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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Configuring: Conceptual scaffolding and prosthetics

Transformative Approaches Project


1. Interlocking insights (in the light of an architectural metaphor)

The above indications point to quite concrete possibilities which could provide a major new facility for disciplined debate, whether electronically-based or otherwise. These possibilities are basically concerned with the whole issue of what might be called "conceptual scaffolding". In the process of constructing a building scaffolding is necessary, especially to hold mutually dependent structures in position until appropriate permanent building elements can be inserted to lock them into place. Much can be learnt from the history of architecture in considering the challenges of developing more powerful and appropriate forms of conceptual architecture (Judge, 1979).

Structurally the organization of a project involving a number of disciplines, a policy-making agenda or a conference programme (even a multi-track programme), 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 "interdisciplinary" projects and conferences are relatively ineffective in coming to grips with complex issues ? What is being attempted with current practices is in defiance of Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety, namely that, to be effective, any governing or controlling system must be at least as complex as the system it seeks to govern. Simplifying reality to simplify the decision process is a dangerously unsustainable way forward.

The issue is therefore how to enable those involved to collectively design more complex forms of conceptual scaffolding to hold in place embryonic concepts (essentially unstable in isolation) 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.

A typical function of scaffolding in an academic or policy debate 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 can usefully "hold" 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 in order for the dimensions of a viable "grand policy" or "unified theory" to emerge -- or even a "theory of everything". As with buildings, the scaffolding provides a protection against disruptive forces in the discussion process. A typical disruptive force in a contemporary conference might focus narrowly on "countering exploitative industry" 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 pattern of "checks and balances", the more vulnerable is the conference debate to disruptive forces.

2. Symmetrical structures and tensegrity structures

Geometry supplies a vast repertoire of geometrical patterns which could be used to interrelate concepts. Of special interest are the symmetrical polygons in 2-dimensions and polyhedra in 3-dimensions. Symmetry has the merit of being in some way associated with "global" or integrative comprehensibility. As such it may offer routes to the higher conceptual orders characteristic of transdisciplinarity. To the extent that opposing perspectives can be mapped onto such structures, there is greater possibility of collective recognition of the distinct functions they perform in relation to one another. It is also possible that the more complex the structure, the greater its stability.

Eastern religions have made extensive use of such conceptual patterns in the form of mandalas. These hold the complex relationship between a multiplicity of complementary insights, whilst maintaining an integrative focus on the whole. The software issue here is how to massage an associative network of concepts into the pattern (or a range of alternative patterns) which can give the most appropriate overall order to it. Maybe there is a place for marryingapproaches to mind-maps and concept networks to those of sacred geometry.

A feature missing from such geometrical structures is any explicit recognition of the dynamics between the elements and of how they contribute to the dynamic integrity of the whole. The "tension" between opposing factions or options is a fundamental issue in policy-making. It could be argued that such tension is also present in the co-existence of complementary theoretical perspectives in cases where none of the individual theories (although necessary) is sufficient to encompass the nature of the phenomenon to which they apply. Although music may offer richer insights, again architecture points to the importance of appropriately interrelating tension and compression elements.

In the policy-making process the art is to creatively interrelate perspectives that are in sympathy and in opposition to each other. Buckminster Fuller (1975, 1982) pointed to the existence of a whole family of tensegrity structures which make possible his well-known geodesic domes (cf radar domes, exhibition halls). Tensegrity (or tensional integrity) has many suggestive implications for more effective configurations of concepts and policies (Judge, 1979):

(a) Such structures make explicit the value of having discontinuous (antagonistic) relations between concepts (or their advocates) embedded in a continuous (mutually supportive) network of relationships. Both have a role to play. They depend uniquely upon the creative configuration of the polarized forces which are the bane of so many efforts at theory-building consensus policy-making.

(b) Such structures make clear how an appropriate combination of appropriately positioned elements can give rise to a totally unsuspected structure of unsuspected stability. Whilst it is relatively easy to comprehend the logic of such a structure in 3-dimensions, the process of constructing it is much less clear. This suggests that the conceptual elements and dynamics characteristic of today's policies could lend themselves to structural patterning of a totally new kind.

(c) Such structures make clear that facilitating communication between all parties (all to all) is not the only way forward, even if it were feasible in practice. They suggest that much may be accomplished by ensuring a supportive relationship with neighbouring nodes, provided that position is "challenged" by an appropriate opposing node. This is a step beyond all the work done on social networks. It implies that software could be used to configure communication pathways (opening some, closing others) to bring about much more healthy (non-flabby) networking.

(d) Of special interest is that such structures have empty centres so that every point is visible from every other, suggesting a desirable form of "transparency". The centre is a virtual one rather than being occupied by some dominant body, individual, concept or value. It can be argued that this makes for a higher order of conceptual elegance.

(e) As will be seen below, such structures also imply a range of global transformations through which the set of concepts or policies can grow to encompass greater variety.

It is clear that only with the use of appropriate software could tensegrity-based conceptual frameworks or policies be explored with the benefit of insights from those such as Ron Atkin (1977, 1981). The scaffolding problem is an ideal computer challenge. It opens the door to a totally new way of representing agendas non-hierarchically and of enabling the fruitful coexistence of mutually constraining conceptual elements and policies.

