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4.5 Structural outliners and conceptual scaffolding

It is no longer widely believed that society has the collective ability to organize collaborative projects of a type capable of making the breakthroughs called for. There is a suspicion that the challenge calls for quite another approach that makes greater, and more imaginative, use of the information tools that our society has created in order to counteract the tendency for collaboration to become tokenistic. Failing that, projects run the significant risk of being undermined by dynamics with which many are already all too familiar.

1. Conceptual keystones

Many documents of fundamental importance to patterns of collaboration within societies, organizations and groups (or even to an individual's creative processes) are based on sets of principles, values, qualities, policies, initiatives or other points (eg declarations, charters, action plans). These are usually listed out as a numbered sequence, possibly with nested sub-points. The conventional method of producing such documents favours (and reinforces) linear thinking at a time when non-linear, contextually-oriented approaches are often believed to be more appropriate to ensure higher levels of integration amongst the elements of the set.

The project aims to facilitate the ability to envisage viable configurations of functions based on structures more complex than those reinforced by hierarchical organization charts. It responds to the need for potential collaborators to design "conceptual keystones" essential to the coherence and viability of unforeseen coalition possibilities in difficult situations of governance.

2. Structural outliner

This project suggests the need for a computer-based structural "outliner" to facilitate a non-linear approach to the creative production of such "conceptual keystones". The need for a more integrative approach may be seen in the occasional efforts to group conceptual elements, basic to a strategy, into a table, a pie-chart, a diagram, or even into a form of mandala. Although currently simplistic, the structure provides an integrative perspective that links a variety of disparate, but complementary, elements that together ensure the viability of the larger pattern.

This project therefore focuses initially on the design of computer software (possibly adapting an existing package) for which an appropriate database is then developed in collaboration with a number of bodies. The intention is then to use these tools to provide a "catalytic context" from which new patterns of group and institutional action could emerge. The principal output would not therefore be any form of "report" but rather a piece of software (possibly a prototype). It is the dissemination of this software, ultimately through commercial channels, which would enable many people to explore the tool as a "collaboration enhancing" device. In this sense the real objective of the project is new forms of collaboration. In subsequent use the database would be receptive to user-enhancement, notably to patterns of concepts from non-western cultures.

It is envisaged that the proposed PC-based structural outliner would be used in a manner somewhat similar to the conventional text outliners and mind mapping aids. However the software would offer many ways of configuring the evolving set of elements within a variety of non-linear structural frameworks, whether in two or three dimensions. The geometric and symmetric properties of these would be used to suggest levels of coherence and integration absent from conventional presentations.

Its claim to originality would lie in its ability to open up (and mid-wife) new and alternative patterns of collaboration -- especially across discipline and faction boundaries. In creating this device, the purpose of inter-institutional collaboration would be to enrich its scope (as represented by the database) and explore opportunities it opened up (specifically in relation to institutional arrangements for sustainable development).

In the light of a number of collaborative international exercises (and notably the design of a collaborative process culminating in the Inter-Sectoral Dialogue in Rio de Janeiro on the occasion of the Earth Summit), it is legitimate to consider whether there is not a strategically more appropriate approach to encourage imaginative, interdisciplinary work of relevance to the policy

3. Conceptual scaffolding

As with the construction of any building, there is a basic need for "scaffolding" to hold the conceptual and organizational elements in place, especially during the early phases of "imaginative, interdisciplinary" interconnection. It may be argued that it is the lack of this scaffolding feature which prevents many potentially useful initiatives from "getting off the ground" -- and staying up. And the more complex the psych-social structure, and the more communication space it spans, the greater the need for more complex scaffolding.

A typical function of scaffolding in a conference is to provide a framework within which complementary perspectives can be articulated, especially when there is a major tension between them. When Concept A is formulated, the scaffolding holds a space for Concept B to counter-balance it. Such scaffolding is even more essential when more than two concepts have to be held in balance. As with buildings, the scaffolding provides a protection against disruptive forces in the conference process. A typical disruptive force in a contemporary conference might focus narrowly on "industry is exploitative", when the larger issue is to provide a sustainable framework in which to balance the exploitative characteristics of industry against the socio-economic benefits that it provides in the light of environmental constraints. The more complex the balance, the more vulnerable is the conference to disruptive forces.

The challenge is how to allow different category structures, and the groups advocating them, to mesh before their incompatibilities tear each other apart. This is a major issue when dealing with the strong, creative, and often idiosyncratic, personalities (and groups) whose collaboration is ideally required. It is seen in its most dramatic form in the Middle East peace process and in negotiations among the warring parties in Yugoslavia. The apparently disproportionate importance attached to "table layout" in any negotiation procedure is a physical indication of the nature of the conceptual challenge.

Failure to respond to this issue leads to project outputs whose only real integrative feature is the physical binding of a document containing unrelateable "integrative" contributions -- however skilfully worded the introduction may be (In German: Buchbindersynthese!).

The scaffolding required not only has implications for elaboration of new structures. It also supports the learning processes through which others subsequently come to grasp the scope of such structures as viable alternatives to the simpler conventional patterns that have proven so inadequate to the challenges of the times.

