Transformative Approaches Project
Envisioning conferencing: Current possibilities
Transformative Approaches Project |
This note continues the exercise of envisioning the cognitive
contributions of the arts to conferencing in the Year 2490.
1. Problem-solving illusions
Speculation about approaches to problems in the distant future is most
useful when it sharpens our understanding of new possibilities in the present.
Our difficulty today is that few problems are insoluble, rather most of
the solutions are themselves perceived as problems. Success is claimed,
through upbeat reporting, at the elimination of a problem in one domain,
only by carefully avoiding recognition of its displacement into some other
form or jurisdiction. Effective action on problems continually eludes us
-- its always associated with some other opportunity we have been unable
2. Habitual constraints
One difficulty seems to be that we are trapped by habitual conceptual
and procedural approaches to problems -- and their reflection in institutions
and programmes. It suits most of us to point a finger at seemingly isolated
problems like the ozone layer because our degree of accountability for
them is limited. And when it comes to allocating resources to solve problems,
no matter how severe, the process is most characterized by cynical tradeoffs
for the short-term advantage of constituencies already privileged -- whatever
media packaging is offered to make such solutions appear desirable.
3. Rechannelling "negative" forces
What we are looking for is a way of working with large complexes of
problems, perceptions and organizational networks that would provide a
more fruitful context for the healthy features of political horsetrading.
But to be of any value it also needs to rechannel and refocus what currently
manifests in institutional operations as mutual accusation, suspicion,
deception, manipulation, alienation, corruption, subversion and sabotage
-- dynamics seldom discussed by enthusiastic problem solvers surprised
at the ways in which their efforts get undermined in the real world. Whilst
much may be accomplished in the long-term by exploring processes through
which people can "come to know each other", "reach consensus
on values", "love one another", and "identify with
humanity as a whole" or with Gaia, it is useful to question whether
these "positive" initiatives do not effectively serve as a rather
beautiful avoidance mechanism -- at least in their present form.
4. Harmonies and discords of conference design
An alternative approach could make extensive use of aesthetic insights
into the discipline of harmony and into the role of dissonance in enriching
that harmony, especially as articulated in music. Such an approach would
recognize the place of easy harmonies, their limitations, and the role
of more complex harmonies brought out by effective response to more challenging
discords. But note that the "discords" are not the nasty problems,
but rather other groups opposing the "harmonious" way favoured
by my group in solving a problem -- our policy "theme song" to
whose irritating limitations we are totally insensitive. Until we can work
within contexts allowing each participating group to be recognized as part
of the problem, we cannot collectively determine the nature of the solution
that would be appropriate or sustainable.
5. Conceptual scaffolding through aesthetics
In any gathering the aim would be to use aesthetic devices (music, colour,
drama, etc) to register the different perspectives represented (and their
associated dynamics), to provide a conceptual scaffolding to hold their
relationships as they developed during the event, and to suggest directions
through which richer harmonies could be explored. In contrast with the
present preoccupation with a majority or consensus vote, the outcome would
be expressed by a pattern or tapestry of views. Superficial or token unity
would be replaced by a more complex, and more dynamic, set of relationships,
reflecting the reality of the deeply felt differences between those represented
within it -- as well as being both comprehensible and challenging to those
in the outside world investing hope in the outcome of such gatherings.
6. Incorporation of requisite variety
The acid test would be the manner in which such dynamic patterns were
reflected in the design of programmes, budgets, institutions and information
systems. The key feature here would be the way in which policies ensured
that opposing perspectives were brought into play at appropriate times
to correct for programmatic weaknesses resulting from the excesses of any
one insight or set of priorities. It is through a more disciplined use
of time that it becomes possible to overcome the apparent impracticality
of ensuring that a configuration of non-consensual insights guides policies
of requisite variety. In this light budgetary cycles at present can only
be perceived as crude and clumsy, completely failing to take advantage
of the flexibility and responsiveness that current computer software techniques
could permit (perhaps best seen in the rapid reallocation of resources
through worldwide exchange and money market operations, despite their weaknesses).
However it is the aesthetic insights that are needed to give form to appropriate
patterns of complementarity.
7. Immediate implementation?
(a) Availability of resources: And is any of this really possible
in the immediate future ? The tragedy is that we are already using the
software techniques and technology needed -- but not in response to the
dilemma of our time. Similarly many of the aesthetic, scientific and policy
disciplines, whose insights would be beneficial, are locked into expediently
self-serving activities rendering them insensitive to external constraints.
Those with a mandate to fund exploration of social innovations avoid criticism
by accepting advice resulting in more of the same.
(b) Entrapment: So yes it is possible, but it is not probable.
We are stuck in a vicious circle such that gatherings of the wise, for
the purpose of improving such gatherings, are rendered ineffective by the
processes which they aspire to rechannel -- disguising their collective
impotence under expressions of appreciation at their achievements, however
minimal. We are very much our own metaphor.
(c) Positive indications: For those locked into bureaucratic
procedures, academic or artistic traditions, or into the prevailing conventions
of policy-making, that future will appear fantastic indeed. But at a time
when actors and playwrights become presidents, when policy is articulated
through carefully staged photo opportunities, when major policies are communicated
and discussed through their metaphoric wrappings, and when policy successes
at the global level seem few and far between, then more open-ended approaches
(d) Possible first steps: It is a nice challenge to ask ourselves
why the possibilities mentioned above could not be explored now rather
than in the year 2490 -- if only for smaller groups and communities. The
first step would require a clear distinction between such initiatives and
those characterized by enthusiastic attempts to add on to a conference
yet another performance of "The Ode to Joy" or to "celebrate"
once again (while the world is literally burning). What would it take to
determine what might be feasible ? To represent Beauty, it would be necessary
to have those with artistic skills of course -- but it would be vital that
they not be locked into the need for a platform for themselves and their
own work, rather than for collective concerns. To represent the Beast,
much could be accomplished with accountants, lawyers and those from the
organizational development world, in addition to those with policy skills
-- but it would be vital that they not be locked into a narrow conception
of their role. When they gather together it would be vital to recognize
that the personal needs of facilitators, with their favourite "processes",
are also part of the problem.
We need to disillusion ourselves that the task just involves bringing
appropriately skilled people together -- as in so many delightful gatherings
and task forces of little consequence. It calls for long-term commitment
by many -- perhaps equivalent to the Apollo programme -- in order to escape
from the conceptual gravity well in which we are stuck.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential