What IS Knowledge?

London cab on a London street with a double decker bus in the background. Text on the image that says What is Knowledge

What do you REALLY know?

We love a London taxi driver.  They will get you to far flung destinations in the city with minutes still to spare.  They will appear at night, just when you need one.  They are gloriously indiscreet about who they have had sitting in your seat and what the conversation was.  Also, their chat is strong, name a topic, they will have a view:  how to design the best board game, the group dynamic of The Stones since Charlie’s passing, sustainable urban construction methods, why {insert your team of choice} is unlikely to win the league this season, the list is endless. 

They also have ‘The Knowledge’ – a study of the quickest routes through London’s complicated road network, designed over centuries rather than neatly grid-mapped.  With thousands of streets and points of interest primarily within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, any cabbie wanting to drive an iconic London taxi-cab must first memorise them all: the Knowledge of London.  Mastering The Knowledge typically takes 3-4 years and was introduced as a requirement for London taxi drivers in 1865.  The first taxi rank appeared in The Strand in 1636, with horse-drawn carriages and drivers for hire, known as Hackney Carriages.  The Knowledge was introduced to create consistency of the service provided. 

But what about today?  There has been a digital revolution over the past 150 years and now, anyone with a mode of transport and a device can happily navigate across town with the help of their GPS or Google Maps.  E-bikes and scooters have a deck for your device, transforming it into an onboard navigation system, and of course, there are competing taxi firms such as Uber, heavily reliant on software to find and deposit you.   

But is knowing the digitally fastest route between two points REALLY knowing or are you simply a geographically efficient hazardous projectile? 

Certain parts of our brain are free to step-down when we defer to digital guidance.  We no longer need to engage with the road and the surroundings, to be hyper-aware, to notice new landmarks or new developments since we last passed.  At most we are in collision avoidance mode, then eyes go back to the screen and follow the blue line.   

In March 2000, University College London conducted a study looking at London taxi drivers’ ability to memorise such a large and disorganised system.  They explained that the part of the brain that navigates spatial intelligence, the hippocampus, was found to be much larger in taxi drivers than in almost anyone else.

One cabbie explained the sensation on hearing a journey request as being like an explosion in the brain, they can see it instantly.  The driver doesn’t hesitate for a second, they simply start moving, knowing immediately which streets to take and what the most direct route will be.   

Then, another part of the brain, the visual cortex kicks in:  what the road surfaces are like; who else is sharing the road; how other road users are behaving at this time of day; what the pedestrians are up to and in what numbers; what roads to prioritise when it’s raining or it’s dark; what other distractions or events are taking place.  This is what the London taxi-drivers call REAL knowledge, route-mapping is simply the entry ticket to the rodeo. 

How often do we find ourselves route-mapping without really stepping into the environment, becoming part of it and engaging with the landscape?  How often do we devise a plan and attempt to follow it by rote then find ourselves frustrated at the lack of a contingency plan (knowing that, from experience, first contact will require us to monitor the conditions as we go along, remain nimble and recalibrate)? 

Real knowledge, like the London cabbies, is not simply the intellectual learning of something but the lived experience of it, how it stands up in reality, observing how it has played out in the past, witnessing how it develops for others.   

Knowledge is less about learning the route-map and more about understanding the variables on the journey. 

However, ask a London cabbie to share their view on the reasons for an event that they have little knowledge about and, invariably the answer will be: 

“It’s El Niño / Brexit / Covid mate” 

We can help with your roadmap or expanding your knowledge, just get in touch.

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