4. Scaffolding possibilities

Many of the geometric operations basic to fruitful exploration of such a structural outliner are detailed in a classic study by Robert Williams: The Geometrical Foundation of Natural Structure; a source book of design (New York, Dover, 1979). Part 3 of that work details 10 principal methods through which polygons and polyhedra can be generated or have identity changes. These include: vertex motion, fold, reciprocation, truncation, rotation-translation, augmentation-deletion, fistulation, distortion, dissection, symmetry integration. It is such operations which are required to explore transformations between structures whose features are used to carry the conceptual (and even symbolic) significance basic to any new patterns of collaboration.

Structurally an agenda or a conference programme, even a multi-track program, is rather simple -- even simplistic -- especially when considered in relation to the complex ecology of problems and organizations which are supposedly to be interrelated effectively through it. Is it any wonder that conferences are relatively ineffectiveat coming to grips with complex issues? What is being attempted is in defiance of Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.

The issue is therefore how to enable users to collectively design more complex forms of conceptual scaffolding to hold in place embryonic or unstable concepts until other concepts can be fitted into the pattern to lock them into place. Ideally, of course, it is the conferencing software which should provide such scaffolding. And, like the scaffolding for buildings, it should be adjustable to different structural configurations as the building grows.

Four forms of scaffolding are especially interesting: symmetrical structures; tensegrity structures; resonance hybrids; embedding data in images.

5. Dynamic scaffolding and structural 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. 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 are 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 the 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, 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).

There are few examples of this kind of structure: image transformation or "morphing"; vector equilibrium.

6. User approaches

The user would be offered a number of ways of building up the conceptual "keystone". In each case, the result would take the form of a geometric (and normally symmetrical) structure in two or three dimensions with elements of text attached to its features:

  • (a) Text points: to be converted via template or rules into structure
  • (b) User chosen: tiling as in Wordperfect tables (to be converted); empty library shape (to be filled); filled library shape (to be edited /altered).
  • (c) User drawn: shape (to be filled); mind map (to be optimized into a shape or structure).

7. Structural templates

The user would be able to draw upon a library of structures and symmetric designs:

  • (a) Library of conventional structures: tables (matrices) in 2D and 3D; polygons; polyhedra.
  • (b) Library of other structures: tensegrities; traditional forms (mandalas, etc).

8. Text processor

Two main modes can be envisaged:

  • (a) Attach text to directly to structural features (and move text items between structural locations)
  • (b) Convert text (outliner) points into features (lines, sides, volumes, great circles) of selected shapes

Both of these exist in simpler form in conventional text outliners

9. Thesaurus links

  • The thesaurus would be designed to provide facilities beyond those usually provided by such a function.
  • (a) Complements: Its main function would be to facilitate selection of complementary sets of terms, depending on the size of the set with which the user was working. With respect to a single elementset, the synonym function is all that is called for. As usual, synonyms and antonyms are required for what amounts to two element sets. But what is also required is the ability to process items in 3-part, 4-part sets.
  • (b) Broader / Narrower: The thesaurus would also be used to enable identification of terms corresponding to broader or narrower terms, especially the contextual terms appropriate to the set as a whole.
  • (c) Traditional sets: This feature would enable users to browse relevant traditional sets of differing numbers of elements corresponding to the size of the set being worked (tertiaries, quaternaries, etc).
  • (d) Academic sets: This feature would offer access to sets elaborated in contemporary academic studies.
  • (e) User modified: The user would of course need to be able to amend the thesaurus in the light of specialized interests and evaluation of the library versions. The user would build up a library of complementary sets reflecting his/her specialized concerns and sense of the balance between the elements.

10. Restructuring (by rules, by library, or by indications)

  • (a) Text reveal / hide: This feature would suppress or reveal the text associated with particular structural features.
  • (b) Structure hide / nest / pack / simplify: This feature (as in text outliners) would be used to conceal levels of detail. In the case of complex structures, this would be achieved by a transformative reduction to a simpler structure (eg from a complex polyhedron to a simpler polyhedron). This reduction would conceal the text associated with the suppressed detail.
  • (c) Structure reveal / unpack / complexify: This feature would unfold levels of structural detail. A simple structure could thus be unfolded (from a simple polyhedron to a complex polyhedron). This could follow a previously chosen transformation pathway or offer transformative options at each stage. In an edit mode, text could then be input directly (or called in from the thesaurus) into the different facets of the revealed structure.
  • (d) Other features: optimize existing; duals; propose alternatives; indicate complementaries; switch from 2D to 3D presentation; rotation; contextualize; potential complementaries; structural families / periodic tables; user additions / indications.

11. Indexing / Access

  • (a) Text to structured
  • (b) Templates
  • (c) User additions to index
  • (d) Structural relationships (via features or globally): common keywords (via index); geometrical similarities / isomorphisms; user indicated associations.

12. Applications

The major emphasis in each of the following cases is to enable the user to articulate a complex pattern whilst maintaining a sense of coherence and ensuring a configuration of functional checks and balances.

  • (a) Functional units in organizations: organization chart; complementarity and balance of functions; lines of communication.
  • (b) Principles in a declaration: articles; complementarity and balance of principles.
  • (c) Action plan or policy: policy elements; highlighting policy integration.
  • (d) Classification system (books, information, etc): filing codes; tracking disparate interests.
  • (e) Mind mapping: clarifying systems; creativity; philosophical organization; integrating incoherent patterns.
  • (f) Exploring structural transformation pathways: introduction of new elements; restructuring (simplification / complexification).