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21 September 1997

Concerning "What Futurists Think"


-- / --

Contribution for Futurists: visions, methods and stories (Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, vol 4)
according to a required format (but with the subsequent inclusion here of paragraphs
that were suppressed from the printed version for space reasons).
An earlier variant appeared as Richer Metaphors for Our Future Survival
(Futures: the journal of forecasting and planning (28, 6/7, August/September 1996, pp 604-607)

Who am I and what do I do?
What has influenced my futures related work?
How do I do what I do?
What forces and trends are creating the world?
What world do I want to live in?

Who am I and what do I do?

 I have learnt most from the challenge of definitional games and how they can be used to trap and manipulate, even inadvertently. That said, I am of Australian nationality, born in Egypt (now 57), brought up in what is now Zimbabwe, with some schooling in the UK. I did chemical engineering at Imperial College (London) and an MBA at the University of Cape Town. My wife is German. My professional involvement with computers and the 'information business' dates back to 1965.

Since the early 1970s, and to some extent before that, I have worked within the framework of a historical curiosity -- the Union of International Associations (UIA). This nonprofit research institute was founded in Brussels in and has had its secretariat there since then. Over that period it has had many changes of form, function and ambition. It may now be most easily understood as a self-financed clearinghouse for information on international nonprofit organizations, the problems they perceive and the strategies they employ in the light of a range of values - all in pursuit of a wide variety of forms of human development. It makes extensive use of computer facilities in the production of a range of reference works and maintenance of an extensive website (

More challenging insights into its work, and my continuing areas of learning, may be obtained by reframing the words in the UIA name. Thus "union" may be understood in terms of the logic of sets and the possibilities of conceptual integration; "associations" in terms of relationships in general, rather than simply in their organizational form; and "international" in the sense of transcending conventional territorial boundaries, including those of a non-geographical nature. Each offers more functional meanings of "global".  Perhaps the UIA should aspire to become an Uncentralized Intelligence Agency!

My concrete responsibilities are for the development of the information system, the publications generated from it, and the research implications associated with it. The UIA survives, virtually unsubsidized, by processing information received from some 20,000 organizations into large reference books, such as the 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations and the 3-volumeEncyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. Other publications include a quarterly International Congress Calendar covering some 10,000 future international meetings, and a Who's Who in International Organizations. Some 10 databases are now available on CD-ROM and on the World Wide Web. The most recently developed covers 30,000 "strategies".

The economic parameters of such an information processing enterprise have created many research-related possibilities, allowing me to write many papers and reports. There have been links to such professional bodies as the International Studies Association, and there have been many occasions to write on the international NGOs -- which raise major typological challenges in the debate on civil society and relations to the UN system. There have been contributions to professional conferences concerned with international documentation and classification, notably the Committee for Conceptual and Terminological Analysis and the International Society for Knowledge Organization. The work, dating back to 1972, on "world problems" and "human potential", was undertaken in collaboration with the financial support of Mankind 2000 (through James Wellesley-Wesley), which was a catalyst for the emergence of the international futures research movement. It led to interactions with the McHale's and with the formative years of the World Futures Studies Federation. It involved contact with various groups concerned with "interdisciplinarity", most recently the Centre International de Recherhes et Etudes Transdisciplinaires (Paris).

Interaction with Johan Galtung over the years led to participation in the United Nations University mega-project on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development (1978-1982) which proved to be a great stimulus to my research on a range of topics.

What has influenced my futures related work?

The UIA has offered me daily exposure to information from organizations of every persuasion and enabled me to appreciate their constraints and visions to some degree. I have been most strongly influenced by what happens when representatives of such bodies get together -- or, more precisely, what does not happen. I have been struck by the extent to which organizations consider each others concerns to be dangerously misguided or completely irrelevant. This is also reflected in academic comment on the social system and in the behaviour of the best, the wisest, or those I find most congenial, when they gather together.

The data collected by the UIA is highly relational: 80,000 links between organizations, 100,000 links between world problems, 80,000 links between strategies, human development approaches, and human values. Much of this information is "incompatible" -- the perspectives of one body being denied or opposed by another. Much of my research work has focused on representation of networks of interdisciplinary conceptual relationships in a working database despite issues of ideological, cultural or conceptual "incompatibility".

For me concern with the future needs to be anchored in recognition of the full cross-cultural spread of views on both the incommensurable problems to which different groups are sensitive, and the many value systems and approaches to human development through which sensitivity to such problems is engendered. It is the contrasting understandings of human development which "generate" apparently competing futures.

Increasingly the challenge for me has been one of comprehending mutually contradictory insights, often favoured by groups with strong agendas. With the explosive development of the Internet, just how is anyone -- from citizen to world leader -- to comprehend, in a meaningful integrative manner, the complex patterns inherent in such information? What are the consequences of failure to respond to this challenge in an information oriented society? Will such differences go away or are they fundamental to the design of appropriate policies and institutions for the future? Is there an alternative to denial in dealing with polarized strategic dilemmas? Can a particular truth or mode of action be usefully imposed on unbelievers?

For me, an important lead to working creatively with sets of divisive polarities was provided by Buckminster Fuller's concept of tensegrity, subsequently explored by Stafford Beer. More recently I have experimented with graphical possibilities, notably techniques based on virtual reality (VRML) -- now that these are accessible to low-budget initiatives (see demos at: Could sets of polarizing differences be fundamental to representation of emerging global concerns in spherical ("global") configurations -- as new kinds of patterns capable of providing the conceptual scaffolding for more appropriate policies and institutions?

As to where next: I remain challenged by the plethora of information and the inability to capture insight in conferences of the wise or the powerful so as to make any operational sense out of it. Internet and Bosnia merely serve to bring home the point. My current interest is in how preoccupation with fashionable topics, such as "sustainable communities", is manipulated to design out the most fruitful cutting edge -- eco-sewage systems take priority over the challenges of psycho-social community design. Hence my abiding interest in metaphors for, in this example, how a community processes what it excretes is indeed of great interest in any non-physical ecosystem. With some colleagues, I have met periodically in an "International School of Ignorance" to explore challenges of this kind.

As a "save-the-world conference junkie", I am most impressed by what does not happen at gatherings of the wise or well-intentioned in which much has been invested with the greatest of expectations -- usually deliberately ignoring previous failures. I am struck by the conceptual oversimplification through which those who deplore such inadequacies frame their remedies. I profoundly regret the reliance on consensus-building, with its miserable track record (Bosnia again), and the fear of exploring more complex social structures that might be based on real differences of perception and a genuine respect for diversity. The challenge of Jerusalem illustrates the point. The simplistic manner in which the search for "common ground" is framed appears increasingly questionable -- discovering the secrets of "uncommon ground" appears ever more enticing. 

How do I do what I do?

At one level my concern remains to provide frameworks to hold and respect differences. This meshes with UIA information concerns. It is the variety inherent in the perception of difference that I believe to be fundamental to the design of new kinds of structure. It takes opposing pillars to build a 'communal' space like a cathedral. Making a single 'common' pillar out of them would not achieve this. How then can opposing tendencies become fundamental to the design of  new social structures?

At another level I am concerned with how to transform such frameworks according to the needs of perceivers with different biases -- whilst still retaining a degree of integrity for the whole. It is here that I believe that the real breakthroughs will come through metaphor. Richer metaphors are needed to develop and sustain richer environments. For example, in 1997 the world is conceptually stuck in the metaphor of a "windows" software platform through which we observe the "highway". But our need is for new kinds of conceptual "doors" to move through, "buildings" for shelter, 'vehicles' to travel in, and "communities" and sustainable "ecosystems" in order to survive and thrive.

 Whether or not these happen in time, I am interested in metaphors for future survival or, better still, metaphors for psychic "thrival" in the present moment. How can they engender new forms of psycho-social organization amongst the most disadvantaged? I see methodology at this time as being metaphor-led or, alternatively, trapped by implicit metaphors that are inadequate to the challenges. The breakthrough will come when people feel empowered to develop new metaphors to frame their own development pathways. Leaders of the future -- for good or for ill -- will be those that can frame more powerful metaphors.

Ironically slum dwellers use metaphor extensively to reframe how they experience their environments. Is there a way in which metaphor can be used by the most disadvantaged to enable them to redesign their environments and to live in them in a more fulfilling manner? I see these possibilities as cutting through the inadequacies, and slow delivery times, of under-resourced educational systems. It is not literacy and numeracy that are vital to thrival but rather the ability to comprehend, reframe and embody structures and processes in new ways -- and metaphor may be the key. Something with the flavour of a Grameem Bank for Metaphor may be the way!

The preceding paragraphs are an indication of "how I do what I do". It has become increasingly meaningful to me that the phenomena that our cultures have painfully distinguished, the methodologies and concepts that disciplines have developed, and even the technologies with which we live, all constitute a vast storehouse of neglected metaphor -- perhaps the last unexplored resource. Just as our current society runs on petroleum resources derived from biological processes in the distant past, I suspect that future society will effectively "run" on the metaphors that we are effectively storing up at this time. Our culture is effectively a pattern generating culture. We impoverish ourselves in the midst of plenty by limiting the significance of such patterns to the material phenomena with which they are most closely associated, or through which they were initially discovered.

As creativity in many domains has illustrated, it is through metaphor that major paradigm shifts in understanding have been possible. It is through metaphor that the future is often envisaged - if only by obsession with the 'vision' metaphor to the exclusion of the other senses. But metaphor is demeaned in the process. It has become a mark of academic and administrative excellence to be able to produce explanations that are metaphor-free. Information systems cannot handle metaphor. And yet metaphor has become the key to comprehension of new things as most educators, communicators and advertisers know.

