Australia 1995 is a very different place from what it was in 1972. The reasons go far beyond its film and recording stars -- the use of community search conferences has played a significant role in changing the face of Australia.
Since 1972, people have brought into being new organizations to deal with issues arising from the continuous process of change itself. They have directly created new national policies and directions. The search conference has touched and changed a huge diversity of geographical communities, industries and institutions across the country. And we are talking about thousands of searches.
Apart from these direct effects, there has been an indirect but perhaps even more important cumulative effect: the great mass of energy involved and created during these search conferences has also been directed toward creating environments which are supportive of community based on our highest human ideals. The basic set of ideals which the search conference elicits has provided direction and a powerful sense of democratic community.
It is easily arguable on the basis of these thou- sands of community search conferences that Australia's modern day success as a multi--cultural nation has its origins in the strong sense of community and tolerance that search conferences have both nurtured and created.
The life of the nation begins in the local community -- Is Australia heaven on earth? No. Of course not. It's still basically a representative democracy. And it is impossible to track all lines of influence through time in any unit as big as a diverse nation. But there is a clear line of development within Australia, that of community revitalization. No democratic community or nation can survive without an infrastructure of strong cohesive communities. While the search conference in Australia has not created New Utopia, it has encouraged an understanding, a continuing potential for working together for the common good.
The basic concept or design principle is simple -- It is that responsibility is located with the people who have to live with the consequences of their actions and the plan. Experts who fly in and out cannot do it by definition. As the Gungahlin kids realized, community means nothing if people have no control of their physical and social environment.
The design -- Community searches usually follow the simple classical design of exploring the external social environment, the system which is the town, industry or issue and then integrating these into a set of strategies and detailed action plans to achieve their most desirable future.
- Are more diffuse with no definite internal structure...
- Have more diverse and complex sets of relationships, people and interests than do corporations...
- Often have a range of presenting symptoms: some people will focus on youth unemployment, others on environmental degradation and some will see economic development opportunities as conflicting with environmental and cultural sustainability.
Everybody knows that things must change but how? Pre--work will involve bringing all these views together and sometimes result in totally redefining the focus of the search conference. In small discrete areas for example, the most productive focus is usually simply the future of our town. But getting it right takes time. Be prepared.
Democratic structures are necessary for success... Today, we build in a component at the end of the search to overcome this difficulty. We build in a modified participative design workshop to design an organizational structure to carry out the implementation in a democratic way. Once the concepts and practices of democracy through self--management are understood and participants have designed their own structure, the community has a much better chance of making its most desirable future happen. Not only has it come alive, it has consciously learned how to organize itself for an effective, long term and adaptive life. When the environment changes again as it will, the community has the tools, not only to adjust its plans but also to reorganize itself.
*(In organizational search conferences and some industry search conferences where is there a pre-existing industry association, implementation is naturally coordinated by that body in cooperation with the search conference membership.)
The professional planners didn't think the "kids" could plan... The National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) (responsible for the planning of Canberra) made every possible contingency plan against how they assumed Murphy's law would work in our search conference. And despite our best efforts, Angela Sands and I could not overcome their skepticism about this age group's abilities to work or to self manage. The search was therefore scheduled for five days and a leader was assigned to three pre-- determined subgroups (the NCDC also didn't believe they could plan). The NCDC brought masses of technical information and expert planners (neither one was called upon during the search). Worse than this, with the usual protective and paternalistic concern, no night work had been scheduled. It had even been suggested that the kids might not work through a whole day. But then the staff couldn't stop them working and couldn't get them to bed!
Their community, Gungahlin, was years ahead of its time... Angela Sands, the co-search manager said in 1975, the memories are of "immense energy and enthusiasm." They were committed to finding idealistic and realistic solutions. They planned a SHE town, what James Robertson was later to describe as the "sane, humane and ecological" alternative. News of it spread rapidly. Professional planners took a deep breath.
Then they wanted to keep on meeting... Not only had they planned a community, they had become one! As Angela evaluated it a year later, the search conference had delivered on its promises and the ideals were evident. Many of the ideas were immediately incorporated into other parts of Canberra's development. The NCDC then took the plans forward into the structural planning phase. Gungahlin is now being built. Some of the original vision is included as the conventional wisdom it has now become. Two other search conferences were sponsored by the NCDC, for the future of Canberra and the future of Belconnen, another newly established town. They confirmed the ideals and values evident in the first. The Gungahlin kids had made history.
The search for alternatives... The ensuing search conference was highly creative. Its participants evaluated all the available options and created some of their own. As the final report noted, they were strongly attached to the character of Geelong as a town rather than a city and worked to preserve this character. No outside body could possibly do that. A final plan was developed based upon a stretch of freeway outside the town plus designing and upgrading of traffic management conditions within it. It allowed for adaptive, step by step implementation as traffic volumes increased. To this day, there is no freeway running through the center of Geelong and no need for one either.
