University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Transformative Approaches to Social Organization

Overview: Transformative Approaches Project

Projects: Problems | Strategies | Values | Integrative concepts | Human development | Transformative approaches | Metaphors

Scope and rationale
Organization and structure

Explanatory comments
Reservations and disclaimer
Media used & multi-media

Scope and rationale

Each of the approaches briefly described here is necessarily somewhat unconventional. Each has its value in isolation and some are already successfully used on that basis. The argument here is that, whether or not they are already used, each can also be usefully understood as having strengths and weaknesses not found in the others. In this sense their real value for the future lies in their complementarity.

The point to be made is that it is not any one single approach which is adequate to the challenge of the present social complexity. Rather it is how a range of fundamentally different approaches are combined to compensate for the various weaknesses of each of them.

Analytical tools must necessarily continue to have their special role, but many of the approaches grouped here highlight the need for new ways to represent or visualize complex patterns. During any design process there is a need to facilitate more creative comprehension of complexity than has proved possible by linear descriptions or through analytical tools alone. The stress on complementarity is therefore effectively a stress on a form of methodological group marriage.


This project was initiated in 1986 in preparation for the third edition of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential in 1991. It formed part of a long-term programme loosely described as an investigation into transformative approaches.

Organization and structure

1. Overview From the more concrete to the more imaginative, the approaches included are the following.

2. Interactive database use: Although there has been an explosion in the range of software and hardware facilities available through which to interact with databases, many of them emphasize consultation of a database rather than the manner in which its internal relationships are built up and understood. The conventional approach to databases, and to reference books produced from them, is to fcus on individual entries. The user is not assisted in understanding the pattern of relationships between entries, other than by a fairly crude grouping of entries into categories.

2.1 Hypertext editing (detailed comment): There has been an explosion of interest in hypertext as a technique for interrelating items in a large text database. The software techniques for creating hypertext links are now well develped. Little attention has been given to the conceptual challenges of creative editing of hypertext. One approach to this challenge has been develped in connection with this Encyclopedia, notably with regard to the complex pattern of relationships amongst world problems.

2.2 Interactive graphics (detailed comment): There is a vital distinction between the capacity to "look up" information, as typified by use of telephone directory and and portraying the pattern of relationships between bodies, concepts or issues, as typified by systems charts, PERT charts, subway maps and mind maps. It is such maps which help the user to ask more insightful questions that are less dependent on initial biases.

3. Analysis: When dealing with networks consisting of thousands of entities and relationships, it is extremely difficult for an editor to detect redundant links. Routines can be designed to analyze the network around an anchor point for different types of redundancy, but the results to date have proved difficult to interpret because they cannot as yet be related to a visual map.

3.1 Network analysis (detailed comment): An increasing number of applications of graph theory have emerged in the social sciences. GRADAP is an especially powerful package for the definition and analysis of large networks of social entities. Many other packages exist but few are able to handle more than a few hundred nodes or relationships between them. Like all of themhowever GRADAP offers no means of actually mapping the networks in a visually comprehensible form. The results are presented as indicators or tables.

3.2 Identification of vicious and serendipitous loops (detailed comment): There has long been recognition of how one problem can aggravate another and of how several problems can reinforce each other. There has been no attempt to identify systematically the existence of vicious loops or cycles through which four or more problems constantly reinforce one another. A computer program has been developed to explore the many pathways amongst the world problems documented in this Encyclopedia and isolate such loops. This suggests the possibility of moving from a focus on problems as though they were isolated, of which few are, to one in which the focus is on the many vicious loops of which a problem may be a member. See also examples of loops.

3.3 Q-Analysis (detailed comment): This technique gives precision to understanding of the challenges of comprehensibility amongst communities of people or organizations. Specifically it shows how more complex patterns of understanding, or concepts of greater complexity, can only be communicated with great difficulty by losing important dimensions, or not at all, through certain patterns of relationship. It demonstrates how complex messages can only be usefully cmmunicated through communication channels that can handle such complexity. In the absence of adequate channels, complex notions do not "travel well". It raises thre question of how to design communication networks adequate to integrative communications of any kind.

