Search Conferences and Future Search Conferences: Potential Tools for Urban Planning in an On-Line Environment

Search Conferences and Future Search Conferences: Potential Tools for Urban Planning in an On-Line Environment

Rosalind Hurworth (The University of Melbourne, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0074-4.ch013
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This chapter examines the potential of the Search Conference (SC) and a later version, the Future Search Conference (FS), as useful participatory methods that contribute to urban and other types of planning. An unusual feature of these approaches is that participants are expected to contribute to the implementation of any action recommended. The chapter begins with a definition and history of these conferences before outlining how traditional, face-to-face conferences are implemented. As an illustration, the Future Search Conference ‘Bendigo +25’ (carried out in a regional Australian city to determine ways forward for the next 25 years) is discussed. The same case study is then re-examined in the context of attempting to run such an exercise in a Web-based environment. Both advantages and challenges of this mode of delivery are considered.
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What Are Search Conferences and What Are Their Origins?

A Search Conference has been defined as a: “…social event convened to create a collaborative picture of probable and desirable futures and to develop plans to move towards that desirable future” (Williams, 1984, p. 29), or a “...carefully planned, custom-designed, participative event embedded in a longer process of planning and improvement. Its main focus is to create ideas for future action that are to be implemented by the participants” (Hurworth, 2006, 2007). As Large adds: “This approach can lead to learning, purposeful action, commitment, creative involvement and ownership because people are working together on what matters to them” (Large, 1998a, p. 63).

Origins and History of the Search Conference

The Search Conference was originally conceived in the late 1950s by Fred Emery and his wife Merrelyn (both from Australia) working in conjunction with Eric Trist (from the Tavistock Institute in London). This trio’s work in socio-technical systems, open systems theory and participative planning made an important contribution to management thinking. Their ideas came at a time when organisations were finding it difficult to drive changes from the top and were seeking to engage larger stakeholder groups in future planning.

Fred and Eric first implemented a Search Conference to assist with the merger of the Bristol and Siddely Aircraft Companies. The SC process allowed the two companies to merge successfully, as well as the creation of new engine ideas and the concept of an airbus (Emery, 1995; Weisbord, 1992). Next, Fred experimented and worked further on the rationalization of conflict, which involved working to find common ground, rather than tackling conflict head on.

The SC approach then ‘took off’ in places such as Scandinavia, Australia and North America where is it was used by companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. Back in Australia, Fred and Merrelyn continued to develop the SC further, and applied the method within a variety of planning contexts, such as local communities, the public service and companies.

Meanwhile, Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff developed their own version of the technique called the Future Search Conference (FS) (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995) which tends to involve larger numbers and leaves less time for action planning. For instance, during the 1970s the latter authors assembled as many as 300 people in order to work with a vertical slice of an entire community.

Since then, various other types of Search Conferences have evolved (see Crombie, 1984, who describes four versions). Also, in Australia and elsewhere, the terms ‘Search Conference’ and ‘Future Search Conference’ have become blended, or at least blurred, so that conferences often contain elements of both approaches.

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