Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Birds and Boids

In recent work with a strategic conversation group formed for generative dialogues for sustainability, I noticed the pronounced difference between generative and dissipative conversations. What was interesting was how it only took one defeating dynamic, one small mistake, to collapse the systems dynamic of healthy open inquiry. At that point the conversations reverted to any usual opinion sharing session about an intractable problem. This resulted in a similar pattern of despondent helplessness in the face of complexity, notwithstanding very strongly felt desires towards achieving the contrary.

For the penultimate dialogue I wanted to help (if I could) with the awareness of these dynamics. To do this I turned to the principles of biomimicry. If you are not familiar with Janine Benyus work in this field, it is really quite beautiful in many intricate ways. For this situation I looked at the dynamics of bird flocks. How small groups come together for collective benefit, how the leaders guide the intention of the flock as strange attractors of collective direction and how the entire process develops its own complex form of greater mimic sentience avoiding predators ~ is quite remarkable.

The system rules that govern such complex behaviours are very simple. The three necessary elements identified using computer simulations of boids (i.e. virtual birds) (Reynolds, 1987) are (with a gross simplification added): 1. Separation (Don't bump into your neighbours), Alignment (Turn when your neighbours turn), Cohesion (Head towards the forward median direction). The three simple rules applied locally allow the each member of the flock to function and for the flock as a whole to generate emergent phenomena. If one bird/boid crashes, divides the flock or is without direction, the flock dissipates. When the system rules are in place, functional beauty results.

Applying the same principle of emergent trichotomies to conversational generativity, the system rules we used for our strategic conversations were as follows:

•Rule # 1: Offer additional information to enrich
(Not imposing alternative views in conflict)

•Rule #2: Acknowledge value and explain why
(Stay aligned and different, but not divisive)

•Rule # 3: Follow the theme that is occurring
(Rather than disrupt or break the conversation chain)

Essentially the system rules are the same for birds, boids and words. Try not to clash ideas, follow others' leads and go where the conversation is going. The question is: If something is so simple, why is it so apparently hard? In watching our consciously simulated dynamic we also saw the barriers to these rules. The barriers were:

•Barrier # 1: Own view privileged as most material
(Knowledge Humility) - Openness

•Barrier #2: Own values defended in primacy
(Respect Others Values) - Tolerance

•Barrier # 3: Own point of origin regressed towards
(Self-Education) - Release

A generative conversation requires a submission of the self into the intention of the whole. When we assert our own identity we cannot also operate for the benefit of the flock. The two intentions are in tension and become contradictory. What we do not see, is what we together will be missing. Things apparently so simple as knowledge humility, respect for others and a release into unknowing are elusive to the asserting individual mind. When held gently together they combine into something so rare and yet considered essential in the collectives of nature.

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