Inviting the elephant

I am part of the design team leading the 2010 Alberta Professional Planners Institute conference October 17-20, 2010 in Lake Louise.  We have chosen questions to guide a big conversation, rather than in speakers.  We have done this with the express purpose of surfacing the elephants in community planning.  It is easy to hide when we sit and listen to experts.  A new possibility we are designing for: explore the untapped expertise and wisdom we already have amongst us.  The metaphor we are using to guide our design: the elephant.

Either the metaphor of the elephant is resonating with people, or it is an elephant itself.  We get comments about the questions that will be guiding our inquiry about planning and where it fits in the scheme of things.  The questions are too big.  What do you mean by the questions?  Of course I am planning to survive, aren’t you?  The questions are too big!  The questions lead to so many other questions? Boy, do those questions ever stop to make me think…

In a way, one of the elephants in the room are questions themselves.  How often do we think we have it right, without even asking questions.  John Godfrey Saxe’s poem is in our consciousness as we design, and we are curious about how this relates to community/town/city/country/northern/rural planning:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!-but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!-what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me’t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

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