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December 1991

Research Network on Catalytic Imagery

for governance in impossible situations

-- / --


It is proposed that a network should be established to link a limited number of individuals, groups and institutions. The focus would be on the selection and elaboration of imagery capable of facilitating comprehension of richer conceptual patterns. The concern would be to identity patterns (or their design characteristics) which could provide the necessary conceptual scaffolding to interrelate essentially opposing positions critical to the support of effective governance.

A central concern would be the identification of imagery to give coherence to the more complex structures appropriate to sustainable development. Other areas of concern would include richer patterns capable of offering coherence to geopolitical groupings vulnerable to fragmentation (Europe, USSR, Canada, Middle East). The work would focus on the global level (including imagery to sustain a "new world order") as well as on the local level (notably to offer new images of structures to relate opposing minorities).

Challenges to governance

It is unnecessary to comment on the range and complexity of interacting problems to which goverance is called to respond. Such challenges to governance are particulary acute when a delicate balance must be discovered between two (or more) highly incompatible priorities, with their associated factions and vested interests. Conventional wisdom provides little guidance when consensus can only be achieved by neglecting minority, less empowered, or longer-term perspectives. There is relatively little insight available into the nature of the "complex bargain" which needs to be struck under such circumstances.

Examples of such situations are: sustainable development (reconciling environmental and developmental perspectives); regional geopolitical integration (Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Middle East, South-East Asia, Africa); and the appropriate (con)federal form for certain states (USSR, Canada). It may also be seen in the complex balance called for between competing cultures, languages and religions, especially where minorities are threatened (Northern Ireland). The approach to the reunification of divided countries offers further examples (China, Korea, Cyprus). Similar challenges are currently faced in envisaging the future structure of certain major institutions (United Nations system, EEC).

The most striking examples are those associated with Israel and Yugoslavia. In both the range of options discussed is extremely limited. This is a demonstration of the failure of imagination when locked into verbal and text expression.

These challenges are both explicit and implicit in such recent documents as the:

Complementary initiatives

Three initiatives are outlined in this document:

The annexes preceding these proposals present arguments and contextual information.


1. Bibliographical references (indicative selection)

2. Beyond the constraints of text (note)

3. Meshing imaginative vision and policy implementation (note)

4. Research background (indicative)

5. Focus of research (indicative)

6. Institutional arrangements (tentative)

7. CATALYTIC IMAGERY: Conveying Earth Summit insights (illustrative international competition)

8. FORMAL STRUCTURE OF DECLARATIONS: Challenge and opportunity (proposal)

9. STRUCTURAL OUTLINER: Conceptual keystone design (proposal)

Annex 1: Bibliographical references

See References (at end)

Annex 2: Beyond the Constraints of Text

(a) Unexplored resources

The process by which new possibilities are currently being explored is almost completely conducted through verbal and textual exchanges. The nature of new structural arrangements is then finally defined and given form in legal texts. The structure is thus envisaged, agreed and defined through linear text.

As is clear in any complex design situation (whether concerning buildings, machinery, factory systems, or chemical molecules) imagery is vital to comprehension of richer and more complex possibilities. Such imagery may be so complex that it can only effectively be managed and manipulated by computer (as in computer-aided design).

Where efforts are at present made to use imagery in response to challenging problems of governance, it tends to be limited to video promotional presentations or to classical organization charts. The former tends to avoid articulation of structure and the latter encourages simplistic rearrangement of organizational units, usually only in a hierarchical array.

There is a significant body of evidence to indicate that creativity and innovation are catalyzed and sustained by imagery and metaphor. It is these which provide the conceptual scaffolding to capture an insight into new and more complex patterns that can reconcile hitherto unrelated phenomena. This applies in all fields of human activity.

From this perspective there is a strong argument for exploring the characteristics of structured imagery vital to the articulation of new patterns of relationships in areas critical to governance at this time. Such imagery could be used as a complement to text-based discussion of such possibilities. However, as with the concept of a spiral staircase, there are presumably quite simple institutional structures which it would be considerably easier to discuss on the basis of an image rather than through a necessarily complex textual description. Work on structured imagery is vital to clarify the nature of such options. It is these options which cannot be effectively envisaged through the current text-based debates.

(b) Nature of a complementary approach

Giving increasing weight to imagery, offers the possibility of turning the present approach "on its head". Instead of producing text and then looking for images to illustrate it -- the focus is on looking for images to carry a structural insight, before looking for text to explain it. This benefits from the ways in which imagery is often part of the creative process through which social innovations take form.

