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Reflections on Organization of Transdisciplinary Conferences

Challenges for the Future (Part #1)

Contribution to preparation of the 1st World Congress on Transdisciplinarity (Arrabida, November 1994)

These reflections result from experience with a wide range of governmental and nongovernmental meetings with interdisciplinary concerns. Available insights have been elaborated into a series of documents on 'transformative conferencing' as part of the UIA's long-term concern with improving conference organization. Published in Transnational Associations, 1994, pp. 292-300

A. Constraints
Some Organizing Principles and Practical Possibilities
Possible characteristics of a transdisciplinary conference
Co-existence of emergent and conventional patterns
Limiting any preponderance of pre-planned conference features
Contextual safety-nets
Insight capture
Self-organizing posture
Quiet space
Conceptual Design Challenge
Design stages
Structuring features of partial incomprehension
Dialogue and its transformation
Identifying the challenge

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A. Constraints

1. There is a widespread assumption, notably amongst professional conference organizers and facilitators, that the subject matter of conferences is of little relevance to the actual structure and processes of an event. This leads easily to the repeated use of conference structures and processes which have proved to be less than fruitful in the past even when applied to specialized themes.

2. It is perhaps ironic that the 'Rules of Order' widely used in international meetings (and largely based on 'Roberts Rules of Order') are rarely challenged as a means of articulating the more complex responses required of the current challenges to society.

3. Meeting participation is one of the few organized activities for which no training or qualifications are required. It is a basic assumption of democracy that all have the skills and right to participate equally once invited to a meeting (although some may have 'observer' status, or not have the right to vote). Those with more experience in meeting participation and meeting skills have to apply them indirectly, 'in the corridors' and 'behind the scenes'. This leads to situations in which many meetings are extensively pre-programmed, votes are arranged, conclusions are drafted in advance, questions are 'planted'. The meeting itself then develops the characteristics of a performance.

4. There is an easy routine in having some form of chairperson, with a panel or a series of speakers, and some form of question time. Complaints about inadequate discussion and shortage of time may be met by 'breaking into groups' which then 'report back' through some system of rapporteurs, or possibly using a 'multi-track programme'. The conclusions are 'synthesized' possibly through a special drafting committee, possibly assisted by a separate 'declaration drafting committee' which may be especially responsive to the needs of the media. This pattern has not given rise to meetings that are remarkable for their transdisciplinary characteristics and insights.

5. Most potential participants at a meeting of any consequence have developed their personal habits and expectations of participation within the above framework. It is questionable whether it is possible or useful to challenge these habits, especially given the questionable successes of alternative models. This is notably the case where there are significant problems of protocol or where a participant's main goal is to communicate a particular (and often lengthy) message and to be seen to do so by as many people as possible.

6. Much effort has been devoted to moving beyond the rigidities of the above framework through various techniques of 'facilitation'. The hierarchical role of the 'chairperson' in the conference structure is then wholly or partially replaced by the role of the 'facilitator'. It is a different approach to organizing the pattern of interactions. It is however far from being clear that it meets the needs of a transdisciplinary conference. One of its main limitations, as with a chairperson, is that the facilitator (through contractual arrangements) is effectively given a great deal of power and is usually quite insensitive to the inadequacies of the manner in which that power is used. Whereas a series of chairpersons can be used in a conference, it is less often the case that a series of facilitators can be used to alleviate this difficulty. Furthermore, those with facilitation skills often lack the linguistic skills and multi-cultural sensitivity necessary for a multi-lingual environment and are handicapped by the interpretation problem.

7. There is no proven way to organize an interdisciplinary, multi-cultural conference so as to reflect the complexities of the relationships within the subject matter and between the participants. As a result organizers are forced to rely on 'tired and true' methods known to be inadequate in order to avoid any accusation that the conference is 'disorganized' -- irrespective of the questions that this raises in terms of chaos theory and the challenges of self- organization.

8. Logistical and budgetary constraints necessarily hinder efforts to implement any ideal solution -- however ideal the conference environment itself.

er efforts to implement any ideal solution -- however ideal the conference environment itself.

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