Time-sharing System in Meetings
Centralized planning vs Free-market economy ?
- / -
Possibly the most fundamental resource during meetings is time -- the
attention time of participants and how each uses that of others.
The technique described here allows participants to use time resources
more flexibly and democratically, and with less abuse or with fewer oppressive
control structures used to deal with it.
Allocation of speaking time: The total time available for interventions
during all sessions of the meeting is first estimated (eg 1000 minutes).
Each participants is allocated an equal number of minutes. So 10 participants
would initially have the possibility to speak for 100 minutes, for example.
Disproportionate allocation of speaking time: An alternative
to such "equality" is to allocate some participants more time than others,
if the organizers consider this appropriate. This could be because they
are considered as having more to contribute or because some need to be
encouraged or "handicapped". A key speaker might be given more beads to
start with -- or might only contract to participate if given a certain
time allocation of beads. Such a speaker might therefore be given a certain
quantity of time beads (and no more) in addition to any monetary payment.
Time account: The time units allocated can be represented in
an "account" set up for each participant in the meeting "time bank". Participants
may choose to draw some (or all) of their allocation as time beads. These
can take the physical form of coloured game counters (or "poppa-beads"
which clip together into a chain or loop for carrying convenience, as widely
used by the Club Mediterranée for beach cash). Beads of different
colours can be used: 30 second beads, 1 minute beads, 5 minute beads, etc.
Payment for speaking time: During any given session a participant
pays for the privilege of speaking to others. This is only possible if
(s)he has credit to contribute to the "time sink". This can either take
the form of physically transferring the required number of beads to a central
spot (controlled by the time banker) or by allowing the timebanker to debit
the participant's account. There is therefore a choice of "cash" or "charge".
No change: Note that cash transfers may not allow for "change"
if the full time equivalent is not used (a 1 minute bead is required even
though the person speaks for 45 seconds). However debiting an account can
be done for the precise number of seconds if required. It depends how much
precision is required.
Reallocation of time units: Participants are free to reallocate
their own time units to another person. This may be done as a gift or on
the basis of some agreement (such that the recipient would use the time
in a certain way). Participants can of course pass on units they have received
to others. Again such transfers may be by a physical transfer of time beads
or by a request to the time banker to make the transfer (possibly without
indicating the source). In this way participants acquire more right to
speak according to how their contributions are valued as speaking "on behalf"
Gifting a speaker: Following a particular intervention, some
participants may choose visibly to indicate their agreement and appreciation
by giving some time beads to the speaker, especially if that person has
spoken on behalf of others.
Renunciation of right to speak: Participants are also free to
renounce some (or all) of their right to speak by so declaring to the time
banker -- if they do not want to reallocate their beads to other participants.
Beads may be returned or the time banker can reduce the credit of the participant.
The consequence of such renunciation is that the time value of the units
still "in circulation" is proportionately increased. One time bead would
then be worth more speaking time to the possessor.
Revaluation and devaluation: During the course of the meeting
unforeseen incidents may introduce delays or session cancellations. The
total time value of the units may now exceed the speaking time available.
This may necessitate a devaluation. One time bead would then be worth less
speaking time to the possessor. Similarly, if the meeting was lengthened
by last minute introduction of an evening session, a revaluation would
be necessary. One time bead would then be worth more speaking time to the
Accounting: The role of the time banker, in addition to keeping
the time accounts of each participant, is to present periodically a time
report. This indicates the current value of the time units in circulation
and the situation of each participant's account (but not on the basis of
the time beads the person may possess). It is also possible for participants,
individually or collectively, to open anonymous accounts on which they
only are free to draw andto which time units can be transferred (from other
Trading: Participants are free to trade time units amongst each
other. Several participants may pool resources in support of a particularly
strong interventionist (their "champion") -- or to confuse the situation
by supporting a particularly weak one. Those with the skill to do so may
explore the possibilities of a "futures" market in time, namely purchasing
the right to speak at a later time.
Fines: Situations may arise in which a participant abuses the
meeting in some way. The group may then collectively impose a fine requiring
the person to give up some time units (to be redistributed by the time
banker) or in compensation to the people specifically abused by the intervention.
Unfinished system: The design and operation of the time allocation
system is not to be considered "finished" or rigid. Other variants may
be introduced at any time with the consent of the group -- or in advance
of the meeting. It may be made more complex, or it may be considerably
simplified, as with any economic or trading system.
