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Historically there has been a massive over-reliance on consensus-building and single framework responses to challenges. This has been accompanied by excessive optimism in the viability of such initiatives despite their resemblance to New Year resolutions. Reservations as to their viability have been unwelcome. Reporting on problems during implementation is subject to repression (cf O-ring problems leading to the Challenger space-shuttle disaster). Even within Fortune 500 multinationals, there have been significant difficulties in ensuring effective implementation of strategies. It is therefore understandable that where agreement cannot be imposed by CEO fiat, the ability to implement strategies based on consensus is problematic.
It is also significant that political constraints, if not cynicism, ensure that many such strategies are effectively designed with the possibility of subsequently rolling them back (or rendering them toothless) in mind -- as a precondition for the original agreement on them.
In a complex society there is usually a multiplicity of answers to any threat situation. Different factions and constituencies have their favoured approaches with no viable processes for interrelating them -- other than through temporary or token compromises. There is little interest in treating this diversity of approaches as features of a strategic ecosystem that calls for an ecosystemic approach to their integration and comprehension. Indeed the conceptual challenge of designing multi-species ecosystems of any kind has been avoided -- even when they are needed to replace more complex systems that have been destroyed.
It is curious also that the degree of learning in response to past strategic failures is relatively low. There is continuing investment in the same kinds of strategies: "health for all by the year 2000", "jobs for all", "security for all", "healthy environment" "social justice for all", "education for all", and most recently "information for all" -- with very little improvement in the capacity to deliver on such strategic intentions.
Also curious is that, despite the high investment in scientific and technical R and D, there is almost no inverstment in socio-political R & D. In fact, in contrast to the technology case, any such experimentation is penalized. An explosion in a chemical laboratory calls for revised parameters when the experiment is repeated, but in the social situation experimentation itself may be forbidden or criminalized. Alternatives are kept off the list of conventionl strategic options, where any inventive general would normally value strategic alternatives, however unusual. This situation is notable in the case of unemployment, social security, education, health, and security -- where considerable delivery challenges undermine any realistic strategic proposal.
This century has witnessed decades of investment in consensus and reconciliation as the only key to a coherent policy response to threats. No consensus; no action. This provides every opportunity for cynical game playing within potential coalitions, in which each member takes it in turn to make a creative proposal or to oppose the proposal of some other faction -- thus effectively avoiding action. There has been almost no investment in exploring cognitive, social and strategic structures based on intractables differences -- which are often the reality in a complex society with a variety of opposing belief systems
The difficulty is that those associated with consensus building have no experience in working with disagreement where the objective is not to deny the differences but rather to find ways to build them into new kinds of unforeseen structure. This is ironic in that most complex systems are built on patterns of difference of some kind. The challenge is to explore richer patterns of disagreement rather than to seek to reduce disagreement to extremes of polarization which cannot be easily integrated into complex structures. The approach advocated here is consistent with the expressed desire to honour diversity, whereas consensus-building effectively results in homogenization in practice. Opposition to exploration of differences is associated with value confusion around the need for equality in all things -- only achievable in practice through such homogenization.
Such is the charged nature of disagreement, that it is extremely difficult to design dialogue environments in which differences can be effectively discussed unless the emphasis is placed on reconciliation and agreement -- even of a token nature. It is here that information technology is required to provide conceptual prosthetics to hold differences in anticipation of constructing new kinds of communication framework through which to relate those that hold them.
Producing laundry lists of threats is a trap. Whilst convenient it tends to focus attention on 5 to 10 threats which are obvious in one or more ways to a particular constituency. It also tends to restrict such lists to those on which there is little disagreement. This encourages the conclusion that these are the priority threats and if we could only respond effectively to those, everything else would fall into place. This approach is further impoverished by efforts to isolate the priority threat from the list on which the limited resources may have to be focused. As Geoffrey Vickers said long ago: "A trap is a function of the nature of the trapped".
Work by Jay Forrester in the 1970s established the complexity of the interlinkages between the problems selected for such laundry lists. Clearly focusing on isolated threats is not the answer. The challenge is increased by the fact that many of the threats are best understood as perceptions rather than objective facts. In complex political systems, different factions attach different importance to different threats and combinations of threats. They are prioritized in different ways. A good example is water shortage which may be perceived differently by someone who needs a long shower every day from someone who needs enough to drink. The perception of "shortage" is higher in the first case than in the second.
However the global modelling studies that followed Jay Forrester's work continued to concentrate on a cluster of 5 to 10 "fashionable" threats. But for the thousands of constituencies represented internationally by a variety of international bodies, the threats to their livelihood, sense of well-being, or belief system may not be adequately captured by such a limited set. In our work at the Union of International Associations, we maintain databases on some 30,000 "problems" perceived by different international constituencies and on some 35,000 "strategies" advocated in response to them. It is at this level of detail that groups are sensitive and endeavour to articulate appropriate responses. It is far from clear that aggregating such detail into 5 to 10 threats is meaningful in any operational sense.
