Volume 11 · Number 1 · Pages 65–73
Designing Academic Conferences in the Light of Second-Order Cybernetics

Laurence D. Richards

Download the full text in
PDF (1355 kB)

> Citation > Similar > References > Add Comment


Context: A tension exists between the needs and desires of the institutions providing the funding for academics to attend conferences and the potential for transforming the knowledge and understanding of conference participants (and society more generally. The author has experienced this tension at conferences in a number of disciplines, including cybernetics. Problem: This article addresses the problem this tension creates for those more interested in constructing knowledge - action, learning, understanding (even wisdom) - than in advancing their own careers and celebrity. Approaches to the problem can recognize the importance of funding and career-building in the current society, while still experimenting in ways that could generate new ideas. Method: Ideas from second-order cybernetics are used to derive design principles that might alleviate the tension and encourage deep conversations, idea generation and experimentation. The author draws on experiences with designing, organizing and participating in cybernetics conferences over a period of 34 years. Results: An academic conference designed to a set of broad, second-order cybernetic principles, where participants are informed of the design intent before they decide to attend, can open an opportunity for learning, understanding and the creation of new ideas in ways that would not otherwise be available. Although there are no guarantees, such designs can attenuate the tension, often experienced at traditionally designed conferences, between advancing individual careers/celebrity and building new knowledge together. Implications: The design principles derived, already exhibited in some conferences, could be useful to organizers wishing to foster incompatible and opposing ideas and facilitate dialogue among conference participants. These same principles have implications for the design of other social systems and point to the possibility of a new and more humane society. Constructivist content: A feature of second-order cybernetics is that knowledge is continually changing as our desires change, and we must take responsibility for the consequences of the ideas we construct and use to satisfy our desires. Key Words: Design by constraint, dynamics of interaction, asynchronicity, tyranny of the clock, times of truth, moments of art.


Richards L. D. (2015) Designing academic conferences in the light of second-order cybernetics. Constructivist Foundations 11(1): 65–73. http://constructivist.info/11/1/065

Export article citation data: Plain Text · BibTex · EndNote · Reference Manager (RIS)


