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4.2 Scaling Knowledge-Creating Milieus

As illustrated above, the dialogical context is a basic socio-spatial device—a sort of gymnasium—for experiencing the creative power of a hermeneutic approach to knowledge and, more comprehensively, praxis. The dialoguing context is not the only kind of creative milieu however: other and more articulated socio-spatial devices enjoy such a generative power, so that, paraphrasing Durkheim, it can be viewed as the 'elementary form of creative milieu'. The present sub-section is devoted to portraying these other ideal-types of milieus and explaining their specificities in relation to the dialogical milieu, as regards constituent elements, ways of working and outcomes.

To this end, it seems useful to remark that the notion of milieu which Durkheim refers to is actually a specific kind of milieu. To understand this specificity, it is enough to compare his idea of milieu with the one we have just discussed when speaking about the dialogical experience: the main difference consists in 'volume', that is the number of people involved. When Durkheim (1895) speaks about 'volume', he is thinking of a number of individuals which is so great that reciprocal visual control becomes impossible, so that heterodox behaviours (i.e. novelties) can occur; and when he refers the notion of milieu to smaller communities, he is pointing to a condition inside which reciprocal control is deliberately suspended, as happens in the orgiastic rituals of the Australian aborigines he describes (Durkheim, 1912). In his work, 'volume' in fact stands for, and somehow masks, a deeper condition, which is 'heterogeneity' and, more precisely, 'heterogenesis', in the sense Redfield and Singer (1954) later gave this term,[1] to point to deviances (and related innovations, when certain deviances succeed in taking root within the social context) which arise within milieus characterised by relatively high social density.

Assuming heterogenesis rather than volume, it becomes possible to achieve a more general milieu structure from which to derive different forms of implementation, with crucial consequences for policies. A condition of heterogenesis can come into being in different ways: within a dialoguing context, it stems from the (few) participants' resolve to make the emergence of reciprocal idiosyncrasies possible and fruitful; at the other extreme, it can form unintentionally, within a sufficiently large number of people interacting in conditions of relative anonymity; or, finally, it can be the outcome of a deliberate temporary suspension of the ordinarily social conventions and rules. Three ideal-types of milieu hence appear: a small, carefully organised milieu, working through reciprocation (the dialogical context); a wider self-organising, evolving milieu, which works on impersonal rules (essentially, the city) and, in the intermediate position, an 'organised' milieu which is carved out of a hierarchical, such as the firm.[2]

While these three forms of milieu share a common structure, they differ in scale and, as well as scale, in distinct ways of working to enhance knowledge creation. The common structure is made of (a) a generator of heterodoxy or 'noise' (Atlan, 1979), 'creative chaos' (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995), 'buzz' (Storper & Venables, 2004), 'dissonance' (Cusinato, 2007), which may be represented by an individual, a group or society at large; (b) an interpreter, who is competent in L3, that is in contextualising heterodoxy into a sufficiently wide interpretative framework in order to look at it as expression of underlying though not immediately knowable mental habits, and (c) a noise regulator, which enables the interpreter to tune her/his exposition to noise in order not to succumb to it (Table 2).

As regards the dialogical milieu, interlocutors work as both 'noise' generators and interpreters. The moderating device is made up of the binding rules of reciprocity and a suitable arrangement of spaces (physical proximity between interlocutors, a common space among them, the outer space and a softened connection with it). The space arrangement works as a symbolic frame for evoking conditions of mind proximity, sacredness of respective mindsets, and the common space where the parties lay and collect reciprocally words and emotions.

