Reflections on World Futures Conferences
in response to a request for feedback
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Adapted from feedback requested by the the Brisbane Futures Group in anticipation of a conference of the World Futures Studies Federation (Brisbane, 1997) at which a separate paper was presented (Future Generation through Global Conversation: in quest of collective well-being through conversation in the present moment, 1997)
The theme of "global conversations" could prove a very useful framework. I am sending you a copy of a paper entitled Sustainable Dialogue as a Necessary Template for Sustainable Community" (paper for a Cleveland, 1995, Conference on Organization Dimensions of Social Change). This reflects some of my concerns about the challenge of rethinking dialogue. It emerged from my learnings from the abysmal failures of the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions (Chicago). The question is how to move beyond our collective and individual tendency to sink back into minimally productive patterns?
I am also sending you a write up I did of the 1st World Congress on Transdisciplinarity (Lisbon, 1994) which has some points of relevance you may enjoy. Also one on a conference organized by Magda McHale on "Who is Designing the 21st Century?" (Buffalo, 1995). Shortly I will send you one on the recent International Conference on Eco-villages and Sustainable Communities (Scotland, 1995). The three of them have the merit of being creative disinformation and merely reflect my view of what the future would have wanted them to be -- often much more rewarding than the cold reality!
Criteria of success and "markets"
It is useful to reflect on who wants what from a WFSF Conference. And in doing so it is useful to avoid being judgemental about the various products and the various categories of producers and consumers. The principle that everything has its place is a good place to start. With it goes the principle that the dominance of a few well-explored modes should at least be challenged. This I propose to do.
I should like to suggest that the minimal productivity of many conferences is due to the dominance of well-explored conference patterns. These are designed to function in a maintenance learning mode and to avoid the kinds of shock learning that may be more appropriate to the present challenges.
The point can perhaps best be made by shocking. I would like to suggest that the plenary conference session mode, as currently practiced, bears a strong analogy to serial gang rape of a captive audience. By this I mean rape of the attention of those constrained not to protest by those who get their thrills by working their will on others and impregnating them with their stuff. Since we are all potential speakers and participants, there is something in us that enjoys both roles in this S&M approach to conferencing. We like relaxing into the role of victims in order later to be able to whinge about the experience. As Johan Galtung once said of this mode: if you allow me to do my thing (expletive transformed) for half and hour, I will allow you to do yours for an equivalent period.
But we should be clear that there will always be a market for this mode. And there will be those happy to serve in the appropriate roles. For many, the event is a success if they get to rape the plenary for an honourable period. For others it is a success if they are the victims of rape by sufficently distinguished people. The organizers are stepping onto really dangerous ground in seeking for other approaches to collective intercourse. The Kama Sutra of Conferencing, and the Joy of Collective Conversation, remain to be written. This metaphor suggests that the standard conference presentation could well be named as the "missionary position". Pushing the metaphor too far, it is useful to think to what degree existing conferences have long been designed to avoid conception of any kind amongst those present -- conference intercourse is really "safe". Conceptual contraceptives have long been standard issue! My apologies for this diversion.
A major difficulty is the WFSF need to respect various protocol requirements in its traditional political role. Some very important people from the Asian-Pacific region, and especially Australian local, state and commonwealth authorities, need to be able to strut their stuff in recompense for advancing the cause of futures and helping the event to happen. Such ceremonial phases are difficult to control. At the 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the UN, speakers from 180 countries were given carefully weighed 5-7 minute slots. The speaker from the member country most in financial arrears, spoke for 17 (one-seven) minutes. This says it all in terms of abuse of collective resources and disregard for conference process. All conferences are confronted with such important speakers before whom all are expected to quail. Why should it be believed that the resources of the world can be used sustainably until we develop the capacity to control and resist such abuse in a simple conference context?
I should like to argue that the principal resource in a conference is attention time. The quality of a conference can be usefully evaluated in terms of quality of engagement of attention. It is the conference equivalent of quality of life. How it gets cultivated is the key to the art of transformative 'conversation'.
