Meshing Imaginative Vision and Policy Implementability
the role of metaphor as a vital cognitive interface
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Prepared as a statement (see others
on the occasion of the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) for the International
Facilitating Committee for the Independent Sectors in the UNCED process (Geneva).
Portions of the text were published in the Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential
(1994-5, vol 2) and in the online
version of its commentaries (to which links below are made) shaping the global
network of local bargains by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral
Note on the
challenging dilemma of an imaginative response to the policy implications of
sustainable development -- using metaphor as a vital cognitive interface.
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 the section on
metaphor in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential
1. Beyond "tinkering" and crisis management
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.
acknowledge, more is however required. This is a real challenge to the
imagination to articulate new visions of appropriate order and of longer term
2. The search for new forms of order
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
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,
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
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"
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.
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.
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
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.
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
7. Metaphor as a vital cognitive interface
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.
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
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