With reference to the city, discourse becomes more composite. The idea that the city is a cognitive milieu entered economic thought through the work of Jean Rémy. [3] According to him, the city is a specific urban device in that it gives rise to specific economic outcomes, and especially knowledge. “L'ailleurs péne`tre la ville d'autant plus que s'accroissent le volume et l'hétérogénéitéde la population” (Rémy & Voye, 1992, p. 45). [4] It follows that, in a context of generalised anonymity, cultural niches emerge “ou', plus souvent que des sommes d'activités individuelles on trouve les activités collectives les plus disparates et les plus susceptibles de se développer dans la marginalité, l'illégalité[.. .] et donc de

Table 2 Two ideal types of generative milieu



Dialogical context


'Noise' generator

Dialoguing parties (artificial device)

Social interaction (social device)

Recipient/ interpreter

People in general/meta-observer

'Noise' moderator device

“Silent trade” socio-spatial structure

• Very small social volume

• Physical proximity

• Private/common spaces

• Sacredness of spaces

• Cautious openness to the external world

“Arena” socio-spatial structure

• Great social volume

• Physical proximity

• Public space (the arena)

• Private spaces (bleachers)

• Semi-public spaces (niches)

• Openness to the external world

Exchange object



Exchange device


Free collection (imitation, emulation, meta-interpretation, etc.)

aOrganisations show hybrid characters between the two portrayed scales

susciter un sentiment de curiositéet de myste`re”[5] (ibid.). Thus, the city becomes a generative milieu, and more precisely a “milieu of milieus” (Rémy, 2000),[6] made up of a number of sub-systems which generate sub-cultures, in the sense Hebdige (1979) gave this term. This milieu continuously produces deviances/variants/ innovations thanks to the multitude of relations people and groups necessarily establish and nourish among themselves and with the external world. Contacts between infra-urban milieus do not merely result in composition between interpretative codes however, but they give rise to “un 'pool' d'informations indéterminées [... dont] on ne connaˆıt pas a` l'avance le contenu pertinent, ni meˆme la personne capable de le formuler” (Rémy, 2000, p. 37).

In the city, unlike the dialogical context, relationships are generally impersonal and often also involuntary if not imposed; so heterodoxy stems from structural rather than artificial conditions. Competition in collecting spillovers and emulation rather than reciprocity are the main drivers of exchange, and the exchange object— be it noise, dissonance, deviance, 'cool' or something similar—is no longer a club good inside the little circle of interlocutors involved, but a pure public good. As a consequence, the city can be considered a genuine 'social' knowledge-creating milieu[7] by comparison with the artificiality of a dialogical milieu. The figure of the interpreter also changes: s/he is a third party, playing the role of meta-observer with respect to the noise-generative device and noise itself (Atlan, 1979). In advanced economies recourse is generally made to a chain of highly specialised figures, the first and the last links of whom can be respectively identified in the cool-hunter and the 'post-modern' entrepreneur: the former being able to perceive those variants in cultural-behavioural habits which are susceptible to economic exploitation (Morace, 2007; Schubert, 2011), and the latter being able to turn the suggestions coming from the margins and mediated by the cool-hunter into innovative goods with high symbolic content (Schmitt, 1999). Between these two figures, a number of other professionals intervene to give rise to the so-called “creative class” (Florida, 2002; Florida, Mellander, & Adler, 2011): psychologists, designers, engineers, information and computer technicians, advertisers, influencers, publicists, and many others, who share the ability to deal with superior forms of Learning.