This approach is in effect an effort to seek a more appropriate balance between the cognitive functions represented by imagery and text. It could even be argued that failure to explore the imagery dimension is an expression of functional imblance at the cognitive level. From this perspective, text could be seen as reinforcing so-called patriarchal, left-brain approaches at the expense of the so-called feminine insights and right-brain approaches carried by imagery.

The extent to which policy-making is media-driven has been frequently noted in recent years. Policies are unsustainable unless they can be effectively carried by the media. Text-based policies are difficult to express in the visually oriented media. This forces the media to develop "stories" which do not reflect the complexity of the issues and policies designed to respond to them -- they capture the imagination in a distorted manner which fails to harness it in support of the policies.

(c) Improving the range of options

There is a marked tendency for the extremely divisive situations discussed here to be understood in terms such as the following:

This sequence may be viewed as a progression in complexity from a single position to the transcendence of such positions (reminiscent of the dialectic tradition). It might be coded as a form of counting: from one and two, through "many", to a final, desirable "null" state. The question to be asked is whether the fundamental strategic options facing the planet should be confided to such a primitive numbering system and the limited geometrical configurations which it allows. Significant issues tend to have more than two "sides". What are the geometrical forms which can give coherent insight into the goverance of a multi-sided issue?

It is of course possible to describe a wide range of phenomena using a binary numbering system, as is done in computer systems. But binary codes are not readily comprehensible. As with the numbering system, those cultures and languages whose counting ability is limited to one, two and "many" are viewed as impoverished (in that respect at least). There is advantage in articulating "many" into a sequence of numbers which then allow a range of structural configurations to be described unambiguously and comprehensibly. (The harmonious "null" state, which is the goal of most forms of conflict resolution, then functions like a zero in a numbering system, rounding off a sequence. It thus "sets the stage" for work towards more subtle levels of "harmony" or "sustainable development" in terms of which new kinds of distinctions need to be reconciled at a higher null state.)

(d) "Global bargains" through more complex structure

Reporting in preparation for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Jim MacNeill (Secretary-General of the World Commission on Environment and Development, responsible for the Brundtland Report) notes: "The notion of a 'global bargain' conjures up many images, especially within the broad context of sustainable development...In its simplest terms, a bargain involves at least two parties and two issues. It implies a trade-off between the parties on the issues. The group of nations, developed and developing, that have come together to form a bargain must agree to give up something in order to get something else. As a rule, they would give up a path of development in a given sector that is unsustainable and thus represents a threat to themselves and the other negotiating nations or the global commons." (Beyond Interdependence, 1991)

The difficulty is that bargains are typically discussed in the verbal and textual mode. In this mode, notions of "giving up" in order to "get something else" are understood in the simplest terms and therefore readily evoke opposition. This opposition is indeed legitimate in terms of the "two-dimensional" images (of "sides") through which they are currently discussed. It would not however be so necessary in terms of more complex configurations (of "sides") as advocated above.

It is unfortunate, as the MacNeill report illustrates, that thinking for the 1992 Earth Summit is focused on the possibility of a series of issue-specific "global bargains". Taken one by one, these may or may not prove negotiable. But on this basis there is every likelihood that the effects of some will undermine the effects of others. What is missing is any image of how issue-specific bargains can be interwoven to constitute a larger sustainable development bargain -- as a set of complementary elements rather than as a series.

As in architecture, it is through balancing the stresses and tensions between a set of complementary construction elements that the integrity of a building is ensured. Richer structured imagery is required to facilitate understanding of how the larger and more encompassing bargains can be achieved. It is through such images of integrity, emerging from more complex structures, that the logic of that integrity gives justification to issue-specific bargains with greater effectiveness. It shows how they "fit". Structured images are required to give precision to the vague notions of "checks and balances" conventionally articulated in textual terms. Such images give precision to the notions of "giving up", and tensional "trade offs", which readily lend themselves to description in architectural terms, for example.

(e) Image-based governance

It is possible to envisage a situation in which every major policy is carried by an image or set of complementary images. This then becomes the focus of a new form of consensus -- rather than the text "explaining" the image. The image is not developed, after the fact, to make the text-based initiative palatable, as in present public information initiatives. The image is then central both to the structure of the policy and to any media initiatives. In a sense it is the image which provides the ordering principle for any text. In computer terms, textual commentary and explanation is "hung" on the different structural features of the image.

