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Comprehensible Policy-making: Guiding Metaphors and Configuring Choices (Part II)


Comprehensible Policy-making
6. Sustaining an ecology of development policies
7. Critical choices vs. Landscapes of opportunity
8. Policy implications for development

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Part I of a paper for the Development Administration Division of the United Nations Department of Technical Cooperation for Development (UN/DAD/DTCD) prepared for a collection of papers on 'Tools for Critical Choice by Top Decision Makers'. Contract: DTCD 91-11 (see also Part I)


5. Comprehensibility of appropriate strategies

5.1 Conceptual transformation

The need for conceptual scaffolding is clear given the kinds of complexity with which society has to work. The challenge of making the more complex structures comprehensible is also clear -- those most appropriate to the challenge of sustainable development may be beyond the ability of any single human mind to grasp (Judge, 1986a). But any form of development implies structural transformation. Whilst transforming simplistic structures, like conference agendas and organization charts, may pose little challenge, the transformation of the complex structures described earlier is quite another matter.

The process of conceptual or social transformation appears to call for a form of dynamic scaffolding which provides some form of continuity -- from stage to stage -- through the transformation process. What we are looking for is a form of scaffolding onto which a policy conference's insights can be mapped at Stage I. The relationships in this mapping would then be stretched or changed in the transformation to Stage II (and further stages), which might be some very different kind of structure -- suggesting new kinds of relationships between the concepts so bound (and between their proponents in the conference). The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly provides a sobering metaphor of the possible complexity of the challenge.

Two examples of this kind of structure may be noted:

    (a) Image transformation: The skills of image-transformation on computer suggest many possibilities. The challenge is to find ways of relating real-world issues and challenges to such images so as to benefit from this facility. Of special interest is the way in which development is to be understood or encoded in such image transformation. For example, if the many details of the global problematique could be encoded onto one (or more) archetypal animals, suitably animated, this would be of major conceptual and symbolic significance -- especially when the animation can be used to represent a transformation process. The media advantages are obvious.

    (b) Vector equilibrium: Buckminster Fuller (1975, 1982) drew attention to a very unusual symmetrical polyhedron, the vector equilibrium (normally known as the cuboctahedron) as the common denominator of the tetrahedron, octahedron and cube. It is unusual in that it lies on a transformational pathway to a variety of other structures. An appropriately jointed model can be transformed into an icosahedron and from there to an octahedron and on to a tetrahedron. The merit of this model, aside from the many claims made by Fuller himself, is that it provides a way of understanding the structural transformation process. The challenge in a policy-making environment is not to focus on this particular structure, but rather to use it as an example to persuade topologists to locate other transformational systems of this kind so as to build up a library of possibilities on which to draw.

Presumably it will only be through such explorations that conferences can anchor their transformative insights so that people can recognize and have confidence in the structural continuity of appropriate change, rather than being threatened by change of any kind -- and therefore resistant to it.

5.2 Enabling new strategies

This paper has stressed the special need for software capable of facilitating more complex forms of conceptual communication in policy and conferencing environments. This argument is based on the assumption that just as aircraft were faced with the technological challenge of the sound barrier, software faces the challenge of the imagination barrier. The 'sub-sonic' policy conferencing problems of adaptive decision-making (Group A) have been largely solved. But we do not yet know how to ensure the stability and integrity of policies functioning at a higher imaginative level. The conventional organizational and conceptual structures tend to get shaken apart by the dynamics to which they endeavour to respond. In terms of an architectural metaphor, it has proved impossible to lock policy 'keystones' into position to redistribute the stresses characteristic of policies of a complexity appropriate to the challenge.

There would seem to be a number of fruitful steps that can be taken, as pointed out above. When it is recognized what strategic advantage they offer to those that use them, it is probable that resources will be devoted to their development. It is very probable that such software will be restricted to those major corporations for whom strategic advantage is a vital consideration. It is also probable that versions of such software will be developed by certain alternative groups. It seems less likely that the majority of policy-making constituencies concerned with adaptive policy-making will have access to such facilities or perceive the need for them. Unfortunately this is also likely to be the case with many in the international community of organizations.

The difficulty is that it is always possible to argue that the concrete, short-term, simple procedures of Group A are sufficient in a crisis-management environment. Much of what passes for international projects and programmes is in effect reactive, crisis management. Upbeat reporting of their successes is always possible. But in strategic terms it is rather like a chess novice playing a grand master. The novice can be allowed to delude himself by many short-term gains as he progressively sinks into a more and more disadvantageous strategic situation from which recovery is hopeless. This is the dilemma of sustainable development.

The real challenge for policy-making in relation to the crises of our times is to provide people with tools to counter the imaginal deficiency from which we collectively suffer when dealing with complexity. The texty, linear-environment of speeches, messaging and documents has a poor track record. Eminent experts, with suitable budgetary encouragement, can now be found to negate the importance of any problem (or corresponding policy), whether over-population, acid rain, low-level radiation exposure, or smoking. Their 'facts' are no longer a reliable basis for action.

5.3 Metaphors of transformation

In this context, and with or without computer assistance, metaphor is a most intriguing unexplored resource as a guide to the elaboration of more complex conceptual frameworks and organizational structures. In effect the arguments already made with respect to tensegrity, resonance hybrids and imagery rely to a large extent on the power of metaphor, especially visual metaphor. Metaphor is renowned as a key to creative thinking and innovation. Information systems have traditionally been ruthless in eliminating the ambiguity of metaphor from the communications they support. But the classical triangle of text, data and graphics processing is only 2-dimensional. Imaginative insight can be usefully placed at the apex of the (tetrahedral) pyramid based on that triangle. Metaphor is the prime vehicle for such insight.

How then might it be possible to marry metaphor processing into policy-making environments as a way of breaking through the imagination barrier ? This paper suggests ways of doing so with computer assistance. But it seems doubtful that advances will be made fast enough on these fronts. However one great advantage of metaphor is that, like rumour and humour, and if well-chosen, it travels rapidly through any network, whether computer-assisted or not.

Consider the fasionable focus for the international community at this time, namely sustainable development. How is this complex notion to be carried and addressed in the imagination, and especially in the media. Metaphor can be used to highlight the collective difficulty in developing strategies to bring it about. Metaphors such as 'global village' or 'gaia' do not give focus to the strategic dilemma and the operational opportunities. Due to imaginal deficiency, sustainable development is best understood at this time through the metaphor 'having our cake and eating it too'. This corresponds to its corporate (re)interpretation as 'sustainable competitive advantage'. Both are tragic examples of poverty of imagination in a complex environment.

Consider a policy environment in which text (including speech), data and graphics were treated as infrastructure 'plumbing' and in which the conceptual centre of gravity was shifted to an imaginative level sustained and disciplined by the computer-assisted use of metaphor. A major concern in the conference would be to ensure the circulation of meaning through metaphor. Complex notions would be expressed succinctly through metaphor. The challenge would not be who could dominate the discussion in quantitative air-time terms, procedural manipulation, or resolutions passed. Rather it would be a question of who could produce the most seductive metaphors to capture the strategic complexities and the opportunities for the formation (and survival over time) of hitherto impossible coalitions of bodies favouring seemingly incompatible policies.

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