3. Resonance hybrids

There is a certain class of chemical molecules whose structure cannot be meaningfully defined by a single pattern of atoms. Thus the benzene ring, present in most organic compounds basic to living organisms, has a structure best understood as oscillating between 5 distinct patterns of bonds between its 6 constituent atoms. Theresulting resonance hybrid is much more stable than any of the 5 individual patterns -- even though that stability is dynamic. This suggests the possibility that there may be conceptual and organizational structures, including policies and programmes, which can only come into existence by allowing them to alternate between essentially unstable (or unsustainable) extremes. The EEC notion of "variable geometry" may constitute an intuitive recognition of this possibility (cf Judge, 1986b).

As an illustration of the potential of such new structures, in chemistry at least, a third form of carbon was discovered in 1985. It is structured as a hollow sphere of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a series of hexagons and pentagons resembling the geodesic domes built by Buckminster Fuller -- hence the formal name of buckminsterfullerenes (otherwise known as "buckyballs"). The structure has unusual properties, including superconductivity. The discovery has opened up a new, and commercially important, branch of organic chemistry, in which a 70 carbon ellipsoid has been a more recent discovery. With structural breakthroughs of this kind at both the molecular and the architectural levels, it may be asked why experiments with social organization are limited to hierarchies, networks and the simplest small group structures. There is no suspicion that valuable new properties may emerge from structures that can only be understood in three dimensions.

The challenge of an appropriate response to the issues of sustainable development may depend on the ability to discover, and give implementable form, to such structures. Computer-assisted policy-making may be absolutely essential in providing the conceptual scaffolding through which they can emerge. It is even possible that the legal and accounting structures to maintain institutions based on them could only be managed through some such environment. (Just as the newest aircraft can only be flown with computer assistance, it is possible that the most advanced organizations, appropriate to the challenges of the times, may need to be conceived in the same light.)

4. Embedding data in images

It has long been recognized that some of the most complex problems of process control, call for a totally new way of presenting hard data to the human brain. Instead of a multiplicity of dials and graphs, use is made of the full range of visual images (landscapes, animals, imaginary objects) as vehicles onto which to project or hang complex patterns of data so that they can be more readily comprehended. Thus when the wind agitates a tree on a landscape image, a particular control action is called for. Very large amounts of data can be compressed into such images. Recalling Douglas Engelbart's vision, this suggests the need to explore how conference participants can embed their insights into comprehensible images. In particular it suggests the possibility that the collective task of a conference might also be perceived in terms of sculpting such an image -- with every conceptual contribution leading to a modification or articulation of it. This calls for a very special marriage between conceptual contributions and image processing. Of special interest is the possibility that the insights of some conferences could only be effectively carried by dynamic imagery, and especially by imagery governed by other rules than those of the physical world (as is the case with some computer generated imagery). It is clear that computer image manipulation skills are well developed, but much needs to be done to determine how to hang data on them such that changes to the data modify the image, and changes to the image modify the data.»

5. Conceptual 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. Therelationships 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:

(a) Image transformation: The skills of image-transformation on computer suggest many possibilities. The challenge is to find ways of relating real-world issues and challenges to such images so as to benefit from this facility. Of special interest is the way in which development is to be understood or encoded in such image transformation. If the many details of the global problematique could be encoded onto one (or more) archetypal animals, suitably animated, this would be of major conceptual and symbolic significance -- especially when the animation can be used to represent a transformation process. The media advantages are obvious.

(b) Vector equilibrium: Buckminster Fuller drew attention to a very unusual symmetrical polyhedron, the vector equilibrium (normally known as the cuboctahedron) as the common denominator of the tetrahedron, octahedron and cube. It is unusual in that it lies on a transformational pathway to a variety of other structures. An appropriately jointed model can be transformed into an icosahedron and from there to an octahedron and on to a tetrahedron. The merit of this model, aside from the many claims made by Fuller himself, is that it provides a way of understanding the structural transformation process. The challenge in a conferencing environment is not to focus on this particular structure, but rather to use it as an example to persuade topologists to locate other transformational systems of this kind so as to build up a library of possibilities on which to draw.

Presumably it will only be through such explorations that conferences can anchor their transformative insights so that people can recognize and have confidence in the structural continuity of appropriate change, rather than being threatened by change of any kind -- and therefore resistant to it.»

There is a dearth of imaginative ideas to respond to the challenge of sustainable development in this period of crisis and crisis-management thinking. An immediate challenge for the West is how to respond to the radical transformation in the Eastern European countries. Given the scarcity of resources, what can they be given to catalyze the fruitful reorganization of their societies? And even more challenging, how can advantage be taken of the very high level of education achieved by a high proportion of the younger generation?

Rather than thinking in terms of how such societies can make use of various Western styles of organization, which have resulted in many significant failures in other societies to which they have been exported, is there an alternative? Is it possible to provide some communication package, to run on stand-alones or small networks, which could provide them with the conceptual scaffolding that would enhance their ability to apply their own imaginative insight to their own problems?

The challenge of the Eastern bloc is in effect a metaphor of the challenge that the world as a whole faces with respect to sustainable development. The economists will continue to be given every opportunity to apply their unimaginative insights to the task, whatever suffering their austerity measures imply. This will not change. And the degree of alienation of the population, and especially the young, will continue to increase. But in the many creative interstices, there is a receptive audience for devices which open up opportunities for more complex, and more fruitful, modes of thinking and organizing. With appropriate imagination, limited resources can be applied in new ways. Computers can provide an environment to assist that process.

Figure 1: Patterns of sustainability -- from 2D to 3D

Possible maps of globally sustainable bargains basic to the design of tensegrity organizations

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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