Urban space itself is organised in a suitable way for enhancing the milieu effect. Its general structure is the same as in the dialogical context, with the concomitance of private and common spaces to allow people to regulate exposure to noise. There are significant differences, however, in their functional and symbolic roles. Differences arise from the fact that in a dialogical condition the alternation of speaking and silent moments is handled by the parties involved, so they only have to acknowledge this faculty to each other and symbolically project it into a convenient arrangement of things within space. On the contrary, in an urban condition 'noise' ceaselessly stems from the social fabric and the only option people have is when, where, how much and how long to let themselves be exposed to and involved in it. It follows that in the city both psychological and spatial devices have to be devised, not to suspend noise but to make withdrawal from it possible: recourse to anonymity and spatial recesses are typical solutions in this connection. Anonymity, as Ricoeur (2003) recalls, has then to be viewed as “une nouvelle distribution entre le privéet le public, et meˆme plus fondamentalement comme une réaction de défense, mieux, comme une immunisation contre les interférences innombrables d'autrui, résultant de la multiplicitédes contacts” (p. 114). As regards private spaces, they can be wholly legally private spaces (as 'apartments' emblematically are), but can also be carved out of public spaces through the establishment of curtains, differentiated pathways, or also because of secluded niches which naturally form within the pulsating city life. There is actually an almost complete and continual range between the two extremes of wholly private and wholly public spaces, within which individuals and groups can variously fine-tune their degree of exposure/retirement to/from city excitement, buzz, noise, etc., with important effects on learning attitudes. As regards public spaces in particular, they work in a different way and also take on a different symbolic meaning with respect to the 'third' common space in the dialogical context: whilst this latter is established as a sacred place between parties, the typical urban public space is an arena for competition (Goheen, 1998), and competition takes place through exhibition (a sort of agonistic reciprocity; Mauss, 2007[1925]), emulation and freely collecting spillovers. Unlike the dialogical context, where the physical arrangement of the common space is extremely sober, to make as much room as possible for free symbolic generation and interpretation, in the urban context, where concerns, noise and also chaos can seriously distract people from any propensity towards symbolisation, the quality of urban and architectural design matters a lot: from the foundation of the city, the public space—and urban landscape, in general—is the main vehicle by which the symbolic dimension is institutionalised, transmitted and instilled at the social level (Hall, 1998; Highmore, 2005; Wheatley, 1969). In line with the issue of superior levels of Learning, urban design becomes the emblematic public realisation of how the symbolic dimension can be moulded, giving rise to original and inspiring interpretations (Harmaakorpi, Karl, & Parjanen, 2008; Hutton, 2006).

At an intermediate scale, there are creative milieus within organisations. Organisations normally entail hierarchical rules, which are by their own nature the least conducive way of promoting creativity.[8] How to construct and govern (in the sense of 'governance') milieus of creativity within organisations hence becomes a very intriguing issue. If creativity stems from re-contextualisation of knowledge, it requires the availability of mental, relational and also physical spaces where people can detach from routines.[9] Relaxation matters, but not in the sense of simply gaining some margins of freedom from ordinary commitment and rules, but to make the demanding (and also involving) exercise of provisionally putting oneself aside from them, while remaining fully aware of being subject to them, so as to achieve original viewpoints of usual things (and rules themselves). In this connection, workplace design plays a crucial role for at least two reasons: first, because organisation of internal spaces and their distinctive furniture marks/ symbolises the passage from one to another mental-and-relational condition; second, because it suggests how it can touch emotions, shape relational attitudes and induce people to take part to the creative issue (and play) (Carroll, 2013; Galison, 1997; Zelinsky, 2004).

The above considerations conclusively indicate that the smaller a milieu is in scale—essentially, volume—the more it is an artefact, and conversely, the larger it is, the more it assumes connotations of a social[10] device. This deduction is momentous from the normative viewpoint, because it allows policy-makers to assess how much room is for manoeuvre at the different scales, and what levers are available to mould the milieu's generative power: while in dialogical contexts the mental attitudes of intervening people play a prevailing role in ensuring that generative conditions arise, and the spatial arrangement is a mere projection of those attitudes, in mediumand large-sized milieus the relationship reverses, in that spatial arrangement (and the evocative power which is associated with it) influences participants' and/or bystanders' attitudes. Put differently (and more concisely), in small milieus the symbolic dimension in-forms space with itself, while the reverse occurs with increasing milieu size.

  • [1] See also Pellicani (1992).
  • [2] It is interesting to note that these three kinds of milieu and related ways of working echo the corresponding Polanyian forms of social integration: respectively, reciprocity, market and hierarchy (Polanyi, 1944)
  • [3] See Cusinato (2007), from which this part is partially drawn
  • [4] Durkheim's influence is evident, though not explicitly acknowledged
  • [5] “Atmosphere”, in our words
  • [6] This formula and its heterogenetic content date back to Mauss (1924), who wrote that society, “eˆtre a` mille dimensions, milieu de milieux vivants et pensants, est agitée de toutes sortes de courants contradictoires et en tous sens” (p. 131). I am indebted to Terrier (2011) for this suggestion
  • [7] Where 'social' means 'structural', according to the Durkheimian approach
  • [8] For a review, Mannix, Neale, and Goncalos (2009)
  • [9] See both Simone and Crozza, in this book
  • [10] See footnote 44
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