Such developments would then open up the possibility of what amounts to image-based consensus, and the associated formal agreements. This is the way in which design-based contracts are agreed. As in the construction of a building, a piece of machinery, or a production system, it is the design "specifications" expressed in diagrammatic form on which agreement is reached. It is the central or underlying image which creates the context on the basis of which detailed arrangements can be qualified in textual form.

This approach offers an alternative to dependence on agreements based solely on the text of resolutions, declarations and treaties. In the light of the experience of past decades, it would be wise to question the adequacy of these as a support for the emerging challenges of governance.

Annex 3: Meshing Imaginative Vision and Policy Implementability: the role of metaphor as a vital cognitive interface

Note on the challenging dilemma of an imaginative response to the policy implications of sustainable development

0. Introduction

This note assumes recognition of the complexity of the policy challenges of sustainable development, the need for "new thinking" and the importance of more imaginative approaches to policy-making and organization.

The implications of these issues for the theme of this note have been explored in earlier papers (see references) and in the section on metaphor in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1991).

1. Beyond "tinkering" and crisis management

There will continue to be many situations in which it appears expedient to respond to priorities with the skills of crisis management. There will always be opportunities for reconfiguring organizational structures and lines of communication so as to suggest that adequate response is being made to the problem dynamic -- at least in the shorter term.

As many acknowledge, more is however required. This is a real challenge to the imagination to articulate new visions of appropriate order and of longer term significance.

2. The search for new forms of order

Do the imaginative possibilities evoked in the search for new forms of order reflect a level of richness and complexity appropriate to the emerging social reality? It can readily be argued that much of what is proposed is "more of the same", offering "solutions to yesterday's problems".

Much of such thinking constitutes a "linear" extrapolation from existing approaches to organization and policy design. Despite pleas for "holistic", "quantum leaps" towards more "integrative" approaches, these remain fuzzy in detail, however attractive and appropriate they may appear in outline.

3. Beyond "boring" possibilities: the evocative constraint

It is increasingly clear that the emerging possibilities can only have a chance of succeeding if they can be adequately articulated through the media. This means more than the ability to "package" the possibility in terms which are comprehensible. Many comprehensible policies are simply boring and, as such, alienating.

Unless the new approaches are adequately evocative, triggering the imagination and a sense of participation, they will of necessity be inappropriate. Appropriate policies call for a new form of identification on the part of those whom they touch.

4. Conceptual scaffolding in support of imaginative proposals

Complex building designs require scaffolding to allow the complementary structural elements to be held in position before they can counter-balance the tensions and stresses they engender. It can be argued that imaginative policy proposals require a form of "conceptual scaffolding" to juxtaposition their complementary elements -- before they can be adequately "locked into place" by a comprehension of the whole (a "global" comprehension).

Such conceptual scaffolding is required to anchor subtle possibilities crafted by the collective imagination -- and to render them communicable and credible. It is especially necessary given the degree of opposition between interests representing vital, and complementary, concerns in society.

5. Scaffolding possibilities from high technology and traditional wisdom

It has been argued that current policy-making language draws upon very simple forms of conceptual scaffolding. As a result only simpler forms of policy design are rendered possible. It can be readily argued that these are inappropriate to the complex challenges of the present and the future.

Ironically, traditional wisdom from many cultures offers rich patterns (whether from symbolism, mythology or folk tales) that can be used to interrelate complementary structural elements -- and ensure their widespread comprehensibility. This possibility remains to be explored. The ability to articulate policies using such patterns may prove vital to the comprehensibility and credibility of new policies appropriate to such cultures. The failure to consider this dimension is a major factor in the "inappropriateness" of Western management styles in such cultures.

The current dramatic evolution of computer technology and software offers another form of scaffolding. Beyond the bar charts and pie charts of the "business graphics" basic to most current forms of policy-making, other forms of graphics are emerging. These forms blend image and data in more dynamic and complex ways. As such they offer new vehicles for the imagination and its articulation. Such technology can be used to give form to hitherto unforeseen conceptual structures of great richness. And the technology can help to render them comprehensible. The relevance to the policy community remains to be explored. Ironically, such technology will be used for entertainment before its wider relevance is investigated.