It is in this light that it is useful to consider the nature of importance in a conference participant. It could be suggested that an important participant is one who is a net importer of attention. Such a person must necessarily be matched by net exporters of attention (whose conference registration fees often cover the travel costs of the importers). In their respective roles, these become full time participant occupations. In a plenary setting there is no time for exportant people to become important -- and important people usually have extremely limited desire to become exportant (although they may vociferously plead this is untrue). Plenary communication facilities rarely allow exporters to import -- although a few questions from the floor may be allowed 'if there is time' (to dull any tendency to criticism). Clearly in a healthy conference there is a place for those who only import or export attention, but it is not they who ensure a healthy conversation.
What then makes for a healthy conversation?
Keynote listeners for the Conference
I am extremely fond of the musical metaphor in describing a conference. We need different instruments: a string section, a percussion section, etc. We need different kinds of music. But above all we need different approaches to harmony -- and a good understanding of the theory of harmony as it relates to the music of different cultures.
Since conferences have traditionally started off with keynote speakers, and since it cannot be said that the breakthroughs have been startling, then maybe this is not the royal road to success. One of the problem with a keynote is that it is supposed to predetermine how the remainder of the piece is played. At WFSF conferences few have followed up on the note set by the keynote speaker. It has usually been a case of everyone for themselves. Maybe we have lost the sense of the scale, octave or spectrum of notes to which such a note is the key in any harmony. It could be that parrticipants are effectively tone deaf!
Whatever the case, the harmony between the pieces played has been elusive in the extreme. Maybe everyone sees themselves as keynote speaker. Maybe the keynote speakers have been less than helpful in their role (I recollect the remark of a participant following an array of four such eminent speakers at a WFSF Conference some long while ago: "I have come a long way on a limited budget. I have read all your books carefully. You have said nothing at this event to justify my attention. Please do so.")
Another approach might be to define a new role of keynote listener. The function of such people would be to listen to what is being said in order to decide what emerging keynotes there were -- and why should there not be several? They would then have the task of amplifying and refining them and relating their elements such as to enable recognition of subtler harmonies.
Of course the challenge is that, by any normal definition, this tends to be very difficult for important people -- at least in western cultures. Aspects of this function are recognized in the role of rapporteur -- although such people often use the opportunity to do their own thing. Where, oh where, are the wise participants who do not need to scramble for air time at every moment? And how can their restraint be rewarded in terms of quality of conversation?
So I have some resistance to designing the event around star speakers -- lets get the rest right first. To what degree has it worked in the past at WFSF Conferences? Why should it work better in the future? How can you provide an ironclad guarantee that an eminent speaker will not abuse the time slot? (How about some didgereedo to mark the prescribed intervals?)
Maybe the question could be reframed. What we want is a group of six speakers whould could most effectively converse together. Of course this can be seen as the traditional panel. But how can a 'panel' be transformed into a "conversation"? So maybe the search is for clusters of superb conversationalists rather than lone shiners, or "shooting stars" dropping by between planes.
Again WFSF Conferences have not been renowned as events at which people stick to themes -- I say that as one who has been an exception in that respect, if not in others. Does it matter?
As with speakers, I see this not making a major diffrerence to the dynamics of the event and the quality of the conversations. If the organizers have to 'give' under political and other pressures in structuring the program, these seem less important issues on which to give ground.
However, I find the sample topics wearisome. This is ye standard cluster of good topics. You cannot go wrong, but will it make the earth shake? More interesting to me is how we continue to have conferences around these topics without seeming to change things much.
I am into things like: "Saving the Future: asking new questions and challenging old answers". I am tired of old themes which reappear like old bones. How about "decolonization of the future", "metaphoric traps in planning for the future", "future of corruption and corruption of the future", "sustainable communities of the future" ?
At this point in time it is my belief that only new metaphors will make a difference. What are they, how can they be sought, and how can they form the basis of conversations? I explored this as a proposal for the Parliament (see separate paper).
