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Strategic ecosystem: Configuring strategic dilemmas in intersectoral dialogue

Global Strategies Project

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This note provides the link to the discussion of configuring strategies under Transformative Approaches in Volume 2 (Section TZ, Note 11), and to the tables and diagrams printed on the pages following that note.

1. "Global bargains" through more complex structure

In preparation for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development as a follow-up report to his involvement as Secretary-General of the World Commission on Environment and Development, responsible for the Brundtland Report), Jim MacNeill articulated for the Trilateral Commission the policy options for sustainable development in terms of "shaping global bargains" (Beyond Interdependence, 1991). He notes: "The notion of a 'global bargain' conjures up many images, especially within the broad context of sustainable development...In its simplest terms, a bargain involves at least two parties and two issues. It implies a trade-off between the parties on the issues. The group of nations, developed and developing, that have come together to form a bargain must agree to give up something in order to get something else. As a rule, they would give up a path of development in a given sector that is unsustainable and thus represents a threat to themselves and the other negotiating nations or the global commons."

In this sense a global bargain involves at least two parties and two issues, implying a trade-off between the parties on the issues. However according to this perspective the arenas to be subject to bargaining emerge haphazardly as a result of conventional political processes. There is no systemic sense of how the bargains interweave to ensure the sustainability of development as whole. There is no sensitivity to issues which can be conveniently ignored by powerful majorities. In a real sense this corresponds to the traditional paradigm of ad-hocery which has contributed so much to the emergence and maintenance of the present crisis.

The difficulty is that bargains are typically discussed in the verbal and textual mode. In this mode, notions of "giving up" in order to "get something else" are understood in the simplest terms and therefore readily evoke opposition. This opposition is indeed legitimate in terms of the "two-dimensional" images (of "sides") through which they are currently discussed. It would not however be so necessary in terms of more complex configurations (of "sides") as advocated above.

2. Beyond isolated bargains

It is unfortunate, as the MacNeill report illustrates, that thinking for the 1992 Earth Summit was focused on the possibility of a series of issue-specific "global bargains". Taken one by one, these may or may not prove negotiable. But on this basis there is every likelihood that the effects of some will undermine the effects of others. What is missing is any image of how issue-specific bargains can be interwoven to constitute a larger sustainable development bargain --as a set of complementary elements rather than as a series.

As in architecture, it is through balancing the stresses and tensions between a set of complementary construction elements that the integrity of a building is ensured. Richer structured imagery is required to facilitate understanding of how the larger and more encompassing bargains can be achieved. It is through such images of integrity, emerging from more complex structures, that the logic of that integrity gives justification to issue-specific bargains with greater effectiveness. It shows how they "fit". Structured images are required to give precision to the vague notions of "checks and balances" conventionally articulated in textual terms. Such images give precision to the notions of "giving up", and tensional "trade offs", which readily lend themselves to description in architectural terms, for example.

The overall purpose of the inter-sectoral dialogue is to raise the level of inter-sectoral debate. The challenge is to move beyond simplistic consensus and beyond acrimonious restatement of established positions. The challenge is one of moving towards higher orders of consensus.

3. Strategic dilemmas

To explore and illustrate new possibilities, an exercise was undertaken, in preparation for an Intersectoral Dialogue on the occasion of the Earth Summit, under the auspices of the International Facilitating Committee for the Independent Sectors in the UNCED Process (chaired by Ashok Khosla). The focus of the exercise described here was on identifying "strategic dilemmas" underlying debates on Earth Summit issues. These are the dilemmas which reflect such seemingly irreconcilable concerns as safeguarding watercourses versus exploiting essential hydro-electric energy reserves. The assumption is that the set of these local (namely issue-specific) long-term dilemmas may offer clues to new patterns of global (namely inter-sectoral) strategies and bargains.