Non-disruptive mode: By avoiding the use of beads, the time banker
can simply record the use of time made by individuals during the course
of the meeting -- if the visible use of time beads is considered disruptive.
Indeed some people could simply ignore the bead procedure used by others,
if they preferred to experience the meeting that way.
This exploration assumes that there are lessons to be learnt for sustainable
communities through sharper understanding of the nature of sustainable
dialogue in meetings.
Frequency of intervention: A characteristic of meetings is the
complaint that a small proportion of participants do most of the talking.
One measure of this is the actual quantity of time used, another would
be the number of times a person intervenes (or interrupts) -- even for
only a few seconds. Participants could be required to pay for each such
intervention. The amount could be indexed in terms of the number of times
they have already intervened. A second currency, other than time beads,
could be used to pay for intervention frequency -- possibly with a means
of conversion to the regular time bead currency. Ways could be found to
combine frequency and duration of intervention to reward those speaking
briefly, but more frequently.
Productivity of interventions: An effort could also be made to
score participants more closely on the productivity of an intervention
for the development of the meeting process. Issues such as degree of reference
to previous interventions could be taken into account, such that those
integratingprevious comments would be rewarded. Creative reframing might
also be rewarded. Off-the-point monologues might conversely be penalized.
Non-participation: Participants may choose not to participate,
or simply be disinclined to participate. In some conditions this may result
in the accumulation of time credit relative to others who are more participative.
This can be accepted, rewarded or even penalized. This could be done automatically
(whether accumulation of interest or as a tax) as an operation against
the participant's account in the time bank.
Sale of services: A participant desiring to intervene on a certain
topic, especially when lacking the disposable time credit resources to
do so, may choose to endeavour to offer the intervention to the group (or
another participant). If others are interested they may be prepared to
finance the offered intervention to whatever level they consider appropriate.
Purchase of services: Corresponding to any sale or purchases
are situations in which a group of participants (or a single participant)
wants a particular intervention made -- in exchange for some time credit,
and possibly an additional amount to encourage the intervenor.
Acceptance of constraints: A difficulty frequently encountered
in a meeting is apparently dysfunctional behaviour on the part of an otherwise
valued participant. For participants lacking in resources, one approach
might therefore be to offer to modify behaviour during the meeting in exchange
for time resources. The participant may specify the behaviour to be constrained
in this way, or else the participant may query others as to what behaviour
they would like to see constrained. Clearly more time resources would be
offered for the more dysfunctional forms of behaviour. Alternatively resources
might be sought in exchange for manifesting some form of behaviour uncharacteristic
of the person's meeting comportment. In one alternative all participants
would seek to build up their time resource capital in this way -- as possibly
one of the few ways of generating resources. It is interesting to think
of this as collective investment in the constraint of each participant's
Open-ended sustainability: A meeting is normally designed in
relation to a fixed period of time. This is less true of periodic meetings
where issues may be carried over or postponed to a subsequent occasion.
Time resources may also be apportioned in this way and carried over to
future meetings. Those who save their resources in one meeting may then
be at an advantage in a future session.
Heightening interest: An interesting question is what keepsa
meeting going, even from one occasion to the next in a periodic series.
Conversely, what causes interest to flag. Past experiments with T-groups
touched upon this. If time resources are allocated in relation to a fixed
time, the issue is avoided. If however the time economy is structured in
such a way that individuals, and the group as a whole, have to generate
resources, then the relation between resources and sustainability becomes
more evident. In a fixed time situation, time resources are simply transferred
to the time sink as the meeting progresses. In the open-ended situation
the sink must be creatively reframed --there is a need for recycling. The
group is then faced with the need to shift the focus through phases, whether
by shifting to new topics, new venues, or new styles of meeting -- before
returning once again to those already explored (presumably exhaustively).
In a sustainable mode, such returns cannot be avoided. How topics, as resources
in their own right, get exhausted is also necessarily a matter of concern
for any sustainable community. If all topics (and/or ways of approaching
them) are exhausted, the participants have effectively used up their resources
and the viability of the community (or meeting) will naturally become questionable.
