Problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning
- / -
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,
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
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
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
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:
- reflect the complexity of the external environment in an ordered manner
(representation), to reflect about that environment (conceptual processes),
and to reflect about itself (self-reference or self-reflexiveness);
- focus the variety of perspectives represented, without destroying it in
some simplistic formula of superficial consensus;
- transform the issues presented, and the organizational groups which take
responsibility for them, into new configurations of operational significance;
- act, or empower those represented to act, in the light of the level of
understanding achieved during the meeting.
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:
- organized according to procedures considered reasonably satisfactory by
most of those directly involved, possibly on the basis of experience of previous
meetings in the same series;
- deliberately structured, by the instigators to achieve a certain objective,
irrespective of the individual preoccupations of those who choose to participate
under such circumstances;
- conceived around a pre-defined set of topics, irrespective of any other
topics which may emerge during the meeting as common to a number of participants
- deliberately unstructured, as an environment for spontaneous exchange between
participants, but without any concern that such exchanges should lead to the
emergence of some larger pattern.
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
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:
- - UN/NGO "Parallel" Conferences (Stockholm, Rome, Vancouver,
- - European Association for Humanistic Psychology
- - First International Conference of the Society for General Systems Research
- - First Global Futures Congress (Toronto, 1982)
- - First New Age Congress (Florence, 1978)
- - Forum International
- - Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development Project of the United
Nations University (1978-82)
- - Infoterra Network Management Meeting of the United Nations Environment
Programme (Moscow, 1979)
- - International Conference on Transpersona] Psychology (Reykjavik, 1975)
- - International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (Chicago,
- - One Earth Gathering (Findhorn, 1976, 1979)
- - Planetary Initiative for the World We Choose (Toronto, 1983)
- - World Symposium on Humanity (Los Angeles/Toronto/London, 1979)
- - World Futures Studies Federation (Rome, 1972)
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."