4. Visualization and comprehension

4.1 Augmenting human intellect (detailed comment): The fundamental importance of interactive graphics, in whatever form, is its ability to facilitate understanding. Progress in understanding is made through the development of mental models or symbolic notations that permit a simple representation of a mass of complexities not previously understood. The challenge is to discover ways of using the computer to augment human intellect and the capacity to comprehend complexity.

4.2 Graphics environment for exploring relationship networks (detailed comment): Because of the overwhelming volume of data, it is becoming increasingly clear that conventional means of presenting such data do not respond adequately to the needs of an important category of users. Users associated with the policy elaboration process need new information tools which help them to get an overview of the maze of data. Options need to be presented for discussion in terms of a context of explicitly interrelated issues -- in contrast with the present tendency to disguise this complexity by reducing it to a linear agenda of issues. Users need "maps" of the pathways between text entries, especially in complex subject areas. Such maps provide a sense of context which is lost in many hierarchical presentations of data in linear text form. It is only from such maps that users can quickly obtain an adequate overview of data in an unfamiliar area to guide their efficient use of conventional information tools. Such maps are of value precisely because they are richer than simple hierarchically structured thesauri.

4.3 Network mapping (detailed comment): There is a need to represent complex socially-significant networks in visual form as is done in many other domains.

4.4 Holistic network mapping (detailed comment): NETMAP is a powerful new software package that analyzes very large and complex networks of relationships and presents the result in a special circular graphic form. The approach permits new patterns of relationship to be discovered between people, organizations, or problems. Users can interact with the display to obtain more or less detail, or derive displays based on other criteria. It offers unique possibilities for navigating through hundreds of thousands of entities and relationships whilst retaining both a sense of context and without loss of detail.

4.5 Structural outliner (detailed comment): The spread of computers has encouraged the use of what are termed "text outliners" as a way of assisting authors and report writers to structure and work with complex documents with many levels of heading. The challenge for the authors is to be able navigate around such complex documents, retaining a sense of context but without losing the ability to work on the content of the smallest sub-section. To deal creatively with complex structures there is a somewhat analogous need for a "structural outliner" software package. Its purpose would be to facilitate the ability to envisage viable configurations of functions based on structures more complex that those reinforced by the hierarchical organization typical of text outliners. It responds to the need for potential collaborators to be able to design "conceptual keystones" essential to the coherence and viability of unforeseen coalition possibilities in difficult situations of governance.

5. Discontinuity and non-linearity

5.1 Conserving decision-making diversity (detailed comment): Advocates of new approaches readily fall into the trap of implying that everything that came before was inadequate. This is especially dangerous where seemingly outmoded techniques remain appropriate under other conditions, especially where the latest advances cannot be made available. There is a need to conserve a wide variety of forms of decision-making and to understand how they intereact and support reach other.

5.2 Paradox management (detailed comment): Although some of the emerging complexity of social may be handled through 3-dimensional structures, there is increasing evidence that some of the challenges derive from an essentially paradoxical quality to the policy dilemmas with which people and groups are faced at all levels of society. Dilemma and polarization are features of most social initiatives. Few initiatives are unambiguously advantageous; few so-called problems are without their advantages. There is an emerging need to be able to recognize and manage paradoxes.

5.3 Polarity entrapment (detailed comment): Failure to manage paradoxes leads to entrapment. Since there has been little attempt to develop the skills of navigating paradoxes at the policy level, there is merit in exploring the possibility that some of the paralysis of society may be due to such entrapment. As Geofrrey Vickers noted: "A trap is a function of the nature of the trapped." The challenge to be faced is whether groups and individuals have effectively been enthralled by one pole of a polar dilemma as a result of an overly simple comprehension of it, a neglect of the weaknesses inherent in it, and a fearful rejection of the strengths associated with the opposing pole. The balance called for is likely to be a dynamic one. A static focus on a single pole of a dilemma is unlikely to be adequate in the present turbulent times.

