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Transformative Conferencing

Problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development

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Collection of papers arising from work in connection with the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development (GPID) project of the United Nations University (UNU). Published under that title by the Union of International Associations (Brussels, 1984). Aspects of the points discussed in this volume are treated in the other four volumes of papers in the series: Policy Alternation for Development (1984), Patterns of Conceptual Integration (1984), Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension (1984), and From Networking to Tensegrity Organization (1984). These  themes  are also explored in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (Munich,  K G Saur,  1985, ca 1500 pages). This was followed by a separate collection: Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991).


I. Meeting failure: analysis and case studies

II. Visions for the future

III. Messaging and group formation

IV. Computer-aided conferences

V. Metaconferencing techniques

Annex: Conferencing pathways: the meeting as a network (conferencing or dialogue options)


1. Meetings, and particularly international meetings are a vital feature of society. They are a principal means whereby different perspectives are "assembled"," meet " or touch each other, possibly following a period of separation ("reunion"). Through such occasions resources are brought together to bear on a question of common concern ("conference") or they may provide the environment in which unrelated questions can emerge spontaneously ("Forum").

2. Considerable efforts have been successfully made to increase the efficiency of meeting organization/operation through the use of management skills, communications technology and specially conceived buildings. The organizational skills have been professionalized and are available as a commercial service, whilst the quantity of meetings has given rise to a whole "conference industry" of significant economic importance.

3. Despite the ease with which meetings are held, and the increasing number of such events, there is rising concern that many of these do not fulfil the expectations of participants and of those whose future depends upon their outcome.

4. Some efforts have been made to move beyond a concern for the "mechanics" of meeting organization in order to facilitate those processes which are more congenial and significant to participants. These innovations have been for the most part experimental or implemented under special conditions and are primarily applicable to small groups. The majority of meetings has been little affected, if at all.

5. The fundamental problem seems to be associated with the fact that the apparent success at "processing" agenda items, participants viewpoints and documents is matched by only an apparent or superficial consensus whose impact if any, is frequently limited to one of short-term public relations. The meeting outcome is such that the collective empowerment is minimal as is the enablement of the participant.

6. Seen in this light current meeting procedures themselves constitute a principal obstacle to social change at least for the meetings in which this is a preoccupation.

7. The challenge would therefore appear to be to elaborate a new conceptual framework within which a meeting may be perceived. This should highlight the hitherto hidden dimensions of the problem and clarify more appropriate options. For unless a new attitude to the meeting process can be elaborated, it seems highly probable that concealed inherent weaknesses will continue to undermine and erode the value for social change of any meeting outcome. In a very real sense meetings model collective (in)ability to act and the (in)effectiveness of collective action.

8. An important question then is how to mature the power of a meeting to:

9. The task is therefore to discover of nature of the "compleat meeting " of the future, through which a new order may be brought into being.


1. This collection of topics, and the exploratory process with which it is associated, is not concerned with large-groupmeetings or conferences which are:

2. Attention is only given to the "mechanics" of meeting organization (covered in the many books available on such matters) in so far as they directly affect the psycho-social dynamic of the meeting.

3. This topic procedure provides a means of collecting together ideas which may be helpful in different ways to different people according to their meeting experience. It is to be expected that a given participant will find some portion of the topic sheets to be partially or totally irrelevant to perceived needs.

4. This collection does not attempt to elaborate any single solution to the problems identified or to advocate a particular approach. Alternative methods are already in use for some of them. Reference to these will be made whenever appropriate to the case of large-groups (i.e. in excess of 75 to 30 persons).

5. So little attention has been given to the psycho-socoial dynamics of large-group meetings (particularly of the international, interdisciplinary variety), that many of the topics can only be identified and explored tentatively or even speculatively. None of the remarks should therefore be considered conclusive. The major concern is to stimulate open-ended reflection - accepting the necessity of risking error. Hopefully this may facilitate a breakthrough into a new understanding of participation in large-group meetings and practical possibilities for their improved organization in the future

6. This is not an "academic" exercise. It is an effort by participants in international meetings (including concerned academics) to explore whatever knowledge, experience and insight seems useful to the improvement of the conference process.


This document is dedicated to participants at international, inter-culltural, interdisciplinary, inter-ideological and action-oriented conferences who recognize that the full potential of such gatherings in responding to global crisis is very far from being achieved, and who experience intense frustration at the human resources wasted in meetings organized according to the conventional pattern.

This document is also dedicated to those people and groups who take unusual risks in experimenting with new ways of organizing large international conferences with the intent of achieving significant impact on the process of human and social development worldwide.

Their initiatives have been evident, to a greater or lesser extent, in arenas such as the following:

Their valiant efforts with limited resources deserve greater recognition. Above all there is a need to learn from both their successes and from their failures. Those who fail to learn from such failures run the considerable risk of repeating them.

"If we are to achieve results never before attained, we must expect to employ methods never before attempted."
(Francis Bacon)

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