Monetarized vs barter economies: Participants might choose to
focus on whether the meeting time economy had become excessively "monetarized"
-- especially through the use of time beads. Alternatives may be sought
based on systems of barter, although presumably several forms of economy
may coexist. Note that the obtrusive character of time beads may be avoided
by having transactions recorded by observers supplying occasional time
Report on one implementation
During the month International Summer University (Potsdam, September
1995) of the Peace University (Akazienstrasse 27, D-10823 Berlin, Germany),
a simplified version of the above process was used to manage time during
day long Round Tables -- following an earlier experiment on the occasion
of the UN Climate Conference. On any day there could be up to 10 simultaneous
Round Tables with up to 10 persons per table. The result was described
by Hazel Henderson as a "social invention" and by Marilyn Wilhelm as a
"civilized dialogue" that should be introduced in schools as well as decision/situation
The key moderators of the overall process were Heiner Benking
Farah Lenser(see website).
On this occasion the "rules" were:
have units of time currency available (allocated at one unit per minute
of speaking time, with an initial allocation of 7 units to each of 7 participants
introduce yourself briefly to the group, outlining what you have to offer
or would like to share, using one time unit to do so;
place units into a central pool as they are used up, one minute at a time,
as indicated by the moderator;
interact with others, offering them extra time units if you would want
to encourage them to speak, or to continue speaking;
time units are redistributed by the moderator as required;
a table is free to abandon use of the system, if it is found to be cumbersome,
or to reintroduce it if the pattern of communication appears to call for
Speaking time credit was not related to position or public appearance.
It was dynamically allocated to the person who was perceived as able to
contribute most to the current situation. This might mean people from developing
countries, women, children, or unforeseen categories of people. Lengthy
speech-making was avoided. At one stage there was a mix of one third celebrities
and two thirds "unknown" participants. Some tables were English-speaking,
but most were German-speaking.
Observers (over 70 at one point) standing around the tables could be
given a time unit by participants to allow them to speak, or could be invited
to replace one of the participants. Participants occasionally modified
the rules which were quickly grasped, notably by children. Celebrities
were not necessarily allocated most time.
Since stones were used as time units, in German the system was named
the Steinzeit method. Although one translation is "stone time", the other
is Stone Age!
Metaphors for a sustainable time economy in meetings
Meeting as a market: By exploring a meeting as a market, questions
are raised about how people discover and produce whatever they bring to
sell or exchange at that market. What do people bring to market? How are
"objects" on display at meetings perceived to be saleable? Thus items may
be culled from the media or from daily experience and then exchanged during
the meeting. Issues can be identified and structured into forms whose communication
is valued by some. Creative insights can be rendered into a form valuable
in such exchanges. Groups of participants may cooperate in crafting a valued
communication. Any barter or selling process may be seen in terms of market
stands, each with a salespersonactively or passively promoting the wares
on display. Other sellers may ply the crowds, unrelated to particular stands,
trying to make a sale. Thieves and pickpockets may also be present, taking
without any effort at exchange -- and requiring the presence of protectors
or police. Charitable benefactors may choose to offer the insights without
charge. Some may be rewarded simply for performing in unusual ways. Some
may endeavour to harangue a crowd, seeking to persuade or proselytize,
without any expectation of reward (and often, whether or not they attract
Meeting as an environmental niche: By exploring a meeting as
an ecosystem, questions are raised about the very different kinds of participant
and their many forms of involvement in the meeting process. Some species
of participant may tend to congregate in quite specific ways, others may
occasionally flit in and out interacting only briefly. Some may gather
and exchange information in ways quite incomprehensible to others, who
may find what is so exchanged totally un-nourishing. One type of participant
may effectively be nourished by another -- leading to patterns of parasitism
and predation. There may be strange forms of courtship behaviour prior
to fruitful intercourse. The different kinds of participants and exchanges
are however bound together in complex food webs which defy any simplistic
understanding of order. From such a perspective, how is the ecosystem to
be developed and its sustainability ensured?
Meeting as crop cultivation: Participants may be understood as
bringing to market a variety of produce grown on their own territory. But
the meeting itself may be seen as offering scope for the cultivation of
a variety of crops. Seeds (cuttings or even grafts) planted by some at
the beginning of the meeting by some may be nourished and cared for until
they bear fruit. However the growth of any such crop is subject to risks
from shortage (or excess) of water, inappropriate nutrients (or their absence),
extremes of temperature, and the consequence of pests and diseases. Some
problems may be aggravated by monoculture and excessive application of
fertilizer in an effort to obtain maximum short-term yields. Permaculture
may suggest many alternative perspectives.