Transformative Approaches Project
Visualization: Structural outliners and conceptual
Transformative Approaches Project |
It is no longer widely believed that society has the collective
ability to organize collaborative projects of a type capable of making
the breakthroughs called for. There is a suspicion that the challenge calls
for quite another approach that makes greater, and more imaginative, use
of the information tools that our society has created in order to counteract
the tendency for collaboration to become tokenistic. Failing that, projects
run the significant risk of being undermined by dynamics with which many
are already all too familiar.
1. Conceptual keystones
Many documents of fundamental importance to patterns of collaboration
within societies, organizations and groups (or even to an individual's
creative processes) are based on sets of principles, values, qualities,
policies, initiatives or other points (eg declarations, charters, action
plans). These are usually listed out as a numbered sequence, possibly with
nested sub-points. The conventional method of producing such documents
favours (and reinforces) linear thinking at a time when non-linear, contextually-oriented
approaches are often believed to be more appropriate to ensure higher levels
of integration amongst the elements of the set.
The project aims to facilitate the ability to envisage viable configurations
of functions based on structures more complex than those reinforced by
hierarchical organization charts. It responds to the need for potential
collaborators to design "conceptual keystones" essential
to the coherence and viability of unforeseen coalition possibilities in
difficult situations of governance.
2. Structural outliner
This project suggests the need for a computer-based structural "outliner"
to facilitate a non-linear approach to the creative production of such
"conceptual keystones". The need for a more integrative approach
may be seen in the occasional efforts to group conceptual elements, basic
to a strategy, into a table, a pie-chart, a diagram, or even into a form
of mandala. Although currently simplistic, the structure provides an
integrative perspective that links a variety of disparate, but complementary,
elements that together ensure the viability of the larger pattern.
This project therefore focuses initially on the design of computer software
(possibly adapting an existing package) for which an appropriate database
is then developed in collaboration with a number of bodies. The intention
is then to use these tools to provide a "catalytic context" from
which new patterns of group and institutional action could emerge.
The principal output would not therefore be any form of "report"
but rather a piece of software (possibly a prototype). It is the dissemination
of this software, ultimately through commercial channels, which would enable
many people to explore the tool as a "collaboration enhancing"
device. In this sense the real objective of the project is new forms of
collaboration. In subsequent use the database would be receptive to user-enhancement,
notably to patterns of concepts from non-western cultures.
It is envisaged that the proposed PC-based structural outliner would
be used in a manner somewhat similar to the conventional text outliners
and mind mapping aids. However the software would offer many ways of configuring
the evolving set of elements within a variety of non-linear structural
frameworks, whether in two or three dimensions. The geometric and symmetric
properties of these would be used to suggest levels of coherence and integration
absent from conventional presentations.
Its claim to originality would lie in its ability to open up (and mid-wife)
new and alternative patterns of collaboration -- especially across discipline
and faction boundaries. In creating this device, the purpose of inter-institutional
collaboration would be to enrich its scope (as represented by the database)
and explore opportunities it opened up (specifically in relation to institutional
arrangements for sustainable development).
In the light of a number of collaborative international exercises (and
notably the design of a collaborative process culminating in the Inter-Sectoral
Dialogue in Rio de Janeiro on the occasion of the Earth Summit), it is
legitimate to consider whether there is not a strategically more appropriate
approach to encourage imaginative, interdisciplinary work of relevance
to the policy
3. Conceptual scaffolding
As with the construction of any building, there is a basic need for
"scaffolding" to hold the conceptual and organizational elements
in place, especially during the early phases of "imaginative, interdisciplinary"
interconnection. It may be argued that it is the lack of this scaffolding
feature which prevents many potentially useful initiatives from "getting
off the ground" -- and staying up. And the more complex the psych-social
structure, and the more communication space it spans, the greater the need
for more complex scaffolding.
