University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Context: Meshing imaginative vision and policy implementability

Transformative Approaches Project


The complexity of the policy challenges of sustainable development, the need for "new thinking" and the importance of more imaginative approaches to policy-making and organization are all now well-recognized.

1. Beyond "tinkering" and crisis management

There will continue to be many situations in which it appears expedient to respond to priorities with the skills of crisis management. There will always be opportunities for reconfiguring organizational structures and lines of communication so as to suggest that adequate response is being made to the problem dynamic -- at least in the shorter term. As many acknowledge, more is however required. This is a real challenge to the imagination to articulate new visions of appropriate order and of longer term significance.

2. The search for new forms of order

Do the imaginative possibilities evoked in the search for new forms of order reflect a level of richness and complexity appropriate to the emerging social reality? It can readily be argued that much of what is proposed is "more of the same", offering "solutions to yesterday's problems". Much of such thinking constitutes a "linear" extrapolation from existing approaches to organization and policy design. Despite pleas for "holistic", "quantum leaps" towards more "integrative" approaches, these remain fuzzy in detail, however attractive and appropriate they may appear in outline.

3. Beyond "boring" possibilities: the evocative constraint

It is increasingly clear that the emerging possibilities can only have a chance of succeeding if they can be adequately articulated through the media. This means more than the ability to "package" the possibility in terms which are comprehensible. Many comprehensible policies are simply boring and, as such, alienating. Unless the new approaches are adequately evocative, triggering the imagination and a sense of participation, they will of necessity be inappropriate. Appropriate policies call for a new form of identification on the part of those whom they touch.

4. Conceptual scaffolding in support of imaginative proposals

Complex building designs require scaffolding to allow the complementary structural elements to be held in position before they can counter-balance the tensions and stresses they engender. It can be argued that imaginative policy proposals require a form of "conceptual scaffolding" to juxtaposition their complementary elements -- before they can be adequately "locked into place" by a comprehension of the whole (a "global" comprehension). Such conceptual scaffolding is required to anchor subtle possibilities crafted by the collective imagination -- and to render them communicable and credible. It is especially necessary given the degree of opposition between interests representing vital, and complementary, concerns in society.

5. Scaffolding from high technology and traditional wisdom

It has been argued that current policy-making language draws upon very simple forms of conceptual scaffolding. As a result only simpler forms of policy design are rendered possible. It can be readily argued that these are inappropriate to the complex challenges of the present and the future. Ironically, traditional wisdom from many cultures offers rich patterns (whether from symbolism, mythology or folk tales) that can be used to interrelate complementary structural elements -- and ensure their widespread comprehensibility. This possibility remains to be explored. The ability to articulate policies using such patterns may prove vital to the comprehensibility and credibility of new policies appropriate to such cultures. The failure to consider this dimension is a major factor in the "inappropriateness" of Western management styles in such cultures.

The current dramatic evolution of computer technology and software offers another form of scaffolding. Beyond the bar charts and pie charts of the "business graphics" basic to most current forms of policy-making, other forms of graphics are emerging. These forms blend image and data in more dynamic and complex ways. As such they offer new vehicles for the imagination and its articulation. Such technology can be used to give form to hitherto unforeseenconceptual structures of great richness. And the technology can help to render them comprehensible. The relevance to the policy community remains to be explored. Ironically, such technology will be used for entertainment before its wider relevance is investigated.

6. The chasm between imaginative possibilities and policy realities

There is thus a tragic "gap" between imaginative possibilities and implementable policies. Existing policies, with all their acknowledged defects, have had the advantage of having been exposed to articulation into programmatic detail. In fact it is only hindsight on this implementation in practice which has highlighted their defects.

Imaginative possibilities, however attractive they may appear at first sight, do not inspire equivalent confidence concerning their satisfactory implementability. New tools are required to bridge this chasm. Such tools must offer the means of both articulating complexity and also of rendering it comprehensible. This is the cognitive challenge of respecting the "local" focus required for implementability, whilst providing a "global" context for necessary comprehensibility.

7. Metaphor as a vital cognitive interface

Many recent studies suggest that metaphor plays a fundamental cognitive role in giving form to new varieties of understanding. It has also been demonstrated that people and cultures can become entrapped in simplistic metaphors that are inadequate to the challenges that they face.

It is noteworthy that metaphor is used in many cultures and at all levels of society -- and especially by managers and politicians. It is doubtful whether modern management could function without the use of military and sporting metaphors. It could be argued that the current rich use of metaphor in slums is a means through which people reconfigure their cognitive environment to ensure their psychic survival. Metaphor is also the traditional vehicle through which the elders of a village or tribe articulated options in the face of challenges -- drawing upon the wisdom of their culture. Many advances in computer software design are explicitly made in terms of new "metaphors". Metaphor would therefore appear to be a major unexplored resource through which richer and more complex policies can be articulated and rendered comprehensible.

8. Policy implications

There is no lack of imagination or of visions of new approaches to social organization. On the other hand, there are well-defined constraints on what appears possible at any given time, given the current thinking and procedures which have proved their worth.

If new forms of social order are to emerge in response to the challenge of sustainable development, there is a need to break through the "imagination barrier" imposed by the use of simplistic conceptual scaffolding. There is a need to question the adequacy of the metaphors used to articulate existing policies -- and to search for richer, more complex and more dynamic metaphors. It is richer metaphors which will enable the articulation of more complex policies appropriate to the challenge of sustainable development.

The success of the United Nations "Earth Summit" (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) may well not be measured in terms of specifics on which compromises are agreed. These will be quickly forgotten except by specialists. If there is to be the "fundamental shift in attitude" so frequently called for, this can only be triggered and articulated by new and richer metaphors. It is such metaphors which will give coherence to emerging specific policies of appropriate complexity. It is such coherence which will determine whether the policies are accepted by wider publics and interest groups.

Great care should be devoted to exploring richer metaphors through which to give a sense of coherence and pattern to the variety of complementary interests represented at the Earth Summit. It is these metaphors which could prove to be the most important outcome of the event -- and of most relevance to the dilemma of sustainable development.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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