Spherical Configuration of Categories
to reflect systemic patterns of environmental checks and balances
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Published in: International Society for Knowledge Organization. Environmental Knowledge Organization and Information Management: proceedings of the First European ISKO Conference (Sept 1994, Bratislava). Frankfurt-Main, Indeks Verlag, 1994, pp. 1-21. Portions of the text also appeared in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential
Abstract: To explore and illustrate new conceptual and organizational possibilities, the focus of the exercise described is on identifying 'strategic dilemmas' underlying debates on environment/development issues, such as those of the 1992 Earth Summit. These are the dilemmas which reflect such seemingly irreconcilable concerns as 'safeguarding watercourses' versus 'exploiting essential hydro-electric energy reserves'. The assumption is that as a set these local (namely issue-specific) long-term dilemmas may offer clues to new patterns of global (namely inter-sectoral) strategies and bargains. In an effort to move beyond the questionable 'linearity' of conventional representations of such categories, the information is encoded or projected onto a network derived from a symmetric polyhedral form. The network has been deliberately chosen to facilitate comprehension of global properties of the pattern of strategic dilemmas. However the global significance of the pattern, and the basis for its 'sustainability', is shown as emerging only when its form in three-dimensions becomes apparent as having spherical characteristics. Of special interest is the shift in the level of analysis from isolated problems to that of vicious cycles or loops that link a succession of problems aggravating one another across conventional categories. The concern is how these cycles interlock, defining such a sphere, in order to sustain negative environments which call for transformation. The research is based on data prepared for the 4th edition of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1).
There is an increasing sense of urgency in the international community. This is accompanied by an increasing sense of opportunity. The urgency relates to the perception of an ever-increasing pressure from world problems and their effects at every level of society. The opportunity is associated with the many tools, insights and resources available to society, especially in the field of information.
It is easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm and hype concerning the future 'information society', the 'global village', and the 'superhighway'. It should not be forgotten that the automobile excited the same enthusiasms at the beginning of the century but led to unforeseen impacts on the environment, on quality of life and on the marginalization of those without access to such advantages. There will undoubtedly be advantages and many are already accessible to the few. But what will be the equivalents of the proliferation of roads, noise, pollution, conflicts between public and private transport, unaesthetic roadside 'furniture', road accidents, and the like? The information revolution will engender its own 'environmental' problems as can already be seen in the invasive spread of commercial and political messages.
Even vaster quantities of information are about to become widely available. It would be a grave mistake to assume that this in itself will necessarily empower people and groups to respond more effectively to the social and environmental problems of the immediate future. The enthusiasms of many information professionals and providers tend to conceal the inadequacies of the existing tools and those which are on the drawing board.
The key challenge is whether the tools will empower people to ask more appropriate questions or whether they will simply reinforce users in the pursuit of predetermined preoccupations. Will users emerge with unforeseen answers that offer them a more integrative perspective, or will mindsets that are already endangering society simply be reinforced? There should be no illusions about the marketing of information tools in a society that will be encouraged towards the highest level of information consumption. As ever, the money is to be made in providing people with responses to their immediate, short-term needs not in challenging them to reframe their needs and their approach to information about them.
The above remarks apply as much to individual end-users as to major institutions, notably those operating at the international level.
It is fair to state that most effort in connection with environmental information is concerned with the more immediate practical tasks of obtaining that information (including environmental monitoring), and incorporating it into information systems of various levels of technical sophistication in such a way that it can be readily retrieved. It is also fair to state that, in organizing this information, practically all effort focuses on the traditional bibliographic elements of author, title, publisher and subject, together with whatever investment is appropriate in abstracting, thesaurus design and enabling users to formulate complex search profiles, possibly across a complex set of dispersed databases. For many information professionals, if this alone was achieved, their responsibility could be considered honourably discharged. For some there is the supplementary challenge of making the information widely available (notably across language and script barriers), especially to those who are already marginalized by the exorbitant costs of many of the better information tools. These issues blur into the new multi- media opportunities of disseminating information.
The question to be asked is whether information tools are being effectively designed to empower people to comprehend the nature and problems of complex systems and the windows of opportunity associated with them. Is it possible that preoccupation with 'user friendliness' may be obscuring fundamental conceptual challenges and their organizational implications?