6. The chasm between imaginative possibilities and policy realities

There is thus a tragic "gap" between imaginative possibilities and implementable policies. Existing policies, with all their acknowledged defects, have had the advantage of having been exposed to articulation into programmatic detail. In fact it is only hindsight on this implementation in practice which has highlighted their defects.

Imaginative possibilities, however attractive they may appear at first sight, do not inspire equivalent confidence concerning their satisfactory implementability.

New tools are required to bridge this chasm. Such tools must offer the means of both articulating complexity and also of rendering it comprehensible. This is the cognitive challenge of respecting the "local" focus required for implementability, whilst providing a "global" context necessary for comprehensibility.

7. Metaphor as a vital cognitive interface

Many recent studies suggest that metaphor plays a fundamental cognitive role in giving form to new varieties of understanding. It has also been demonstrated that people and cultures can become entrapped in simplistic metaphors that are inadequate to the challenges that they face.

It is noteworthy that metaphor is used in many cultures and at all levels of society -- and especially by managers and politicians. It is doubtful whether modern management could function without the use of military and sporting metaphors. It could be argued that the current rich use of metaphor in slums is a means through which people reconfigure their cognitive environment to ensure their psychic survival. Metaphor is also the traditional vehicle through which the elders of a village or tribe articulated options in the face of challenges -- drawing upon the wisdom of their culture. Many advances in computer software design are explicitly made in terms of new "metaphors".

Metaphor would therefore appear to be a major unexplored resource through which richer and more complex policies can be articulated and rendered comprehensible.

8. Policy implications

There is no lack of imagination or of visions of new approaches to social organization. On the other hand, there are well-defined constraints on what appears possible at any given time, given the current thinking and procedures which have proved their worth over the years.

If new forms of social order are to emerge in response to the challenge of sustainable development, there is a need to break through the "imagination barrier" imposed by the use of simplistic conceptual scaffolding. There is a need to question the adequacy of the metaphors used to articulate existing policies -- and to search for richer, more complex and more dynamic metaphors. It is richer metaphors which will enable the articulation of more complex policies appropriate to the challenge of sustainable development.

The success of the United Nations "Earth Summit" (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) may well not be measured in terms of specifics on which compromises are agreed. These will be quickly forgotten except by specialists. If there is to be the "fundamental shift in attitude" so frequently called for, this can only be triggered and articulated by new and richer metaphors. It is such metaphors which will give coherence to emerging specific policies of appropriate complexity. It is such coherence which will determine whether the policies are accepted by wider publics and interest groups.

Great care should be devoted to exploring richer metaphors through which to give a sense of coherence and pattern to the variety of complementary interests represented at the Earth Summit. It is these metaphors which could prove to be the most important outcome of the event -- and of most relevance to the dilemma of sustainable development.

Annex 4: Research Background

This initiative builds on a number of areas of work over the past decade. These include:

Annex 5: Focus of Research

(a) Characteristics of structured imagery

The work would focus on the characteristics of designed (or selected) images in terms of:

The work would also focus on the concrete implications in terms of:

Finally the work would also explore:

(b) Components and priorities of image research

The components and priorities of the programme are indicated in the accompanying diagram (see Annex 1). This is designed to distinguish certain valuable approaches from one another and to suggest some relationships.

Clearly there is a history of work in this area, although very little of it has been focused on policy-related issues, institution building or conflict resolution. The diagram is designed to suggest how this programme might build on aspects of such work whilst avoiding some of the traps associated with it.

The diagram also responds to the fact that most of the points of focus can be interpreted in a restrictive sense as well as in a sense which is highly relevant to policy issues. Thus there is a sense in which "symbols" are indeed "structured images" with powerful implications for conflict resolutions. There is also a restrictive sense in which this significance is lost and they function as little more than signs. The labels could thus be moved around the diagram along the connecting lines. However as given, it suggests the priorities appropriate to this project and the strategic opportunity at this time

Some conventional strategies (symbols, posters, etc) are therefore "played down", whilst others (metaphor, guided fantasy) are "played up" as a context for the focus on structured imagery.