The situation is further complicated by the range and variety of feedback loops active between such threats and the strategies in response to them -- especially when one group's "solution" is another group's "threat", and vice versa. It is at that level of perception that resources are being allocated by constituencies. Currently (1999) we have some 150,000 relationships (hyperlinks) linking problems, and 110,000 relationships linking strategies.
The tragedy is that when an effort is made to formulate global strategies such as Agenda 21 (1992), the links between the many detailed problems and strategies identified in the individual paragraphs of the report are designed out of the document -- as we discovered when integrating them into our databases. Nor is such a strategic framework designed to allow for the emergence of new threats. The consequence is that an essentially static and fragmented global strategy is used as the basis of designing a pattern of response to an essentially dynamic problematique in which many of the relationships, as demonstrated by Jay Forrester, have counter-intuitive strategic implications.
The issue of how to address higher orders of complexity is carefully ignored by focusing on laundry lists and global plans, declarations and manifestos through which diversity is supposedly respected and integrated. Because of the nature of the policy communication process, much has to be reduceable to soundbites if it is to be comunicated at all. This process invites simplistic consensus and despairs at its token quality, or absence. There appear to be three main paths to greater ability to handle complexity.
One focuses on use of richer metaphors that can hold more complex patterns and articulate them through constrained communication channels. The advertising industry, as well as politicans, already make extensive use of metaphor for this purpose. The question is whether the metaphors that are widely used for this purpose are rich enough for the challenge -- or whether they are essentially impoverished. It is interesting that research on complexity is essentially claimed to be the search for more powerful metaphors but the articulation of such research is designed to be metaphor free. Strategies are therefore articulated in legalistic language which makes it extremely difficult to render them meaningful and credible to non-technical constituencies -- including many policy-makers. And yet engendering new metaphor is one way in which people in slum areas empower themselves in relationship to their environment. There are significant gaps here which need to be addressed. It is ironic that, depsite its widespread use by the media and politicians, metaphor itself has a bad press.
The second focuses on the use of multi-media information technology to hold and manipulate complex patterns of relationships in new ways. In particular there is a need to shift levels of complexity according to the preferences of the user. It is such technology that can provide conceptual prosthetics through which more complex strategies, patterns of knowledge, and matching social structures can be designed and experimented with. It is such patterning which opens the way to designing communication protocols between appropriate bodies to build new kinds of coalitions beyond the simplicity of "hierarchy" and "network". It remains ironic that more technology of this kind is used in video games than in policy environments.
The third focuses on ways of addressing polarized situations for which there can be no overarching conceptual framework -- analogous to the relationship between wave and particle theories of light. The dilemmas are exemplified by the many territorial disputes around the world and the inability to use the riches of mathematics (eg tiling, etc) to explore alterrnative ways of framing such situations -- of which time share appartments, and the 50-year condominium adminstration of the New Hebrides (by the UK and France), are but simple examples.
The challenge with this notion lies in the meanings to be attached in practice to the various terms. There is a dangerous trap in the assumption that the meanings are themselves universal and do not constitute a real challenge to comprehension.
What universal or "global" framework is required to guide action in a global society? Clearly people can only be adequately motivated by the values they fully understand. Local values necessarily avoid the uncertainty inherent in global values (to which local communities may have an equivalent of the body's immune response reaction). Until such local values are acknowledged, respected and given a place within any global value framework, it is not to be expected that local communities will respond, other than in token form, to global values. This response is effectively a built-in safeguard. Local "shoulds" are a response to local conditions. Global "shoulds", as society is currently able to define them in relation to "thrival", are insensitive to the variety of local demands and are therefore effectively disempowered. They would engender a highly vulnerable society if expressed locally in their present form, aside from the possibilities of abuse.
At present the need is therefore for different local groups to act in terms of the different local values they perceive as meaningful within a global framework to which they may be insensitive. "Local" then includes the "peace" movement(s), the "human rights" movement(s), the "green" movement(s), the "development" movement(s), etc, whose fundamental differences are an indication of the non-global nature of their specialized preoccupations -- except in the purely geo-political sense. The spastic or paralysing global consequences of such differences may be overcome when values can be embodied as phases in learning cycles, with a local/global dimension, rather than perceived as static categories invoking territorial dynamics.
There is a need to be challenged by the possibility of richer and more fundamental ways of understanding "universal", "thrival", "quality of life", and for "all earth". How is it possible that we accept the need for such integrative complexity in the hard sciences (eg cosmology, particle theory, etc) but assume that these terms have an unchallenging intutively obvious meaning -- especially when the world is bedevilled by religious conflicts and undignified conflicts between disciplines.
This work is licenced under a creative commons licence.