ISI was born out of the recognition that academic, scientific and professional conferences seem to offer scant opportunities for colleagues to confer, to converse. Typically, a minority of participants deliver prepared presentations to a relatively passive majority. Except for brief Q & A opportunities, interchange among participants is rarely found on the official schedule. That which does occur is self-organized, informal and wedged into the interstices of the “real” program. Presenting is almost always more prestigious than listening, and some presentations carry greater prestige than others. Traditionally, the prestigious experts disseminate pre-packaged new ideas to the others, who are encouraged to take home and use whatever they find valid or promising.
Such hierarchical knowledge distribution systems greatly constrain us in addressing humanity’s most pressing and complex issues, issues about which we are not merely concerned, but also outraged. Of course, at traditional conferences it is well understood that scholars should approach issues objectively – without emotional involvement.
Bela H. Banathy had a different vision for scholarly gatherings, one which could more fully harness the collective potential of groups. What if all participants were designated presenters and given the opportunity to send prepared papers to the others in advance? And what if extended, in-depth, non-hierarchical conversation among them became the program? And what if systems scholars from all over the world focused their conversation together in order to put their expertise actively into the service of humanity worldwide? Bela Banathy established the ISI and inaugurated its first scholarly gatherings at Fuschl Am See, Austria in 1982 to find out. Since then we have called our gatherings “conversations” to distinguish them from traditional conference formats. Participants come to ISI Conversations more to cooperate in making serviceable knowledge than to disperse or gather it, though they are welcome to do both.
As Bela Banathy puts it, “We aspire to reap the ‘reflecting and creating power’ of groups that emerge in the course of disciplined and focused conversations on issues that are important to us and to our society.”
Contributed by Tad Frantz, 1995
This post was written by Doug on September 28, 2008