There were two points of departure:

4. Pattern of strategic dilemmas

Figure 1 is one attempt to respond to this situation by showing how different social functions, understood as strategic opportunities, interfere with each other to engender a pattern of strategic dilemmas. In that pattern each strategy may take a privileged role or may in turn be constrained by other strategies. For example, when "environment" is a privileged function, "well-being (+jobs)" may be sacrificed, whereas, when "well-being (+jobs)" is the privileged function, sacrificing "environment" is the alternative option. Neither option is satisfactory, but both appear to have their place.

Any such dilemma may of course be "resolved" by short-term measures, but the nature of the dilemma renders such solutions unsustainable in the longer-term. Sustainable development is a function of the pattern as a whole rather than of its components.

The choice of six principal functions as the basis for the pattern in Figure 1 is of course arbitrary -- but it is certainly more systemic than the chapter organization of the Brundtland Report or of Agenda 21. A different number of clusters could have been used, bearing in mind the constraints of over-simplification and excessive complexity.

A tentative interpretation of the significance of the 2-letter codes in Figure 1 is given in Figure 2.

5. Network of bargain arenas

The traditional tabular presentation of Figure 1 is itself a conceptual trap. It encourages a very mechanistic approach to the pattern of dilemmas, reinforcing tendencies to much-contested forms of "linear thinking". The linearity may be deliberately challenged by allowing the information to be encoded or projected onto a network. In the light of the earlier arguments concerning polyhedral nets, in this exercise the network has been deliberately chosen to facilitate comprehension of global properties of the pattern of strategic dilemmas by mapping the information in Figure 1 onto an icosadodecaheral net (see Figures 3A and 3B). As noted below the global significance of the pattern, and the basis for its sustainability, only emerges when its form in three-dimensions become apparent.

In the network the principal lines traversing the pattern are used to represent the six selected strategic preoccupations of Figure 1. They are coded by the same letters. Most of the lines can only appear as broken in two dimensions, although in three they are seen to formunbroken interlocking circles around a sphere as is seen when the original polyhedron is reconstructed in 3 dimensions (see Figure 5). In this exercise, the interlocking of these circles creates a pattern of triangles and pentagons. These may be understood as simpler (3-valent) and more complex (5-valent) bargaining arenas around specific concerns.

6. Identifying the bargaining arenas

Each triangle in the network can be described by a 3-letter code reflecting a particular combination of the original 6 strategic functions. On the basis of work on coding the declaration issues according to these functions, a tentative indication of the significance of each code is given here in Figure 4. The codes appear in two columns. The left hand column indicates a development-focused application of the strategies. The right hand column indicates an environment-sensitive application of the strategies. In both cases typical problems resulting from inappropriate implementation are indicated. Keywords from that indication have been inserted into the network diagram.

It becomes clear that on a single network pattern (Figure 3A), two triangles appear with the same code, and are therefore used here to indicate the development-focused and the environment-sensitive keywords for that code combination. They are on opposite sides of the network (notably when displayed in three dimensions). Only half of the 20 possible combinations appear on that pattern. A further 10 appear in the second version (Figure 3B). The two versions result from the different orders in which the functions can appear. The complete range of Earth Summit issues and related strategies is effectively mapped onto these two networks.

7. Re-interpreting the bargaining challenge

In contrast to that approach, the patterning exercise here emphasizes the necessarily global structure of the network of issue-specific bargains. Namely it starts from an assumption of inter-sectoriality (functional globality) and allows specific sectoral (functionally local) concerns to emerge as features of the pattern of strategic options. From this perspective, it seems extremely doubtful that local issue-specific bargains (emissions, forests, etc) can be effectively struck in isolation from the global context of strategic dilemmas -- as tends currently to be assumed. Any such isolated bargains would therefore tend to be unsustainable in the longer-term.

8. De-stressing issue-specific bargains

This perspective does however suggest that articulation of these dilemmas within a global framework may redistribute the tensions which currently make it extremely difficult to achieve issue-specific bargains of any consequence in isolation. This redistribution may well provide unsuspected contextual support for such bargains by rendering explicit a new pattern of checks and balances. Where bargains are no longer treated in isolation, tensions which would otherwise have to be dealt with explicitly within a given bargaining arena (reducing the probability of success) may now be recognized implicitly as contextual to that bargain.

