Conferences, summits, seminars, conventions, international forums and more lately webinars and online events…

It seems the events management scene these days is awash with meetings in which VIPs, celebrities, politicians and self-nominated experts come together, supposedly intent on finding solutions to some of our most pressing problems.

Typically these occasions don’t lead to radical breakthroughs, changed outcomes or even alternative strategies. In fact, speaking from bitter experience, I am tempted to suggest that they simply go round and round in ever-decreasing circles, covering known territory and leading only to disenchantment and frustration. 

Why? Because alternative sense-making, collaborative inquiry, and purposeful dialogue from within different design ontologies are nudged aside, allowing advocacy (and advocacy alone) to take centre stage. 

The processes of advocacy are derived from the legal world and entail argument followed by counter-argument. They are relatively simple to organise, are grounded in ‘evidence’ and require only light moderation, rather than smart facilitation. Above all advocacy is non-threatening to those in power: arguments can be dismissed, evidence assessed and rationality asserted. 

Ultimately, however, the advocacy process is very political in that it resists the emergence of profoundly transformational ideas.  

More often than not then, events organised in this manner revert to being platforms where the usual suspects are encouraged to air their predictable views for the umpteenth time in an attempt to convince others of the validity of their flawed, outdated, unimaginative or impractical ideas. 

Yet, events organisers and sponsors are ambushed by the advocacy bandwagon over and over again. They fail to appreciate that the processes they use are doomed to fail for the very reason that advocacy invariably leads to zero-sum games and stalemate positions. 

Genuine inquiry conducted in decision theatre environments, or even low-tech open space sessions, would actually ensure different insights and possibly new systemic solutions. However, inquiry processes hardly ever get a look in – except as a cursory bow to the audience. 

There can only be a few reasons for this. Perhaps organisers are ignorant of the inherent power of collective inquiry? Perhaps they shy away from collective sessions because they are so difficult to control? Or possibly they consider experts and consequently expert opinion as the only legitimate authority? Surely not. There has to be a third possibility.

Could it be that the process of facilitating group dialogue is regarded with disdain? As something of lesser value? Or even too risky in that it might open up a Pandora’s box of radical ideas than can be practically implemented? 

Watching some first-rate facilitators, like the BBC World’s Nic Gowing, for example, leads me to believe that it would. But surely radical ideas are what is needed if we are to achieve what really amounts to a total re-design of our civilisation and its priorities, especially given that this is something we have never had to consider before?

If this is true then we should begin to see a greater use of inquiry based models. But even large, high profile events fall into the advocacy trap. Take the World Economic Forum (WEF) for example, which has become a benchmark in events of this nature. The WEF format, comprising individual presentations, expert panels and group discussions, is imitated by numerous smaller events around the world. Yet even this model has failed to live up to expectations because of the focus on experts talking at rather than with others. 

As a consequence forceful debate is frequently mistaken for rigorous thinking. Assumptions remain largely unchallenged. Questions that might give rise to creative alternatives are sidelined. Nothing changes…

A case in point is the WEF format used  at a UN-sponsored summit in Rome aimed at addressing the problem of soaring global food prices a few years ago. As is usual with these things invitations were extended to the world’s most rich and powerful. Presentations from a star-studded cast were limited to five minutes in duration. But because of the absence of deeply focused inquiry this meeting, though well-intentioned, turned into a circus. 

As is generally known, food costs are currently the highest in 30 years. The crisis is believed to have pushed about 100 million people around the world into hunger. The rising price of staples like wheat and rice have caused riots in dozens of countries and it looks as though the situation will deteriorate even further if a solution is not found fast. Every reason to convene an urgent summit in fact! 

In his opening address UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon went to the nub of the impending catastrophe. He pointed to the chronic lack of new investment in agriculture and pleaded for higher yields together with the immediate suspension or elimination of price controls and other trade barriers. He also called into question the ethics of growing crops for fuel while millions are starving. 

This speech alone could have framed many hours of valuable discussion of issues ranging from economic growth and social progress to global security – if only some thought had been given to an inquiry process whereby fresh insights and new thinking could have emerged and been examined. For whatever reason this opportunity was disregarded by the organisers. 

As a consequence Ban Ki-moon’s address became the high point of the entire summit. The rest descended into pure farce…

At the time, the late Robert Mugabe’s presence at the summit was labelled obscene by members of both the British and Australian delegations. Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith claimed the Zimbabwean president had presided over the starvation of his people. In a tit-for-tat riposte Mugabe accused Britain and its allies of using food aid as a political weapon in attempts to topple him, thus crippling the Zimbabwean economy.

President Ahmadinejad of Iran diverted attention even further from the summit topic by attacking what he called Israel’s criminal and terrorist Zionist regime. He alleged that unnamed profiteering forces were driving up oil prices to further their geopolitical aims. 

By this time anarchy might have been an apt description of the summit proceedings. In a valiant yet ultimately futile attempt to get the agenda back on track Jacques Diouf, Head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, accused the West of confusing priorities. We are, he said, concerned more about climate change and maintaining the quality of our lives than on ways to feed the poor. 

But even here, where you might have expected some element of global conscience to hold sway, zero-sum game playing reared its inevitable head. Ed Schafer, the US Agriculture Secretary, immediately got on his soapbox to claim biofuels were responsible for only 2 to 3 per cent of the predicted 43 per cent rise in food prices this year. Other participants angrily suggested that biofuels actually accounted for 15 to 30 per cent of the increases.

And so it went on… One game after another. Each speaker trying to gain the upper hand, deflate another’s point of view, cast doubts on their data, or simply grab their few moments of glory in the Roman sun.

Little attempt was made by any of the speakers to question their own assumptions, to acknowledge personal biases and vested interests, or to understand the reasoning of others. 

Because the United States, Canada and Brazil all have sizeable biofuel industries this dispute puts the integrity of the entire summit at risk, jeopardises deeper inquiry, entrenches current, highly politicised positions, and may yet derail attempts to find a consensus. 

I am not trying to make this summit a laughing stock. Far from it. But we are facing serious issues that threaten our way of life and possibly civilisation as we know it. 

It would be arrogant in the extreme to believe that we are intelligent enough to avoid the kind of species extinction that has occurred to 98 percent of life on this planet. 

But the only way we have of avoiding that kind of scenario is to elevate our thinking to an entirely different plane in order to engage as many people as possible in finding new questions to old answers. 

The current mode of meetings does not allow that. It gets us precisely nowhere!