Alternative Futures for the United Nations
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Presented at a Symposium on the Alternative Futures for the UN System on the
occasion of the annual convention of the International Studies Association (New
York, 1973). The memorandum introduced three other documents:
1. A Distinction
It is important to distinguish clearly between:
- envisaging, recommending and designing alternative patterns, forms and
locations for intra- and inter- institutional action and
- envisaging, recommending and designing alternative supporting mechanisms
to facilitate the continuing generation of alternative patterns, forms
and locations for intra- and inter-institutional action.
The first process is vital at this particular point in tine. The meta-problem
however is how to make it make effective, participative, geographically widespread,
and transdisciplinary. When the process occurs it often seems isolated fron
other occurrences of the process. This is because the underlying, interlinking,
supportive mechanism is weak or non-existant.
The first process suffers from the disadvantage that the
particular group engaged in a particular occurrence of it
is liable to generate views which do not mesh with those
not represented there. This fragments continuity of
thinking and hinders the formation of consensus leading
to effective change.
The first process also has directive overtones, for it hints that one good
alternative form could emerge following discussion amongst reasonable mon.
(The term "conceptual imperialism" springs to mind.) Does not this
approach ignore the variety and experimentation present at all levels throughout
society - both of which are desirable and essential to a healthy, adaptive,
evolving society. Perhaps the image of moving in a step-change from an out-
dated form to a new more suitable form could bo more usefully replaced by that
of aprocess of continuous transformation and evolution of a network of
organization units, each with n life cycle reflecting its relevance as o participative
opportunity. Such network evolution contrasts with the current spastic concept
of change in which society engages in a sequence of insectoid larva-pupa phases
or reptilian moulting phases.
This said the meta-problem remains of what approach to
take to designing such a mechanism which would directly
facilitate and interrelate many forms of structural and
conceptual change and experiment rather than perpetuate
and reinforce a single rapidly outmoded form of institu-
tional action - which
then becomes a real obstacle to
continuing social evolution.
Systems as Facultative
Nearly every information system designed today is designed
as the instrument of an organization or programma conceived
as an unchanging entity (in terms of
relative structural invariance, not size). The heavy
cost of investing in such
computer-based systems is a guarantee that every effort
"ill bo made to maintain as long as possible, the forms and
patterns of action which they were originally designed to
There is no technological barrier to designing computer-
based (or simpler) information systems to facilitate
organization creation and change and more fruitful resource
allocation. Such systems could also be rendered more
participative and therefore attractive to new resources.
Such system, described elsewhere, do not even involve high
cost technology (although the proposed satellite systems
could assist their development) - merely a less institution-
focussed and more change-oriented approach to their design.
In September 1972 the U.N. Inter-Organization Board for Information Systems
and Related Activities backed out of the hoped-for effective inter-institutional
action. The U.N. does not have, and in the light of the past 5 years cannot
generate adequate designs for facilitative information systems to support and
catalyze the continuing restructuring of the patterns and forms of its own
action. It cannot relate its action, at an operational level, to the pool
of external bodies without adopting a directive stance - nor can it design common
systems to facilitate and stimulate the action of such bodies in their pursuit
of parallel and independently evolving objectives.
Organizations, like the U.N. and agencies, exist and have an internal momentum,
They cannot bo comprehensively redesigned in the current setting. They could
however be provided with services which enable their components to interrelate
operationally in now and more fruitful ways - as and when such organization
units themselves son such change to be possible and useful. Such services
could take the form of information systems to facilitate incremental
"auto-reorganization" and inter-linkage with external bodies or
The fact that there is still no central point at which the existence of each
of the many thousand sub-units in the inter-agency system is registered (the
information does not exist, or is in part highly confidential) would seem
however to be symptomatic of the U.N.'s current inability to evolve or even
to reflect on its own structure.