This stresses the importance of treating the totality of Earth Summit issues as a set of inter-weaving strategic options in order to reduce the difficulty of achieving success on particular fronts.

This approach points to new policy possibilities in which the degree of global consensus required is reduced to a minimum (in a design sense) by localizing the patterns of disagreement. In this way disagreement no longer acts globally -- tearing apart the global community. Rather it is locally confined and understood as a long-term strategic dilemma on which "consensus" can only be achieved in the short-term. Sustainability thus lies at the global level not at the local level.

9. Catalytic imagery

There is a need for richer, and more challenging, imagery to capture the complexity of strategic options to clarify new options both for policy makers and wider audiences. The two-dimensional representation, for "local" purposes, of the "global" structure of the Earth clarifies the challenge. The importance of the shift to three-dimensional representation is particulary obvious in this geographical parallel between representations of the Earth as a globe, and the many efforts to project such information onto 2-dimensional maps -- each with their special distortion. It is the inadequacy of the 2-dimensional representation which highlights the value of the 3-dimensional structure in stressing globality and providing a context for local issue-specific arenas.

Both in the two- and three-dimensional forms the imagery proposed here is an invitation to reflection along new lines. As intended, it deliberately breaks with familiar patterns. It invites further reflection and experiment to better portray the relation between global and local -- and the strategic opportunities which emerge. It is possible that the main value of the structures presented lies in the mapping exercises that they encourage, namely in the creativity and reflection that they evoke, rather than in any particular pattern which may be favoured.

10. Possible interpretation refinements

The merit of the 3-dimensional representation of the Earth Summit issues is that it may be used to clarify why strategic dilemmas appear to emerge. Bargain arenas have been recognized here in pairs of triangles in a network pattern. The "dilemma" in each case may be seen as a failure to recognize the global properties of the structure which separate the two complementary (but distinct) arenas -- for these are on opposite sides of the spherical structure. Collapsing the distinctions into a two-dimensional representation, in which the triangles are super-imposed, is what guarantees the appearance of a dilemma. It is an appropriate global consensus which allows them to be understood as separate, thus eliminating the dilemma.

In practice the construction of three-dimensional spherical structures (like geodesic domes) requires understanding of more than those surface features with which the bargaining arenas have been associated here. According to the principles of tensegrity (namely tensional integrity) explored by R Buckminster Fuller, new types of global structures may be created that are self-sustaining by a particular three-way pattern of tensile forces. Such a structure is not supported or maintained (by special authority structures). It is pulled outward into sphericity by inherent tensional forces which its geometry also serves to restrain (see the earlier figures illustrating tensegrity structures). It responds as a system with local stresses being uniformly distributed throughout the structure, and uniformly absorbed by every part of it as a classic example of synergy. It is not necessary that these structures should be patterned on regular polyhedra, but the tension networks are most economical when their strands run for considerable distances without changing direction --and preferably along great-circles.

Tensegrity structures clarify ways in which individual bargains need to be interlocked using local elements of disagreement ("compression elements") within the global network of agreement ("tension elements"). Tensegrity structures are effectively patterns of sustainability. The challenge is to find useful ways to encode such patterns to offer insights into the strategies of sustainable development.

11. Limitations and further possibilities

It is necessary to use two alternate versions of the network pattern with this approach. This may not be the case with other coding approaches along these lines. Complementary projections are however also required in geographical mapping. Organic molecules essential to life (notably benzene) are based on resonance between two complementary structures. Most tensegrity structures exist in right- and left-handed versions.

It is important to recognize that there are whole families of network patterns that correspond to different spherical structures in three dimensions. That presented here suggests just one way of "cutting the strategic cake". There are indications that increasing the complexity of the network in order to explicitly capture more detailed issues could provide global contexts which make it even easier to handle issue-specific bargains. What is required is a special database which could enable people to shift between different levels of functional detail as is done between maps in geographical atlases and in geographical information systems.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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