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3.12: The Summer of the Synthesis

It all began with a call from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications of the Ontario Provincial Government. They had a problem. They had a nice neat little demographic model from which they predicted the distribution of households in Ontario and, hence, the flow of traffic, and, hence, the focus of roadbuilding and maintenance. The model, which had worked reasonably well for many years was no longer working. They got zapped by the energy crisis. They got zapped by the OPEC decision. All sorts of such surprises from outside upset their model. Planners don't like surprises - at least, not when they are the surprisees.

They had to expand their model. The world was becoming interconnected. How much did they need to expand? The surprises were coming from - everywhere. In a very bold move, they decided to expand to include - everything! They set up a group called Futures Outlook and asked them to study the future.

After some moments of consternation (Study the future? But we've never been there! Nor has anyone else so you can't be contradicted), they set to work. They invited a number of consulting companies to

  • Select seminal sources on the future
  • Distribute them among themselves
  • Squeeze out predictions from each of those sources, and their implications for the future of Ontario, within six categories - Demographic, Economic, Socio-cultural, Environmental, Resources, and Technology.
We dutifully did as we were told. So they ended up with piles of predictions and implications. Another call from the Ministry. Help! What do we do with this pile of information. Will you synthesize it for us? (About half the time our clients are seeking synthesis because they have too much information rather than analysis because they have too little information.) It happened that, when this call came in, I had just returned from Europe and Kimon Valaskakis, the President of GAMMA, was just leaving for Europe.

The following conversation ensued during the day we over-lapped in Montreal:

He: You want to take this case on?

Me: Synthesis? I never learned synthesis in school. Analysis, yes but synthesis no. We learned how to take the universe apart but not how to put it together again.

He: You publish textbooks in psychology, don't you. That is synthesis. You must have learned it somewhere.

Me: I guess so, now that you mention it. I must have learned it after school by accident. Okay.

Thus began the Summer of the Synthesis. My first attempt at climbing this mountain of data was to develop a cross-impact matrix which listed the predicted impacts of variables within each of the six categories on variables within each of the other five. Hence, I spent the first part of the Summer staring my little mind boggling at this six-by-six matrix pasted to my wall.

The second attempt involved collapsing the six categories into three - to be more manageable by my mind. Thus, demographic, economic, and socio-cultural became sociosphere (the social world), environmental, and resources became ecosphere (the natural world), and technology became technosphere (the artificial world). Now I had to deal with the more manageable three-by-three matrix.

It was still stretching my cognitive capacities. Suddenly something snapped. There was something missing. Surely a psychologist should have noticed sooner that there was no person in the model. The great spheres were all moving in their interdependent ways as if there was no person present. Where was the person? The person, it seemed, should be in all three spheres - part of the natural world, the social world, and the artificial world. Then it clicked. The model should not be a square three-by- three matrix but three overlapping circles. This progression from a six-by-six matrix to a three-by-three matrix to three overlapping circles is illustrated in Figure 3-1.