5.4 Confidence artistry (detailed comment): Despite the pejorative connotations normally associated with confidence artistry, there is much to be learnt from the strategic skills that it implies. Furthermore, construed in a positive light, it can indeed be argued that governance is primarily the art through which the confidence of the people is transformed into various forms of action -- however surprising that may prove to be to those whose confidence was used to give rise to it.

5.5 Challenge of insight cultivation (detailed comment): Those concerned with the crisis of governance at all levels of society are faced with a number of dilemmas. Their combined effect leads to a form of "insight impoverishment" within the policy-making environment. The leadership is effectively starved of insights -- often without realizing this is the case. On the other hand, available insights of considerable value may well go underused. Efforts to remedy the situation are too often designed by those responsible for creating it in the first place.

6. Configuring globally

6.1 Configuring intractable differences (detailed comment): Many initiatives assume the need for some form of consensus amongst all parties in order to be manageable and successful. In many domains however such consensus has proved to be unlikely, or else unsustainable for any length of time if it can be achieved. There is some possibility that configuring differneces, without seeking to reconcile and resolve them, may prove more realistic. Thisapproach depends on using patterns of difference as a structuring feature through which new kinds of structure can be given form. It suggests the need to set isolated bilateral agreement of any kind in a broader framework as part of a coherent pattern of checks and balances.

6.2 Geometry of organizations, policies and programmes (detailed comment): Nearly all efforts at organization design are based on structures that can be conveniently represented in 2 dimensions with little distortion. This is notably the case for both organizational hierarchies (as charts), so-called matrix organizations, and the many experiments in networking (to the extent that they are represented on maps at all). There is an emerging case for exploring new kinds of organization and agreement that can only be effectively represented by 3 dimensional structures, especially those that derive their coherence from having some symmetry around a centre. One group of structures of this kind could be based on polyhedral nets.

6.3 Tensegrity organization (detailed comment): Much in the design of hierarchical organizations has effectively been borrowed or learnt from the design of buildings. Conventional buildings have been a powerful metaphor. The question is whether there is anything to be learnt from other newer architectural and structural forms concerning the design and integrity of unusual forms of organization -- especially if these can better reflect the challenge of paradox and intractable difference. Tensegrity structures offer a powerful new metaphor especially relevant to the design of virtual organizations in e-mail environments.

6.4 Transformative policy cycles (detailed comment): Conventional efforts at policy-making tend to be more or less exclusively focused on single policies that are designed to replace previous policies now considered inadequate or outmoded. The virtual certainty that the new policy will itself come to be perceived as outmoded is not part of the policy design -- except as the consequence of a transfer of power at the termination of any electoral term. There is a need for polcies which can transcend electoral cycles whilst reflecting the change of emphasis of any change of power. In this sense there is a need to explore interlocking cycles of policies. It is such cycles of policies which may prove more capable of dealing with vicious cycles of problems. Interlocking cycles may prove more approporate to the challenges of long-term sustainability in a turbulent policy environment.

7. Global patterning

7.1 Transformative policy cycles (detailed comment): This exercise is concerned with identifying and representing patterns of change and with the development of better ways of responding to its possibilities in various forms of socially organized activity, such that developmental momentum is conserved within the pattern rather than being dissipated unusefully.

7.2 Alternation between complementary policy conditions (detailed comment): The vital point that emerges from the Chinese perspective of the previous note is that it is not sufficient to conceive of organizational conditions in isolation, as is the prevalent tendency among Western networkers. The processes of change in which a policy cycle is embedded, or to which it responds, require that the policy cycle consider itself in a state of transience within a set of potential conditions. It courts disaster if it attempts to "stick" to one condition such as "peace".

7.3 Interrelating incompatible viewpoints (detailed comment): This Encyclopedia seeks to respond to the dilemma of the many possible views concerning the nature of sustainable human development. Usually any such view considers itself more appropriate than other competing views. Few views account for the existence of other views except as being predecessors or misguided. And yet it is the interaction of such views within a conceptual ecology which characterizes the dynamics of human society. Different views engender different styles of human development and give rise to different problems.

It therefore remains an interesting challenge to explore new ways of interrelating the network of views, especially if it is possible to embody in such an exercise features which give the whole a degree of complexity appropriate to the complexity it is intended to encompass. It is also desirable to build in features from other than western cultures. This is not a new challenge, although it may nowappear more dramatic to some. An intriguing point of departure is a classic Buddhist text entitled the "Brahmajala Sutta" (The Discourse on the All-Embracing Net of Views). This appears to be unique in endeavouring to map out as a system the complete set of fundamental viewpoints.

7.4 Global configuration from number theory (detailed comment): A unique computer software package, Chryzode, has been developed to enable the visual exploration of complex patterns generated using all the riches of the mathematical theory of numbers as the relate to projective geometry. It uses hitherto little explored mathematical properties to handle the presentation of large amounts of information in a comprehensible manner.

Like the management tool NETMAP, described earlier (see also the inside covers of this volume), Chryzode generates patterns of relationship by positioning nodes on the circumference of a circle. In the case of NETMAP, the positions can be determined by a clustering algorithm to facilitate comprehension.

It is tempting to argue that what is required is some kind of marriage between the approaches of NETMAP and Chryzode, between the empirical and the abstract, in responding to the needs of comprehending the complexity of the world problematique in new ways, as well as to the complex relationships in the information of human values and human development in this volume.

8. Dialogue and conferencing

8.1 Transformative conferencing (detailed comment): The main concern is with highlighting problems and possibilities relevant to the organization of more mature meetings on the new frontier of high- risk gatherings in response to social development issues and the global problematique. Attention is only given to the "mechanics" of meeting organization (covered in the many books available on such matters) in so far as they directly affect the psycho-social dynamic of the meeting.

8.2 Levels of dialogue (detailed comment): There is a need to reframe the challenge of dialogue by distinguishing forms which are essentially tokenistic or minimalistic from those which should be able to open up new possibilities. The difficulty is that the latter are easily obscured by the enthusiasms, low expectations and self-congratulatory nature of the former. Only though such distinctions does it seem possible to identify the genuinely new frontiers where pioneering work is called for and to envision the future possibilities and challenges in that context.

8.3 Learnings for the future of dialogue (detailed comment): There is the clear implication that dialogues of different quality and consequence could be associated with distinct conditions, whether considered as stages or frameworks. But the dangers of focusing on "higher level" dialogue, at the expense of others forms, derive from the failure to recognize the functions of each kind of dialogue and how they complement each other within society.

8.4 Conceptual weaknesses of conferencing (detailed comment): It is useful to consider the range of conceptual weaknesses in both electronic networking and in conventional face-to-face conferences.

8.5 Metaphors of transformation in conferences (detailed comment): The real challenge for conferencing in relation to the crises of our times is to provide people with tools to counter the imaginal deficiency from which we collectively suffer when dealing with complexity.

8.6 Structure of concluding declarations (detailed comment): Many perspectives need to interact to clarify the content of global declarations and render them appropriate. But there is also a need for expertise in new forms of order to clarify the dimensions which could influence the conceptual framework within which that content is presented. Such formal properties are a challenge to ways of thinking that have proved inadequate. They might include:

8.7 Policy forums as metaphors (detailed comment): The organization of a meeting and its processes in fact provide a remarkable metaphor of wider society and the challenge of using resources more appropriately. The challenge of formulating more appropriate policies is highlighted by the difficulties in meeting design.

8.8 Participant contract (detailed comment): This note is an experimental outline of a proposed contract between participants at a meeting. It is designed to acknowledge specifically the interacting roles at the shadowy "roundtable" hidden within every meeting. The emphasis is on the nature of the specific contractual bonds between participants.