A typical function of scaffolding in a conference is to provide a framework
within which complementary perspectives can be articulated, especially
when there is a major tension between them. When Concept A is formulated,
the scaffolding holds a space for Concept B to counter-balance it. Such
scaffolding is even more essential when more than two concepts have to
be held in balance. As with buildings, the scaffolding provides a protection
against disruptive forces in the conference process. A typical disruptive
force in a contemporary conference might focus narrowly on "industry
is exploitative", when the larger issue is to provide a sustainable
framework in which to balance the exploitative characteristics of industry
against the socio-economic benefits that it provides in the light of environmental
constraints. The more complex the balance, the more vulnerable is the conference
to disruptive forces.
The challenge is how to allow different category structures, and
the groups advocating them, to mesh before their incompatibilities tear
each other apart. This is a major issue when dealing with the strong,
creative, and often idiosyncratic, personalities (and groups) whose collaboration
is ideally required. It is seen in its most dramatic form in the Middle
East peace process and in negotiations among the warring parties in Yugoslavia.
The apparently disproportionate importance attached to "table layout"
in any negotiation procedure is a physical indication of the nature of
the conceptual challenge.
Failure to respond to this issue leads to project outputs whose only
real integrative feature is the physical binding of a document containing
unrelateable "integrative" contributions -- however skilfully
worded the introduction may be (In German: Buchbindersynthese!).
The scaffolding required not only has implications for elaboration of
new structures. It also supports the learning processes through
which others subsequently come to grasp the scope of such structures as
viable alternatives to the simpler conventional patterns that have proven
so inadequate to the challenges of the times.
4. Scaffolding possibilities
Many of the geometric operations basic to fruitful exploration of such
a structural outliner are detailed in a classic study by Robert Williams:
The Geometrical Foundation of Natural Structure; a source book of design
(New York, Dover, 1979). Part 3 of that work details 10 principal methods
through which polygons and polyhedra can be generated or have identity
changes. These include: vertex motion, fold, reciprocation, truncation,
rotation-translation, augmentation-deletion, fistulation, distortion, dissection,
symmetry integration. It is such operations which are required to explore
transformations between structures whose features are used to carry the
conceptual (and even symbolic) significance basic to any new patterns of
Structurally an agenda or a conference programme, even a multi-track
program, is rather simple -- even simplistic -- especially when considered
in relation to the complex ecology of problems and organizations which
are supposedly to be interrelated effectively through it. Is it any wonder
that conferences are relatively ineffectiveat coming to grips with complex
issues? What is being attempted is in defiance of Ashby's Law of Requisite
The issue is therefore how to enable users to collectively design more
complex forms of conceptual scaffolding to hold in place embryonic or unstable
concepts until other concepts can be fitted into the pattern to lock them
into place. Ideally, of course, it is the conferencing software which should
provide such scaffolding. And, like the scaffolding for buildings, it should
be adjustable to different structural configurations as the building grows.
Four forms of scaffolding are especially interesting: symmetrical structures;
tensegrity structures; resonance hybrids; embedding data in images.
5. Dynamic scaffolding and structural transformation
The need for conceptual scaffolding is clear given the kinds of complexity
with which society has to work. The challenge of making the more complex
structures comprehensible is also clear -- those most appropriate to the
challenge of sustainable development may be beyond the ability of any single
human mind to grasp. But any form of development implies structural
transformation. Whilst transforming simplistic structures like conference
agendas and organization charts may pose little challenge, the transformation
of the complex structures described earlier are quite another matter.
The process of conceptual or social transformation appears to call for
a form of dynamic scaffolding which provides some form of continuity
-- from stage to stage -- through the transformation process. What we are
looking for is a form of scaffolding onto which the conference's insights
can be mapped at Stage I. The relationships in this mapping would then
be stretched or changed in the transformation to Stage II, which might
be some very different kind of structure -- suggesting new kinds of relationships
between the concepts so bound (and between their proponents in the conference).
There are few examples of this kind of structure: image transformation
or "morphing"; vector equilibrium.