The question I would ask is why this does not figure on your checklist? What is going to make the conversations work? What is going to make them fail? And how to avoid or counter-act the latter?
There are all sorts of thingts around facilitators in a multi-lingual environment. There are lots of process people anxious to do their thing. How are these pressures to be managed? There are also specialists in 'communication' who see this mainly as a question of hardware.
There is a Terrible Gap between the good ideas we hope to see work in a conference and the on-the-spot motivations of participants as they combine with the logistical anxieties of the organizers. My observation is that inertia sets in only too easily. The question is: who wants anything different or is prepared to act differently?
I have long championed the need for participant-to-participant communications unmediated by chair or other persons -- without challenging the formal programme. My low tech approach has been a participant vieswletter now used in a variety of settings. This is worthwhile if there are people willing to devote effort to it and if the organizers are prepared to devote resources to copy facilities and to ensuring that it does not get marginalized (when it is largely a waste of time)
But the key issue in any conversation is how participants get to locate the people they find it most fruitful to talk to -- whether one-on-one or in small groups. This is worth much more thought than the speaker/theme question which is easily solved. Even getting the software and assistance of a dating service would achieve more than what happens at the moment.
It is also only true that some people come to confrences knowing who they want to talk with (and even when they have expect to meet) and have little desire for unplanned interactions except as light relief.
The tragedy is seeing people from afar experiencing conference isolation or engaged in a sterile dialogue -- then leaving without being turned on in any way by anybody or anything. It happens all too frequently and is especially regretable in the case of those from non-western cultures. The problem is complicated because there may well be issues of personal pride and status involved.
The question is what will be the quality of communication and on what criteria will it be assessed? How can it be improved? Maybe we need a background paper on conference conversation in preparation for the event.
As a champion of this interaction opportunity, I regret how little we were able to achieve in Helsinki. We had the space but it was effectively marginalized. The question is for whom<is this space and what do those participants want to do there?
I would distinguish forums in the plural from the singular. It is good to have seminar rooms for small groups to do their thing -- and the more the better. How can you make sure that 'interchange of ideas about papers' is not as sterile as it tends to be?
For me things will only get serious when we can have open plenary sessions without need for prepared topics or a mediator. If we cannot collectively test out this mode, we define ourselves as incapable of self-discipline as participants and of sustaining the kind of dialogue we would like to see in parliamentary assemblies.
I would like to see experiments in time management whereby speaking time units are allocated and traded in some way for such events. Allowing the least likely to speak and handicapping the most eloquent. I will send you a paper on one formula.
My guess is that you have already narrowed down the options:
Shared travel to and from locations provides good opportunities for working out with whom you might wish to keep talking. It also allows enables you to work out whom you need to avoid getting trapped by!
Phasing the event
The future will presumably develop the art of mixing different communication styles in an event to meet the needs of different kinds of people -- or the needs of the same people wearing different hats and personalities. How will they do it?
You could consider packaging the formal protocol stuff and having it back-to-back with informal conversations where status is not a major issue. Maybe there is a case for having the latter outside the framework of the formal conference.
Despite the wit and wisdom at the start, I suspect that you are stuck with a conventional event and framework to take account of logistical and protocol anxieties. The question is then whether the innovations can be designed into the interstices (or before and/or after) so that those who do wish to function in another mode can take the opportunity to do so.
The sad thing about conversations is that if you cannot get yourself into a sustainably fruitful one, the predictabilities of a classic conference framework at least allow you to do the tourist routine or whinge in a corner with other sufferers. Process people forcing unwelcome conversations down people's throats would be more than unwelcome. Good conversations call for subtlety! Getting the balance right is a real challenge. Beware of those with the answers -- the organizers of the Parliament of the World's Religions were bombarded by process people with ideas on how to do it. They had to exclude them all or confine them to low profile roles.
Why not draft a description of the conference now, as if it had already happened? It would be a good futures exercise. It could be continually improved prior to the event. Then we could try and live it out -- walking our talk!
Have you really thought through how you are going to get the papers in advance? Few participants obey the rules and some of them are very important!
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.