The approach I use to reading the future is therefore to "re-read" the patterns of the present and to use them as metaphors. I would argue that "Re-reading" could be most usefully learnt as the 'Fourth R' --  possibly more vital than the traditional 'Three Rs'. In these terms, the future can be explored as a kind of metaphoric harmonic of a pattern manifest and accepted in a particular form in the present. Again, for example, if "windows" is the preferred software metaphor of today, it is wise for the creative to be researching metaphors based on "doors" and "walls" -- as is the case at Xerox PARC. For those addicted to competitive advantage, it is wiser still to be looking for the metaphoric series implicit in such development - as a paradigmatic ladder into the future.

It would be ironic if not only a particular metaphor ("windows") became patentable, but also the series of which it is a part. Technological research is already so sensitive to metaphor in relation to breakthroughs that secret metaphors may well become the basis for corporate strategy in the near future. Are there other ways for entrepreneurs to maneuver than through "flying by the seat of the pants"?

Keys to "re-reading" may lie in music theory (transposition of key), in geometrical transformations, or the possible shifts around the periodic table of chemical elements. For example, what has been learnt from the musical theory of harmony as a way of understanding possibilities for dealing creatively with dissonance in social systems? Understood as metaphorical sets, each of these keys suggests how insightful complementaries may emerge from focus on any particular form. Then, rather than a single "series", there is a configuration of various kinds of interweaving series -- each a basis for the emergence of alternatives. Is some such process not the basis for the emergence of alternative conceptual, ideological or social processes? Can the schisms and heresies, which undermine the consensual holy grail, be predicted and appreciated in this way?

What forces and trends are creating the world?

I would argue that most insight into this question can be gained by treating fashionable problems as metaphors of underlying problems that we prefer to deny. The noosphere is as dangerously subject to 'overpopulation' as the biosphere, through frenetic 'production' of cultural products and concepts -- often born of desperate one-night stands in an effort to secure competitive advantage and 'market share'. 

Our cultural 'rainforests' are being hacked down as systematically as are the tropical forests -- in the service of media desperate for anything that still carries value and can command attention. Cultural variety is being lost through homogenization and monoculture as rapidly and dangerously as species are being exterminated. Psychic 'hunger' and 'malnutrition' are even more widespread than their physical manifestations -- boredom provokes riots as readily as physical starvation.

Most of us are effectively underemployed, if not unemployed, in terms of creative use of our talents and their contribution to social development -- and this has consequences as tragic as those of economic unemployment. And so on. It seems easier to focus on the non-metaphoric dimension, but that is not where the real problems or solutions lie -- in my view.

What world do I want to live in?

I endeavoured to articulate this in a paper on the Aesthetics of the Year 2491 (Futures, 23, 1991, 4, pp. 426-436). Briefly I think that we have a basic challenge with how we handle and are governed by categories. They have acquired a rigidity and permanence analogous to unimaginative buildings in an alienating architectural environment -- as a result most of our strategies seem to be exercises in simplistic tinkering with building blocks. There is a need to reacquire the ability to create and dissolve categories as with many growing and evolving biological forms. Edward de Bono may best have captured this distinction in his book titled: From Rock Logic to Water Logic. I would prefer to explore categories as streams through the noosphere rather than as pigeonholes (in which even pigeons cannot survive!).

I should like to live in an environment characterized by greater ambiguity, with evolving shifting forms of subtler aesthetic quality, capable of carrying higher orders of collective insight and operational consensus. It is these that will make implementation of more appropriate strategies possible. It is the ecology of visions that will then enthuse the disenchanted. The desperate pursuit of certainities and conceptual closure resembles sinking into conceptual gravity wells between which I would prefer to be able to travel freely.

I believe that the future will be characterized by multiple worldviews - analogous to the many coxexisting universes envisaged by physics. Many will continue to live in the world of rock logic. We are free to shift to the world of water logic, or to that of other logics -- aided by the appropriate metaphors. The clustering by worldview will be more developed than at present, with many imperceptible to others -- also as at present. These possibilities are already accessible through shifts in understanding, but sustaining them is another matter.

Governance in the future should become a process of ensuring the emergence and movement of richer guiding metaphors through the information system of society and their embodiment in organizational form when appropriate. The merit of this view of governance is that it does not call for an improbably radical transformation of institutions. Rather it calls for a change in the way of thinking about what is circulated through society's information systems as the conceptual catalyst for viable action. No single metaphor is however adequate, each has its basic flaws which need to be compensated by insights through an ecology of complementary metaphors.

The challenge will be how to make a worldview capable of sustaining a higher quality of life. For me, the latter will be significant more in psycho-social than in physical terms. The challenge is therefore how to enable people to design qualitatively superior sustainable communities with minimal requirements of material resources. "World" is how I encompass whatever lies beyond my horizon of comprehension, including that which experiences night during my day.

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