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Envisioning conferencing: Current possibilities of implementation

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 to take.

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 merit exploration.

(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

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