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

Laurence D. Richards

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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

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