This question goes beyond issues of storage and retrieval. It also goes beyond preoccupation with the many flashy features of multi-media access to large dispersed data bases. There is a need to overcome the tendency for the much acclaimed advances in storage, retrieval and presentation techniques to disguise what is not being achieved in enabling improved comprehension and decision-making with respect to increasingly complex systems -- namely the failure to address fundamental conceptual issues of knowledge organization. This is especially the case where policy-making is fraught with intractable differences, dilemmas and paradoxes, as is increasingly apparent at the highest level -- notably with respect to environment and development issues. There is a need for information systems to take explicit account of support, opposition or incompatibility between documents rather than simply covertly excluding those deemed irrelevant or inappropriate.
The remainder of this paper builds on aspects of a long-term programme of the Union of International Associations (Brussels) which results periodically in the publication of an Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1). This is a companion volume to the better known Yearbook of International Organizations (2). Both publications are generated from large databases on some 15,000 international organizations (governmental and nongovernmental) and on some 9,800 'world problems' with which they are preoccupied. Such information raises many issues of knowledge organization if it is to be of greater value than a telephone directory.
The UIA has had a long tradition of concern for organization of information, dating from its founders involvement in the UDC (prior to the creation of the FID) through to involvement as rapporteur for the two international symposia on United Nations documentation (3, 4) and the early work of COCTA (5). The above-mentioned Encyclopedia has, since its first edition in 1976, focused on the integrative and interdisciplinary challenges of knowledge organization. The functional classification of organizations in the Yearbook has also been a preoccupation (6). These concerns have led to involvement in the debate on information relevant to new forms of governance (7) and to the organization of the forthcoming 1st World Congress on Transdisciplinarity (Portugal, November 1994).
The specific challenge of environmental and developmental information was confronted most recently in a background document (8) prepared for an Inter-Sectoral Dialogue on the occasion of the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992). This endeavoured to indicate possibilities for a new kind of 'global' framework to interrelate the many 'local' (ie specialized) issues identified in Agenda 21 and related documents. The bias in what follows is towards elucidating, in an experimental spirit, the nature of such a global framework on the assumption that users with specialized needs tend to be well-served by current information systems. In this sense the strategic challenges for the future are at the 'global' level.
'Global' is used here to imply the full world-wide range of environmental and developmental issues in the broadest sense, as well as the manner in which that knowledge is held for comprehension as a whole -- especially in relation to democratic policy-making. 'Knowledge' is seen as necessarily transcending the preoccupations of single disciplines -- especially when this involves strategic dilemmas and paradoxes that emerge between disciplines confronted with the need to act on problems of the environment. Under such circumstances it is assumed that 'organization' will necessarily involve non-linear dimensions which may appear incompatible with conventional approaches to knowledge organization. The challenge is sadly illustrated by the marked reluctance to organize comprehensive species databases to enable complex food webs to be effectively mapped, notably to help rehabilitate degraded environments.
Given the intractable policy differences in relation to environmental and developmental issues, there is a strong case for exploring a form of global organization which makes structural use of such differences. The common assumption that they can be ignored (as being purely the concern of end-users), results in information systems which do nothing to address the issue (faced by key end-users) of interrelating incommensurable policy perspectives. The resulting design is then only of marginal value to those who are obliged, through their strategic responsibilities, to deal with such incommensurability.
The possibility explored here is the need to move beyond preoccupation with 'descriptors'. These may well be absolutely necessary to access information describing specific issues. But the conceptual challenge of environmental issues lies primarily in the way that clusters of information challenge each others validity in any global context. The significance, scope, stability and relevance of descriptors is then severely challenged. Information professionals must either learn to deal with this challenge or be by-passed by other kinds of system (however crude) that will meet these more complex needs of policy-makers. This is the realm of strategic dilemmas and paradoxes in which the significance of categories is continuously subject to flux. For example, oestrogenic effects may soon completely reframe environmental issues and priorities.
In preparation for the 1992 UNCED event, as a follow-up report to his involvement as Secretary-General of the World Commission on Environment and Development (responsible for the Brundtland Report), Jim MacNeill (9) articulated for the Trilateral Commission the policy options for sustainable development in terms of 'shaping global bargains'. He notes: 'The notion of a 'global bargain' conjures up many images, especially within the broad context of sustainable evelopment... In its simplest terms, a bargain involves at least two parties and two issues. It implies a trade-off between the parties on the issues. The group of nations, developed and developing, that have come together to form a bargain must agree to give up something in order to get something else. As a rule, they would give up a path of development in a given sector that is unsustainable and thus represents a threat to themselves and the other negotiating nations or the global commons.'
