University of Earth

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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Representation of Interlocking Elements for a Sustainable Global System

Configuring strategic dilemmas in intersectoral dialogue


Representation as a tensegrity structure of dilemmas in a table of inter-sectoral strategic dilemmas of sustainable development (Fig. 1a). See also commentary. These are all parts of a separate report (Configuring Globally and Contending Locally: shaping the global network of local bargains by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral issues, 1992, 5 mb PDF). For other tables on strategies see: confidence ploys; value-based; typology for sustainable development; Chinese strategems

Spherical form generated by icosidodecahedral net
(as developed in Fig. 4 from Fig 3 and Fig. 1a)

Fig. 6: Tensional integrity (tensegrity) structure in 3D sustaining the spherical form of the icosidodecahedral net (of Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). Tensegrity structures are effectively patterns of sustainability.

Catalytic imagery

There is a need for richer, and more challenging, imagery to capture the complexity of strategic options to clarify new options both for policy makers and wider audiences. The two-dimensional representation, for "local" purposes, of the "global" structure of the Earth clarifies the challenge. The importance of the shift to three-dimensional representation is particulary obvious in this geographical parallel between representations of the Earth as a globe, and the many efforts to project such information onto 2-dimensional maps -- each with their special distortion. It is the inadequacy of the 2-dimensional representation which highlights the value of the 3-dimensional structure in stressing globality and providing a context for local issue-specific arenas.

Both in the two- and three-dimensional forms the imagery proposed here is an invitation to reflection along new lines. As intended, it deliberately breaks with familiar patterns. It invites further reflection and experiment to better portray the relation between global and local -- and the strategic opportunities which emerge. It is possible that the main value of the structures presented lies in the mapping exercises that they encourage, namely in the creativity and reflection that they evoke, rather than in any particular pattern which may be favoured.

Possible interpretation refinements

The merit of the 3-dimensional representation of the Earth Summit issues is that it may be used to clarify why strategic dilemmas appear to emerge. Bargain arenas have been recognized here in pairs of triangles in a network pattern. The "dilemma" in each case may be seen as a failure to recognize the global properties of the structure which separate the two complementary (but distinct) arenas -- for these are on opposite sides of the spherical structure. Collapsing the distinctions into a two-dimensional representation, in which the triangles are super-imposed, is what guarantees the appearance of a dilemma. It is an appropriate global consensus which allows them to be understood as separate, thus eliminating the dilemma.

In practice the construction of three-dimensional spherical structures (like geodesic domes) requires understanding of more than those surface features with which the bargaining arenas have been associated here. According to the principles of tensegrity (namely tensional integrity) explored by R Buckminster Fuller, new types of global structures may be created that are self-sustaining by a particular three-way pattern of tensile forces. Such a structure is not supported or maintained (by special authority structures). It is pulled outward into sphericity by inherent tensional forces which its geometry also serves to restrain (see the earlier fiures illustrating tensegrity structures). It responds as a system with local stresses being uniformly distributed throughout the structure, and uniformly absorbed by every part of it as a classic example of synergy. It is not necessary that these structures should be patterned on regular polyhedra, but the tension networks are most economical when their strands run for considerable distances without changing direction --and preferably along great-circles.

Tensegrity structures clarify ways in which individual bargains need to be interlocked using local elements of disagreement ("compression elements") within the global network of agreement ("tension elements"). Tensegrity structures are effectively patterns of sustainability. The challenge is to find useful ways to encode such patterns to offer insights into the strategies of sustainable development.


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R Buckminster Fuller. Synergetics; explorations in the geometry of thinking. New York, Collier, 2 vols. 1975/1982

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Anthony Judge:

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From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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