(c) Research output

This would include:

(d) Method of work:

This would include

In the light of past experience with research networks and their productivity, emphasis should be placed upon:

Annex 6: Institutional arrangements

(a) Possible core participation

(b) Possible additional institutional participants

-- Council of Europe (Strasbourg)

Annex 7: Comveying Earth Summit Insights


Clues: Meaning of "insightful imagery":

To fulfil the function indicated above, such imagery needs to go beyond "description" or "prescription", beyond "naming problems" or "envisaging solutions", and beyond "blaming" or "exhorting". Clues to the "Factor X" which can catalyze more fruitful responses may perhaps be found in one or more of the following:

On the one hand, we seem to need "catalytic convertors" for our "exhausted imagination". But on the other, our cultural heritage constitutes a huge "gene-pool" of the imagination on which we can draw in response to the planetary dilemma.


Annex 8: Formal Structure of Declarations: Challenge and Opportunity

A. Constraints:

"More of the same ?" Many have recognized the danger that the Charters and Action Plans emerging from the UNCED process will be characterized by features such as:

Conceptual traps of the drafting mind-set A multitude of declarations, charters, resolutions and action plans have been produced over the past decades. In many cases they have been adequate to the visions of their producers, especially where the concerns were specific, local or well-defined. This leads to the easy assumption that structuring such documents is a relatively minor editorial task -- with which many in the international community are familiar. Concern is focused on the conceptual challenge of the content and not on the framework within which that content is set.

This conceptual trap engenders documents organized into neat series of points and sub-points that are the epitomy of linear, hierarchically-structured, thinking. Whilst appropriate in many circumstances, this structuring principle is widely recognized as quite inadequate to the complexities of the global problematique. However insightful the content, the simplistic structure of such documents encourages the kinds of thinking that reinforce inadequate organization of institutions and information systems -- and the inappropriate decision-making that results.

Document organization of a higher conceptual order The challenge appears to be threefold:

The first two call upon levels of insight which have been articulated over recent years, and recognized by many disciplines as breakthroughs in understanding. These breakthroughs have occurred in response to the complexity of natural phenomena and through recognition of the inadequacy of the old conceptual frameworks in handling them. It would appear vital that such understanding be reflected in documents purporting to organize our response to the future of the planet. The third aspect of the challenge calls for new ways of relating such insights to those of handling and presentation of information.

B. Challenges to Presentation

There is a need for many perspectives to interact to clarify the content of global declarations and render them appropriate. But equally there is a need for many with expertise in new forms of order to interact to clarify the dimensions which need to influence the conceptual framework within which that content is presented. These formal properties are necessarily a challenge to ways of thinking that have proved inadequate. They might include:

C. Clues to Formal Properties

Annex 9: Conceptual Keystone Design: a computer-based structural "outliner"


Many documents of fundamental importance to societies, organizations and groups (or even to an individual's creative processes) are based on sets of principles, values, qualities, policies, initiatives or other points (eg declarations, charters, action plans). These are usually listed out as a numbered sequence, possibly with sub-points. The conventional method of producing such documents favours linear thinking at a time when non-linear, contextually-oriented approaches are often believed to be more appropriate to ensure higher levels of integration amongst the elements of the set. A number of computer-based text "outliners" are now widely available to facilitate production of such hierarchically structured documents.

This proposal suggests the need for a computer-based structural "outliner" to facilitate a non-linear approach to the creative production of such "conceptual keystones". The need for a more integrative approach may be seen in the occasional efforts to group conceptual elements into a table, a pie-chart, a diagram, or even into a form of mandala. In each case the structure is seen as providing the integrative perspective that links a variety of disparate, but complementary, elements that together ensure the viability of the larger pattern.

It is envisaged that the proposed PC-based structural outliner would be used in a manner somewhat similar to the conventional text outliners. However the software would offer many ways of configuring the evolving set of elements within a variety of non-linear structural frameworks, whether in two or three dimensions. The geometric and symmetric properties of these would be used to suggest levels of coherence and integration absent from conventional presentations.

User approaches

The user would be offered a number of ways of building up the conceptual "keystone". In each case, the result would take the form of a geometric (and normally symmetrical) structure in two or three dimensions with elements of text attached to its features:

Structural templates

The user would be able to draw upon a library of structures and symmetric designs:

Text processor

Two main modes can be envisaged:

Both of these exist in simpler form in conventional text outliners

Thesaurus links

The thesaurus would be designed to provide facilities beyond those usually provided by such a function.

Restructuring (by rules, by library, or by indications)

Other features:

Indexing / Access


The major emphasis in each of the following cases is to enable the user to articulate a complex pattern whilst maintaining a sense of coherence and ensuring a configuration of functional checks and balances.


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