When IF project panels are beginning the transition to generating public policy ideas, I’ve found it helpful to have the panelists explore different metaphors for thinking about the policy area. Metaphors can capture a distinct vision of what the policy area, or some key aspect of it, could mean. Metaphors can also help panelists to engage in a more conceptual way with the policy area. Metaphors focus our minds on a big picture appraisal of a policy area. They help us to focus on the deeper meaning of the policy area.
Playing around with these different metaphors also can serve as a kind of imaginative warm-up for generative thinking. Often it’s hard for panelists to shift from thinking analytically in terms of exploring an area of policy concern to thinking generatively in terms of creating diverse policy responses to that area of concern. By engaging their imaginations in this way, panelists might find it easier to make connections and begin to construct policy possibilities that embody divergent visions of the policy area.
One way to get panelists moving in this direction is to have them generate a list of possible metaphors or analogies that express what an area of concern could represent or mean. In some cases this might work in regard to the whole topic or area of concern under discussion. For example, with the Genetics Technology project, panelists focused on generating metaphors for these technologies. With the project on the Future of the Family, the panelists generated different metaphors for “family” or what family might represent for society. With other topics, where the topic is more diffuse, it might work to focus on some key aspects of the policy area. For example, in the project on Civic Discourse (Helping America Talk), some of the metaphors focused on the phenomenon of discourse itself—exploring different visions of what the interchange of public discourse might mean. Other metaphors focused more on the content of that interchange, exploring, for example, different ways to think about what “information” or “knowledge” could mean (that is, the information that citizens might need to make informed democratic decisions).
One part of this exercise is for panelists to focus on generating a multiplicity of different metaphors. They can think of this as asking themselves, “What are different ways to convey what this topic represents?” or “What are different ways to picture the way this topic (or this reality) functions in our society?” It’s important for panelists not to get stuck on just one motif. Exploring different metaphors like this can help panelists avoid just thinking of one basic vision of the policy area (and what it represents) and then sketching out binary opposites in terms of policy approaches toward it.
Another part of this exercise is for panelists to explore how a given metaphor can lead to sketching out very different policy implications. At first this may seem counter-intuitive. For example, with the Genetic Technology project, one of the most prominent metaphors was to think of these technologies as “playing God.” It seemed obvious, at first, to most panelists that the policy implication of this was to say that “playing God” is a bad thing to do—so the policy should be to prohibit or greatly restrict these technologies. Upon reflection, however, others pointed out that from another perspective people might feel called upon to be “god-like”—so “playing God” should be something we do. The policy implication of this would be to throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the development and use of these technologies. Similarly, in the Civic Discourse project, the metaphorics of “information as power” led to some policy notions of expanding participation in that power (universalize and expedite access to information, so the power is shared more equally in a democratic society)—and some policy notions that sought to consolidate or restrict that access to that power (restrict access to information to allow the government to govern more efficiently). With every metaphor that comes up, panelists can almost always discover different ways to unfold the metaphor from the standpoint of different perspectives, perspectives they’ve likely uncovered in their earlier discussions.
To get panelists started, I’ve often found it helpful to bring up some metaphors from policy areas other than their own. This usually gets them moving. It gets them thinking about the big picture of what this area of concern (or some aspect of it) could mean. Once they get moving, the panelists can usually generate a lot of different metaphors, which in turn serve as a rich starting point for generating a diverse range of policy possibilities. If panelists try this out, they’ll likely find that playing around with these metaphors can give them a good start toward generating a number of contrasting policy approaches.