The beginning of the community reference system... It was for Geelong that we devised the community reference system to ensure that we had a non--biased selection of the population. It worked well as a subsequent community survey proved. But we made one mistake. We assumed that we could define Geelong by drawing a circle around the city. The participants disagreed. They drew their own boundary which was far from circular and worked on their definition. This enabled them to see options nobody had dreamt of. Again, the news travelled fast. Nobody had seen thirty ordinary citizens behaving like that before.
As can be seen in this hypothetical social map, many different groups, sectors and interests, each of which are considered a part of the system (as defined by the community), may be included in a particular community search.
Instead of tearing out the heart of the cities as other cities around the world had done to host world class events, the city's experience with building values into its planning through its previous searches enabled it to retain its character and be a worldclass host for the America's Cup. These included access to the river by all, provision of low cost housing, preservation of historic areas, and redevelopments limited to three stories high. Freeo, as we call it, is now an open and exciting city, acclaimed by all.
But the communities involved, particularly those with less resources and less articulate spokespeople, had been visibly lifted in confidence and voice. Besides that, some of their ideas were so compelling that the new politicians had to implement them:
- Old areas were revitalized...
- The CBD was humanized...
- The Hobart Rivulet walking trail was developed.
The long term impact in Tasmania... While the Hobart plan failed in part, it was certainly not the last search on the island. Search conferences have since touched innumerable domains. It has developed some outstanding community leaders and it is now taken for granted that planning is a grass roots participative process. Tasmania is arguably the most politically active and maverick state in Australia. It had the first Green member of parliament, leading the way for what is now a national Green Party. People, their communities and the new breed of planners had won the war.
Search conferences across the country -- During this same period right across the country the search conference blossomed in both scope and depth:
- Pre--school kids were designing their own playgrounds...
- University classes were introduced to and run by the principles of the search...
- The leisure clubs in New South Wales began to plan their future as community clubs through a long series of searches...
- A national group planned for telecommunications in 2000. A countless number of such searches have been held since then in different regions and aspects of Telecom's operations...
- A new maximum security prison was designed on site in a prison -- an inmate escaped during the event...
- Nurses planned their future through education. They are now a highly educated profession...
- Some focused on youth, some on the elderly. And the search conference began to be used by corporations.
It was truly a time of great excitement -- The search conference was showing people that the future was truly theirs to make. It allowed communities to translate their new perspectives into effective action. The old expert driven and top down methods of making change were effectively dead.
Task oriented work by communities making their own plans and implementing them became the way to go. Responsibility for communities, their own affairs and lives in cooperation with others and the larger representative structures was being relocated with the communities themselves.
This was the formative period for the search conference in Australia... The testing had been extensive. We realized we had a powerful tool in our hands. Much of the learning was collected together for a search on the search: Searching, 1982. But there was more to come before this tool could reliably deliver sustainable communities. This accumulated new learning can be found in Searching, 1996.
Industrial Relations Summit: 1973 -- The group that attended the first Industrial Relations Summit in 1973 was as far from being a community as it was possible to be. Industrial relations across the land were atrocious. The country was wracked by strikes and there was open warfare between unions and management. And similar struggles were taking place within the union movement itself and between employer bodies. There was an activist national labor government and rapid social change -- a volatile mix.
In short, they proved to each other that their jointly held expectations that each of them held widely divergent views were wrong.
National manufacturing policy: 1975 -- In 1974 the Prime Minister appointed a very high powered committee, drawn from the private and public sectors and academia, to devise appropriate policies for the development of manufacturing industry. It was chaired by Gordon Jackson, CEO of CSR Ltd., one of Australia's biggest companies and of course, it became known as the Jackson Committee. It assembled a similarly high powered and broadly based supporting secretariat. It was agreed that they should produce a green or discussion paper and take a broad approach to manufacturing, including social and regional issues as well as economic..
In their final report, they stressed the importance of people learning to adapt to the forces of change by learning to change and manage their systems to better share common aims and ideals of diverse background: "We found after a while, we were able to share a common purpose. We had field--tested among ourselves the consultative procedures which are an essential feature of the green paper."
They rejected the belief that major change should be left to market forces alone: "Government should facilitate, encourage and back with resources major structural change devised for an industry sector by participative processes within that sector."
A big step backward and steady underlying progress... Even though the Jackson Report generated huge debate and workshops were convened to put detail on the design of the industry councils, the subsequent white paper represented a massive step backward from the green paper and opened the way for the extreme economic rationalism of the 1980s. But the backward step didn't matter in the end. The prowess of the search conference had demonstrated itself to participants of the green paper search conference and since 1975 many industries have held their own search conferences to get their act together. AUSTRADE now regularly uses search conferences and other participative forms in its work to improve Australia's overseas competitiveness.
Industrial Relations Summit II: 1976 -- This second search was focused on worker participation and industrial relations and was conducted under the same conditions as the first. The Jackson Report was taken as a major input and again democratic self--managing organizations were accorded primacy.
Work was done on their many constraints and concerns, foreshadowing some of the subsequent changes we have seen. Examples are:
There was a fear about a hierarchical super manufacturing council following the white paper and a more general concern about the influence of the public service, and particularly Treasury, in economic and social planning, or the lack of it. To overcome this potential constraint, employers participatively planned and created the Business Council of Australia to provide an appropriate environment and advice for business.
At the time of this search conference, we had a Liberal (conservative) government with a Department of Productivity which understood these matters and we expected an agreement between the government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) by the end of 1977. We had to wait until 1983.
Future Directions for Australia: 1980 -- The Future Directions conference was incidentally, the first multi--search. It had nearly 120 participants organized into 4 parallel search conferences of 30 each. The participants were chosen from Australia's youngest and brightest opinion leaders. Some had had contact with the events described above, some were already politicians and others were destined to hold positions of national power and influence.
The implementation of these principles, all agreed would require a more pluralist economic system, a more participatory politico--legal system and more autonomous individuals. The desired result: a harmonious society, at peace.
The Industrial Relations accord: 1983 -- By 1983, a national agenda had definitely emerged. It revolved around a participative reconstruction and revitalization of Australian industry and democratic workplaces. It resulted in a national accord, signed between the government and the ACTU. The Summit which brought this particular agreement into being was not a search conference but that is what the Prime Minister had in mind. He had been a member of the Jackson committee and the president of the ACTU during the subsequent formative years. And despite its less than ideal format, nothing could stop the momentum. For this idea, the time had come.
The accord created a supportive environment for micro--economic reform and workplace redesign with award restructuring... It supported payment for skills held within enterprise bargaining and more generally encouraged many of the reforms and new initiatives that had been dreamed up years before in the events described above. Its effects have not been entirely desirable nor successful in the eyes of some:
The search as diffusion of workplace democratization: 1991... February 1991 saw Workplace Australia, the largest multi--search ever with over 750 participants. Its design was inspired by the Future Directions conference.
The conference created networks, many of them international. In Australia, new networks continued meeting back home both for diffusion and consolidation. Workplace Australia 2 was held in May, 1995.
Workplace Australia also highlighted the need for a new training course in the theory and practice of workplace democratization, through the search conference and participative design workshop. I became the bunny. The first of my new courses was held in November 1991 and four years later, it has proven itself as a diffusion process. Several more consultants now work exclusively with these methods and the rate of effective change has increased.
Australia returns to its indigenous roots: the Torres Straits Searches -- The original peoples of Australia, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have used the search conference since time immemorial. They didn't call it that, of course, but in their traditional oral culture their way is to talk around and around until a direction appears. The search conference is based on the same assumptions as their cultures. In this sense it marks a return to ancient ways which respect inter--dependence and oneness -- in other words, it fits. In the two hundred years since Europeans invaded Australia, there has been destruction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and culture but they have retained their oneness, their spark and their inter--dependence ethic.
We conducted two intercommunity events which were a mixture of joint planning and the required training. Contrary to conventional wisdom that communities would not work together, these two weeks again showed immense energy and enthusiasm as they worked as one group. They all developed concrete action plans to achieve their goals.
In particular, they made joint action plans for educating their people, and particularly the children, in Ailan Kastom and its laws. They practiced with the participative design workshop in which they redesigned their workforces. In the second, they then also used its principles to redesign their community meetings to overcome the apathy generated by their top down bureaucratic structures. They decided to rename their community workforces to help get rid of the dole mentality. They had a ball!
But many expressed concern about the level of support they would receive as they implemented their goals. They saw their success as being dependent on regional self government. The Torres Strait became self governing in 1994.
They now have to plan their collective future to "empower our people to determine their own affairs based on our unique Ailan Kastom along Torres Strait from which we draw our unity and strength." Planning for the development of the region began in September. Its central process is the search conference. This part of the timeless land is coming together again.
My abiding memory from Moa Island is of an elder and a youngster walking off together with a camera, to take the before photographs for their revived gardens to be.**
Can we create or recreate community? The search conference got off to its flying start in Australia in communities and it soon became clear that only communities can create community. And it also became increasingly clear that the search conference definitely created communities.
Will the search conference help us to determine which future we will live in? There is acknowledgement that sitting down and searching for new solutions is the only answer. These agreements have emerged through the making of the change itself. In this most basic sense, the future has arrived. Given that this is the most probable future we are walking into, those communities and organizations that don't or can't become democratic and creative will live only to inhabit the Jurassic Parks of the future.
42 Skinner Street
Cook, NSW, Australia, 2614
"This is the time, we are the people, let's work together_ Now!"