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Alternative Futures for the United Nations


Presented at a Symposium on the Alternative Futures for the UN System on the occasion of the annual convention of the International Studies Association (New York, 1973). The memorandum introduced three other documents:

1. A Distinction

It is important to distinguish clearly between:

  • envisaging, recommending and designing alternative patterns, forms and locations for intra- and inter- institutional action and
  • envisaging, recommending and designing alternative supporting mechanisms to facilitate the continuing generation of alternative patterns, forms and locations for intra- and inter-institutional action.

The first process is vital at this particular point in tine. The meta-problem however is how to make it make effective, participative, geographically widespread, and transdisciplinary. When the process occurs it often seems isolated fron other occurrences of the process. This is because the underlying, interlinking, supportive mechanism is weak or non-existant.

The first process suffers from the disadvantage that the particular group engaged in a particular occurrence of it is liable to generate views which do not mesh with those not represented there. This fragments continuity of thinking and hinders the formation of consensus leading to effective change.

The first process also has directive overtones, for it hints that one good alternative form could emerge following discussion amongst reasonable mon. (The term "conceptual imperialism" springs to mind.) Does not this approach ignore the variety and experimentation present at all levels throughout society - both of which are desirable and essential to a healthy, adaptive, evolving society. Perhaps the image of moving in a step-change from an out- dated form to a new more suitable form could bo more usefully replaced by that of aprocess of continuous transformation and evolution of a network of organization units, each with n life cycle reflecting its relevance as o participative opportunity. Such network evolution contrasts with the current spastic concept of change in which society engages in a sequence of insectoid larva-pupa phases or reptilian moulting phases.

This said the meta-problem remains of what approach to take to designing such a mechanism which would directly facilitate and interrelate many forms of structural and conceptual change and experiment rather than perpetuate and reinforce a single rapidly outmoded form of institu- tional action - which then becomes a real obstacle to continuing social evolution.

2. Information Systems as Facultative Mechanisms

Nearly every information system designed today is designed as the instrument of an organization or programma conceived as an unchanging entity (in terms of relative structural invariance, not size). The heavy cost of investing in such computer-based systems is a guarantee that every effort "ill bo made to maintain as long as possible, the forms and patterns of action which they were originally designed to serve.

There is no technological barrier to designing computer- based (or simpler) information systems to facilitate organization creation and change and more fruitful resource allocation. Such systems could also be rendered more participative and therefore attractive to new resources. Such system, described elsewhere, do not even involve high cost technology (although the proposed satellite systems could assist their development) - merely a less institution- focussed and more change-oriented approach to their design.

In September 1972 the U.N. Inter-Organization Board for Information Systems and Related Activities backed out of the hoped-for effective inter-institutional action. The U.N. does not have, and in the light of the past 5 years cannot generate adequate designs for facilitative information systems to support and catalyze the continuing restructuring of the patterns and forms of its own action. It cannot relate its action, at an operational level, to the pool of external bodies without adopting a directive stance - nor can it design common systems to facilitate and stimulate the action of such bodies in their pursuit of parallel and independently evolving objectives.

Organizations, like the U.N. and agencies, exist and have an internal momentum, They cannot bo comprehensively redesigned in the current setting. They could however be provided with services which enable their components to interrelate operationally in now and more fruitful ways - as and when such organization units themselves son such change to be possible and useful. Such services could take the form of information systems to facilitate incremental "auto-reorganization" and inter-linkage with external bodies or their sub-units.

The fact that there is still no central point at which the existence of each of the many thousand sub-units in the inter-agency system is registered (the information does not exist, or is in part highly confidential) would seem however to be symptomatic of the U.N.'s current inability to evolve or even to reflect on its own structure.

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