a reality. In: Watzlawick P. (ed.) The invented reality. W. W. Norton, New York: 41–61. http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/hvf/072
Ashby W. R. (1956) An introduction to cybernetics. Chapman & Hall, London. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Ashby W. R. (1981) Setting goals in cybernetic systems. In: Conant R. (ed.) Mechanisms of intelligence. Intersystems, Seaside CA: 115–126. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Available at https://www.academia.edu/344784/Change_laboratory_as_a_tool_for_transforming_work_1996 ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Beauchamp T. L. (2007) The “four principles” approach to health care ethics. In: Ashcroft R. E., Draper H. & McMillan J. (eds.) Principles of health care ethics. Second edition. John Wiley, Chichester UK: 3–10. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Beer S. (1994) Beyond dispute: The invention of team syntegrity. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, UK. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Beever J. & Brightman A. O. (2015) Reflexive principlism as an effective approach for developing ethical reasoning in engineering. Science and Engineering Ethics. In press. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Boscolo L. & Bertrando P. (1993) The times of time: A new perspective in systemic therapy and consultation. W. W. Norton, New York. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Boulding K. (1969) The image: Knowledge in life and society. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Brün H. (2003) Irresistible observations. Non Sequitur Press, Champaign, IL. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Brün H. (2004) Declarations. In: Chandra A. (ed.) When music resists meaning: The major writings of Herbert Brün, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT: 288–291. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Butler C. T. & Rothstein A. (1987) On conflict and consensus: A handbook on formal consensus decision-making. Food not Bombs Publishing: Portland ME. http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/c-t-butler-and-amy-rothstein-on-conflict-and-consensus-a-handbook-on-formal-consensus-decisionm.lt.pdf
Castaneda C. (1974) Tales of power. Simon and Schuster, New York. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Donaldson R. (ed.) (1988) Conference workbook for: Texts in cybernetic theory: An in-depth exploration of the thought of Humberto R. Maturana, William T. Powers & Ernst von Glasersfeld. American Society for Cybernetics, Felton, CA. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Donaldson R. (ed.) (1992) Conference workbook for: Language, emotion, the social and the ethical: An in-depth exploration of the cybernetics of Herbert Brün and Humberto R. Maturana. American Society for Cybernetics, Seabeck, WA. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Edition Echoraum, Vienna: 305–328. Originally published in 2001 in Cybernetics and Human Knowing 8(4): 25–46. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Engeström Y., Virkkunen J., Helle M., Pihlaja J. & Poikela R. (1996) Change laboratory as a tool for transforming work. Lifelong Learning in Europe 1(2): 10–17. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Fischer T. & Richards L. D. (2015) From goal-oriented to constraint-oriented design: The cybernetic intersection of design theory and systems theory. Leonardo, in press. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Foerster H. von & Poerksen P. (2001) Understanding systems: Conversations on epistempology and ethics. Translated by K. Leube. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers: New York. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Foerster H. von (1972) Responsibilities of competence. Journal of Cybernetics 2(2): 1–6. http://cepa.info/1646
Foerster H. von (1979) Cybernetics of cybernetics. In: Krippendorff K. (ed.) Communication and control in society. Gordon and Breach, New York: 5–8. http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/hvf/117
Foerster H. von (1984) On constructing ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Foerster H. von (1989) Circular causality: Beginnings of an epistemology of responsibility. In: McCulloch R. (ed.) The collected works of Warren S. McCulloch. Intersystems Publication, Salinas: 808–829. http://cepa.info/1711
Foerster H. von (1992) Cybernetics. In: Shapiro S. C. (ed.) The encyclopedia of artificial intelligence. Second edition. John Wiley & Sons, New York: 309–312. http://cepa.info/1696
Foerster H. von (1995) Cybernetics of cybernetics. Second edition. Future Systems, Minneapolis, MN. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Foerster H. von (2003) Cybernetics of epistemology. In: Foerster H. von, Understanding understanding. Springer, New York: 229–246. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Foerster H. von (2003) Ethics and second-order cybernetics. In: Foerster H. von, Understanding understanding. Springer, New York: 287–304. Originally published in 1992. http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/hvf/137.1
François C. (2004) International encyclopedia of systems and cybernetics. K. G. Saur, Munich. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Fremont-Smith F. (1950) Introductory discussion. In: Foerster H. von (ed.) Cybernetics: Circular causal, and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems. Transactions of the Sixth Conference, 24–25 March 1949, New York. Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation, New York: 9–26. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Glanville R. (2006) Construction and design. Constructivist Foundations 1(3): 103–110. http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/journal/1/3/103.glanville
Glanville R. (2007) Grounding difference. In: Müller A. & Müller K. H. (eds.) An unfinished revolution? Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory 1958–1976. Edition echoraum, Vienna: 361–406. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Glanville R. (2007) Try again. Fail again. Fail better: The cybernetics in design and the design in cybernetics. Kybernetes 36(9/10): 1173–1206. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Glanville R. (2011) Introduction: A conference doing the cybernetics of cybernetics. Kybernetes 40(7/8): 952–963. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Glanville R. (ed.) (2012) Trojan horses: A rattle bag from the “Cybernetics: Art, design, mathematics – A meta-disciplinary conversation” post-conference workshop. Edition Echoraum, Vienna. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Glasersfeld E. von (1984) An introduction to radical constructivism. In: Watzlawick P. (ed.) The invented reality. Norton, New York: 17–40. http://www.vonglasersfeld.com/070.1