6. User approaches
The user would be offered a number of ways of building up the conceptual
"keystone". In each case, the result would take the form of a
geometric (and normally symmetrical) structure in two or three dimensions
with elements of text attached to its features:
- (a) Text points: to be converted via template or rules into
- (b) User chosen: tiling as in Wordperfect tables (to be converted);
empty library shape (to be filled); filled library shape (to be edited
- (c) User drawn: shape (to be filled); mind map (to be optimized
into a shape or structure).
7. Structural templates
The user would be able to draw upon a library of structures and symmetric
- (a) Library of conventional structures: tables (matrices) in
2D and 3D; polygons; polyhedra.
- (b) Library of other structures: tensegrities; traditional forms
8. Text processor
Two main modes can be envisaged:
- (a) Attach text to directly to structural features (and move text items
between structural locations)
- (b) Convert text (outliner) points into features (lines, sides, volumes,
great circles) of selected shapes
Both of these exist in simpler form in conventional text outliners
9. Thesaurus links
- The thesaurus would be designed to provide facilities beyond those
usually provided by such a function.
- (a) Complements: Its main function would be to facilitate selection
of complementary sets of terms, depending on the size of the set with which
the user was working. With respect to a single elementset, the synonym
function is all that is called for. As usual, synonyms and antonyms are
required for what amounts to two element sets. But what is also required
is the ability to process items in 3-part, 4-part sets.
- (b) Broader / Narrower: The thesaurus would also be used to
enable identification of terms corresponding to broader or narrower terms,
especially the contextual terms appropriate to the set as a whole.
- (c) Traditional sets: This feature would enable users to browse
relevant traditional sets of differing numbers of elements corresponding
to the size of the set being worked (tertiaries, quaternaries, etc).
- (d) Academic sets: This feature would offer access to sets elaborated
in contemporary academic studies.
- (e) User modified: The user would of course need to be able
to amend the thesaurus in the light of specialized interests and evaluation
of the library versions. The user would build up a library of complementary
sets reflecting his/her specialized concerns and sense of the balance between
10. Restructuring (by rules, by library, or by indications)
- (a) Text reveal / hide: This feature would suppress or reveal
the text associated with particular structural features.
- (b) Structure hide / nest / pack / simplify: This feature (as
in text outliners) would be used to conceal levels of detail. In the case
of complex structures, this would be achieved by a transformative reduction
to a simpler structure (eg from a complex polyhedron to a simpler polyhedron).
This reduction would conceal the text associated with the suppressed detail.
- (c) Structure reveal / unpack / complexify: This feature would
unfold levels of structural detail. A simple structure could thus be unfolded
(from a simple polyhedron to a complex polyhedron). This could follow a
previously chosen transformation pathway or offer transformative options
at each stage. In an edit mode, text could then be input directly (or called
in from the thesaurus) into the different facets of the revealed structure.
- (d) Other features: optimize existing; duals; propose alternatives;
indicate complementaries; switch from 2D to 3D presentation; rotation;
contextualize; potential complementaries; structural families / periodic
tables; user additions / indications.
11. Indexing / Access
- (a) Text to structured
- (b) Templates
- (c) User additions to index
- (d) Structural relationships (via features or globally): common
keywords (via index); geometrical similarities / isomorphisms; user indicated
The major emphasis in each of the following cases is to enable the user
to articulate a complex pattern whilst maintaining a sense of coherence
and ensuring a configuration of functional checks and balances.
- (a) Functional units in organizations: organization chart; complementarity
and balance of functions; lines of communication.
- (b) Principles in a declaration: articles; complementarity and
balance of principles.
- (c) Action plan or policy: policy elements; highlighting policy
- (d) Classification system (books, information, etc): filing
codes; tracking disparate interests.
- (e) Mind mapping: clarifying systems; creativity; philosophical
organization; integrating incoherent patterns.
- (f) Exploring structural transformation pathways: introduction
of new elements; restructuring (simplification / complexification).
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential