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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Envisioning conferencing: Insights from architecture

Transformative Approaches Project

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This note continues the exercise of envisioning the cognitive contributions of the arts to conferencing in the Year 2490.

1. Beyond "top-down" conference communication

Vast sums are invested these days in the design and construction of prestigious conference centres, as one of the principal environments in which policy is articulated and approved. Although much is made of the advanced "communications technology" installed there, no attention is paid to the fact that none of it is designed to facilitate unmeditated communication between participants. Such centres are fundamentally totalitarian in concept. All is controlled and articulated from the top and feedback from the floor is severely controlled or impossible.

In many cases this extends to the pattern of seating -- unmovably bolted to the floor for maximum exposure to messages from the podium. Not only does this mirror our social organization, it is also reflects the way in which meaning is communicated in such policy environments. It reinforces the patterns by which we tend to organize knowledge and insight -- and how we subsequently impose them on others.

2. Conference architecture

In the time to come, the principles of architecture were basic to the organization of policy insights and their implementation. The point here is not the way in which such principles were used in the physical design of conference environments, rather it is the way they informed the conceptual organization -- however that might reflect on the physical layout and communications technology.

One of their insights was that in conceptual terms gatherings had to be "constructed". A meaningful policy conference was one which provided appropriate conceptual spaces for different purposes -- and ensured communication between them. In part the task of the conference was to build anew, on each occasion, such a pattern of spaces. To some degree this already happens in our time through the design of the programme.

They made "conference architecture" into an art form at the conceptual level. But the conference had to be designed and built by the participants -- the viability of the resulting "building" was a measure of their success in policy design.

3. Designing conceptual spaces for factions

This is not the place to discuss their approach to the "foundations" or to many other features of the conceptual construct. Most striking perhaps was their use of space. Each faction found it reasonably easy to design a space for itself and its own "wares" -- somewhat as do major exhibitors in designing their stands at an exhibition associated with a conference.

The first real challenge was to be able to design with others a conceptual context in which participants with similar priorities and values could successfully explore their relationships. In this phase, corresponding to the meeting of sub-plenary groups, the design views of participants were constrained and inspired by their immediate peers.

Then followed the challenge of relating that space to those of other groups with other priorities, so that participants could move from space to space. At this design stage, each group had to take into account requirements of other groups -- compromises had to be made.

4. Construction of collective conceptual spaces

The most challenging phase was the construction of the collective conceptual space in which all viewpoints were interrelated, providing integrity to the whole, namely the equivalent of a plenary conference room. A central architectural insight lay in the means of constructing an arch -- or a series of arches which could be roofed over to protect the space.

In effect, even for the smaller spaces, participants were often obliged to retrace the history of architectural principles and techniques. The challenge was to use opposing conceptualelements as columns and to use various ways of bridging between them to create the desired space -- whatever scaffolding was temporarily acquired to install keystones or their equivalent. For the smaller spaces this tended to call upon principles from the very early history of architecture.

To create a space for all views -- the conference in plenary form --required a much more sophisticated understanding because of the wide expanse that had to be covered with minimum intervening supports.

5. Transcending duality

Their achievement was to use opposition between policy perspectives as "compression elements" and to use mutually supportive perspectives as "tension elements". Their skill, inspired by physical buildings, lay in finding ways of using the dynamic interplay between two types of element to create structures which would be impossible with either of them alone.

They effectively used the elements of a duality so that the 2-dimensional stresses between them -- which normally render any conceptual construction impossible -- could only be resolved by engendering a space in 3-dimensions. In some cases this resulted in "gothic" structures -- "cathedrals of the mind" -- in others it resulted in what we might understand through Buckminster Fuller's tensegrity structures (basic to his geodesic domes).


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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