9. Envisioning meetings of the future: The possible nature of meetings in the distant future is used as an exercise in clarifying some of the dilemmas in moving beyond the unproductive nature of many meetings faced with challenging problems and possibilities.

10. Context beyond text

10.1 Meshing imaginative vision and policy implementability (detailed comment): The complexity of the policy challenges of sustainable development, the need for "new thinking" and the importance of more imaginative approaches to policy-making and organization are all now well-recognized.

10.2 Beyond the constraints of text (detailed comment): The process by which new possibilities are currently being explored is almost completely conducted through verbal and textual exchanges. There is a significant body of evidence to indicate that creativity and innovation are catalyzed and sustained by imagery and metaphor. There is therefore a strong argument for exploring the characteristics of structured imagery vital to the articulation of new patterns of relationships in areas critical to governance at this time.

10.3 Design choices for global coherence (detailed comment): Efforts to analyze existing inter-sectoral patterns can clarify many of the challenges and opportunities for a more coherent approach to global dialogue and "bargains". All parties in such dialogue are however necessarily immersed to a fairly high degree in their particular perspectives. Such a "bottom-up" approach clearly has some limitations. It would therefore also seem appropriate to take a complementary ("top-down") approach by looking to ways of representing the desired qualities of coherence and sustainability in "ideal" models of inter-sectoral dialogue as a global pattern --provided the diversity of sectors is duly respected. This note is an exploration of one such model.

11. Configuring strategic dilemmas in intersectoral dialogue (detailed comment): The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) was considered of considerable symbolic, political and substantive importance as the "Earth Summit". For that occasion there was much concern to develop "inter-sectoral dialogue". Essentially this meant dialogue between sectors which normally had little communication and were suspcious of each others priorities. These included: the scientific community, trade unions, the business community, NGOs, religious groups, environmental groups, and the like. There is little experience with such dialogue in a multi-cultural setting despite the vital complementarity of the perspectives represented. The theme of inter-sectoral dialogue was continued in the international conference on Partnerships for Change (Manchester, 1993). New ways are required to weave together the themes evoked at such events.

11.0 General checklist of documents describing the rationale and process
11.1 Inter-sectoral Strategic Dilemmas of Sustainable Development (Figure 1a)
11.2 Significance of 2-domain letter codes (Figure 1b)
11.3 Competing Models and Visions of Global Order via Function Dominance (Figure 2)
11.4 Representation of Issue Arenas on Icosidodecahedral Net: Alternate A (Figure 3a)
11.5 Representation of Issue Arenas on Icosidodecahedral Net: Alternate B (Figure 3b)
11.6 Spherical Representation of Icosidodecahedral Net of Strategies (Figure 4)
11.7 Significance of 3-domain Dilemma Codes (Figure 5)
11.8 Representation of Interlocking Elements for a Sustainable Global System (Figure 6)
11.9 Procedural notes and checklists

12. Poetry and policy-making: prospects for an arranged marriage (detailed comments): The theme here is the future relationship between poetry (including rhythm) and policy making (including management) in their various forms. This might even include the possible role of technology in reconciling them in more meaningful and fruitful ways. Exploring the relationship between such seemingly opposed concerns calls for continuing dialogue between imaginative musing and the constraints of experience.

Explanatory comments

The links in the structured summary above provide access to the individual commentaries. For convenience, and as with the other projects, a separate checklist of such documents is provided.

Research studies on transformative approaches (written in relation to this project, to international organizations and to the global problematique), are directly accessible from separate checklists:

Note that more general comments and explanations, regarding the collection of projects initiated within the framework of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, are available in a collection of 27 documents.

Reservations and disclaimer

The approaches discussed here are necessarily experimental and designed to open up possibilities, especially in larger conference environments.

Media used & multi-media

The information generated by this project on transformative approaches has been published initially in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential; portions of it have been made available on-line.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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