Reflections on World Futures Conferences
in response to a request for feedback
- / -
Adapted from feedback requested by the the Brisbane Futures Group in anticipation
of a conference of the World Futures Studies Federation
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,
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!
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
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
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?
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.
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
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.")
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
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).
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
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.
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
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:
easy one would be in some palmy gold coast hotel of which there are clones
around the Asia Pacific rim.This will send one kind of message and encourage
one kind of communication. I am not sure that it will encourage the kinds
of communication that would be most fruitful. But it would be very reassuring
for the more eminent.
island off the coast with a planters hotel and bungalows. Could be great
for informal walks and talks. Away from the hassle of the strip maybe.
QUT, which sounds like some mysterious Egyptian temple.
mix or hybrid of the above.
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
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!