Glasersfeld E. von (1995) Radical constructivism. A way of knowing and learning. Falmer Press, London. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Glasersfeld E. von (2007) Cybernetics and the theory of knowledge. In: Glasersfeld E. von, Key works in radical constructivism, edited by Marie Larochelle. Sense Publications, Rotterdam: 153–169. Originally published in 2002. http://www.vonglasersfeld.com/255
Glasersfeld E. von (2007) The conceptual construction of time. In: Glasersfeld E. von, Key works in radical constructivism, edited by Marie Larochelle. Sense Publications, Rotterdam: 225–230. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Herr C. (2015) The big picture: Connecting design, second order cybernetics and radical constructivism. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, forthcoming. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Hohl M. (ed.) (2012) Making visible the invisible: Art, design and science in data visualisation. University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield UK. http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/12775
Judge A. J. N. (ed.) (1984) From networking to tensegrity organizations. Union of International Organizations, Brussels. http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs80s/84netalt.php
Krippendorff K. (2009) Conversation: Possibilities of its repair and descent into discourse and computation. Constructivist Foundations 4(3): 138–150. http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/journal/4/3/138.krippendorff
Lewin K. (1948) Resolving social conflicts: Selected papers on group dynamics. Harper & Brothers, New York. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004) From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition. Translated by W. K. Koeck & A. R. Koeck. Carl-Auer Verlag, Heidelberg. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Maturana H. R. (1970) Biology of cognition. Biological Computer Laboratory BCL Report Nº 9.0. University of Illinois, Urbana IL. Reprinted in: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Reidel, Boston: 1–58. http://cepa.info/535
McMullen S., Jaycox H. & Brightman A. O. (2016) Making GESTURAL frequencies. In: Adams R. S., Buzzanell P. & Siddiqui J. (eds.) Analyzing design review conversations. Purdue University Press, West Lafayette IN. In press. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Mead M. (1968) Cybernetics of cybernetics. In: Foerster H. von, White J., Peterson L. & Russell J. (eds.) Purposive systems. Spartan Books, New York NY: 1–11. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Pask G. (1961) An approach to cybernetics. Hutchinson and Co., London. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Pask G. (1970) The meaning of cybernetics in the behavioural sciences (The cybernetics of behaviour and cognition; extending the meaning of “goal”). In: Rose J. (ed.) Progress of cybernetics. Volume 1. Gordon and Breach, London: 15–44. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Pask G. (1976) Conversation theory: Applications in education and epistemology. Elsevier, Amsterdam. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Pask G. (1979) An essay on the kinetics of language, behavior, and thought. In: Proceedings of the Silver Anniversary International Meeting of Society for General Systems Research, London, August 1979. SGSR, Washington: 111–128. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Pask G. (1980) The limits of togetherness. Invited keynote. In: Lavington S. (ed.) Proceedings of the IFIP World Congress in Tokyo and Melbourne. North Holland, Amsterdam: 999–1012. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Pask G. (1987) Conversation and support. Inaugural address for the guest lectureship in general androgology. University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Richards L. D. & Young R. (1996) Propositions on cybernetics and social transformation: Implications of von Foerster’s non-trivial machine for knowledge processes. Systems Research 13(3): 363–369. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Richards L. D. (1993) Why I am not a cybernetician. The Newsletter of the American Society for Cybernetics, September: 2–5. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Richards L. D. (2007) Connecting radical constructivism to social transformation and design. Constructivist Foundations 2(2–3): 129–135. http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/journal/2/2–3/129.richards
Richards L. D. (2010) The anticommunication imperative. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 17(1–2): 11–24. http://cepa.info/925
Richards L. D. (2013) Idea avoidance: Reflections of a conference and its language. Kybernetes 42(9/10): 1464–1470. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Schroeder P. (2003) Spatial aspects of metaphors for information: Implications for polycentric system design. Ph.D Dissertation in Spatial Information Science and Engineering, University of Maine, Orono. Available at: http://www.library.umaine.edu/theses/pdf/schroederpc2003.pdf ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Scott B. (2001) Gordon Pask’s conversation theory: A domain independent constructivist model of human knowing. Foundations of Science 6(4): 343–360. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Scott B. (2011) Conversations theory: A constructivist dialogic approach to educational technology. In: Scott B. (ed.) Explorations in second-order cybernetics: reflections on cybernetics, psychology and education. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Varela F. J. & Poerksen B. (2006) Truth is what works: Francisco J. Varela on cognitive science, Buddhism, the inseparability of subject and object, and the exaggerations of constructivism: a conversation. The Journal of Aesthetic Education 40(1): 35–53. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Varela F. J. (1975) A calculus for self-reference. International Journal of General Systems 2: 5–24. http://cepa.info/1840
Varela F. J. (1984) The create circle: Sketches on the natural history of circularity. In: Watzlawick P. (ed.) The invented reality: How do we know what we believe we know?. Norton, New York: 309–323. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Wiener N. (1948) Cybernetics: or control and communication in the animal and the machine. MIT Press, Cambridge MA. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Wiener N. (1954) The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society. Avon Books, New York. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar
Winograd T. & Flores F. (1986) Understanding computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Ablex, Norwood NJ. ▸︎ Google︎ Scholar

Comments: 0

To stay informed about comments to this publication and post comments yourself, please log in first.