowing someone has done something similar changes what you think can be done.

Justin Gautreau, looking at jumping his bike down the 20 step monster at El Toro

The first few seconds of the video below, Justin Gautreau is talking about adjacent possible. (Content warning – the full video contains ‘belligerence’ and disrespect of authority, no helmets and balls of steel etc).

Click to see the first few seconds of this show Justin discussing adjacent possibles.

In normal language Justins words mean “if someone can 360 the bike, while letting go of the handlebars and spinning them 360, while jumping down 20 concrete steps, then I can keep hold of the bars, and kick the rest of the bike under me 360 and catch the pedals before I land.” What’s adjacent and possible changes when new things are done.

A security guard and a golf cart. Not cool circumstances, but enabling constraints in action.

Rodney Mullen says

In the TED talk, on getting up again:

There are a few ways we see it. As you can see we film and send it around the world. Then in a few months, maybe weeks so called friends show a video of some rotten kid in Madagascar, doing it better than you do.

Rodney Mullen

Knowing what has been done, and so what can be done, changes what we can do here and now. Even if we’ve only seen what’s been done on video from the other side of the world.

What was needed to get this done was an enabling constraint. BMX rider George Marshall, now a photographer for Rapha, Vans & Red Bull says

it‘s amazing how much stuff gets done when security turn up.

George Marshall, Photographer.

You can be riding at a spot for hours, but when you’re about to get kicked out of a riding spot, the thing you’re trying gets done. Knowing there is one last go enables crazy focus. From the evidence, Security showing up is an enabling constraint of one last go.

The 20 stairs at El Toro have now been removed and replaced with something that’s not rideable or skate-able, possibly because of the behaviour of Justin and the video team and their treatment of security.

Of course this is the challenge – riding things that are not supposed to be ridden is part of the fun, so don’t hold your breath that someone won’t be back.

One last go

Another examples of Security showings up and ‘One Last Go’ as an enabling constraint happened in Japan at a condemned skatepark called ‘Death Bowl’. When the security guard shows up for work at 8.30am precisely, Greg Illingworth knows he has one last chance to get the trick that he travelled for days halfway around the world to get. He’s unlikely to get back to Death Bowl, ever.

With 7 days to find the skatepark and get this shot, it happened at the last moment before they got kicked out. The enabling constraint of getting kicked out…

People who employ the security guards to do their job are thinking they are setting up governing constraints. But often these become enabling constraints, creating the pressure to get things done.

I’m imagining that those creating laws think the same. Lawyers see laws as enabling constraints, not governing constraints….

Introducing the Croyden Flyover

Seeing novel new uses for things in the world is a skill, and is something that enables new ideas and ways of doing things.

Sebastian Keep’s ”Project walls” was an idea to put his bikes wheels as high up unlikely walls as he could find.

We set out to put tyre prints where no one would dream of riding a bike.

Sebastian Keep

Bas used google earth to find suitable spots, and built mockups of the spots out of wood in a warehouse to practice. He then constructed wooden ramps, and got his friends in Hi Vis Vests to stop traffic while jumping off motorway flyovers and out of multi-storey car parks.

Hard hats and High Viz. Change of Identity through change of clothing photo digbmx.com

To solve problem of how to jump off the Croyden Flyover, Cynefin would tell us to use appropriate methods, and work out what type of problem we have. Sebastian does this, mainly taking an incremental scientific approach, by practicing on a mock up. This is “Complicated” in Cynefin domains.

Sebastian build mock ups of the riding spots in a warehouse, and moved them further apart at foot at a time to simulate the real spot. This in in the complicated domain – measuring distances and speed and using science. There isn’t much crash footage from this project. That’s to do with the scientific approach and Bas’s skills knowing what he’s capable of.

The video below shows this in action.

A mock up of the real riding spot, with the gap to the wall extended from 8ft to 17ft.
Click for video of systematically practising the jump in a warehouse

The project could have ended when at 7am on a Sunday Morning the Police drove by and slowed down to see what was going on.

Blokes in High Viz Jackets with hard hats and traffic cone at 7am on a Sunday” helped. Hi Viz and and unnecessary hard hats are sucessfully worn at many of the spots Bas rides at to deflect and avoid suspicion.

Hi Viz changes their identity

Cynefin says we take on different identities based on what we wear in both our, and other people eyes. It can’t be know for sure that the High Viz and hard hats was why the police decide not to stop and investigate. The same people on a Friday night dressed in hoodies and baseball caps it may have been investigated and moved on.

Jumping off the Croydon Flyover.

Jumping off the bridge was made possible by using a mix of complex, complicated and simple approaches were required, and crucially using the right approach in the right place.

Getting the skills and practice to attempt this used planning and science, as did building the ramps and making sure everyone knew what to do and when.

Getting to the spot, setting up and jumping off the bridge required coning off part of the road, taking down a sign and building a ramp in plain sigh may have been helped by apparent identity of those doing the work.

In this post I’ve tried to show where complexity science shows up in real life, and how we can deliberately and intuitively approach problems with different methods to get the outcome we want.

Some of the other approaches I use can be seen here.

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