According to this perspective the arenas to be subject to bargaining emerge haphazardly as a result of conventional political processes. There is no systemic sense of how the bargains interweave to ensure the sustainability of development as whole. There is no sensitivity to issues which can be conveniently ignored by powerful majorities. In a real sense this corresponds to the traditional paradigm of ad-hocery which has contributed so much to the emergence and maintenance of the present crisis. Note that current information systems do little to compensate for this ad- hocery which they so effectively reinforce.
The difficulty is that bargains are typically discussed in the verbal and textual mode. In this mode, notions of 'giving up' in order to 'get something else' are understood in the simplest terms and therefore readily evoke opposition. This opposition is indeed legitimate in terms of the 'two-dimensional' images (of 'sides') through which they are currently discussed. It would not however be so necessary in terms of more complex configurations (of 'sides').
It is unfortunate, as the MacNeill report illustrates, that thinking for the 1992 Earth Summit was focused on the possibility of a series of issue-specific 'global bargains'. Taken one by one, these may or may not prove negotiable or effective. But on this basis there is every likelihood that the effects of some will significantly undermine the effects of others. What is missing is any image of how issue- specific bargains can be interwoven to constitute a larger sustainable development bargain -- as a set of complementary elements rather than as an asystemic jumble.
As in architecture, it is through balancing the stresses and tensions between a set of complementary construction elements that the integrity of a building is ensured. Richer structured imagery is required to facilitate understanding of how the larger and more encompassing bargains can be achieved. It is through such images of integrity, emerging from more complex structures, that the logic of that integrity gives justification to issue-specific bargains of greater effectiveness. It shows how they 'fit'. Structured images are required to give precision to the vague notions of 'checks and balances' conventionally articulated in textual terms. Such images give precision to the notions of 'giving up', and tensional 'trade offs', which readily lend themselves to description in architectural terms, for example.
The overall purpose of any inter-sectoral dialogue is to raise the level of inter-sectoral debate. The challenge is to move beyond simplistic consensus and beyond acrimonious restatement of established positions. The challenge is to move towards 'higher orders of consensus'.
The exercise undertaken for the Inter-Sectoral Dialogue focused on identifying 'strategic dilemmas' underlying debates on Earth Summit issues. These are the dilemmas which reflect such seemingly irreconcilable concerns as 'safeguarding watercourses' versus 'exploiting essential hydro-electric energy reserves'. The assumption here is that the set of these local (namely issue-specific) long-term dilemmas may offer clues to new patterns of global (namely inter-sectoral) strategies and bargains.
The starting points were a brainstorming exercise in the identification of polarizing dilemmas and the clustering of some 450 issues identified in the Brundtland Report, Agenda 21, and in sectoral declarations (8). As a checklist the latter had the merit of providing a crude context for specific sectoral concerns. However this was not enough. It failed to respond to the need to raise the level of debate by offering a global (inter-sectoral) context for specific bargains, checks and balances. Such checklists, like Agenda 21, are effectively overwhelming. They encourage simplistic attempts to identify 'the most important problem' whose solution it is hoped will magically transform all the others.
Figure 1(with explanations) is one attempt to respond to this situation by showing how different social functions, understood as strategic opportunities, interfere with each other to engender a pattern of strategic dilemmas. In that pattern each strategy may take a privileged role or may in turn be constrained by other strategies. For example, when 'environment' is a privileged function, 'well-being (+jobs)' may be sacrificed, whereas, when 'well-being (+jobs)' is the privileged function, sacrificing 'environment' is the alternative option. Neither option is satisfactory, but both appear to have their place. Any such dilemma may of course be 'resolved' by short-term measures, but the nature of the dilemma renders such solutions unsustainable in the longer- term. Sustainable development is a function of the pattern as a whole rather than of its components.
The choice of six principal functions as the basis for the pattern in Figure 1 is of course arbitrary -- but it is certainly more systemic than the chapter organization of the Brundtland Report or of Agenda 21. As noted below, a different number of clusters could have been used, bearing in mind the constraints of over-simplification and excessive complexity.
The traditional tabular presentation of Figure 1 is itself a conceptual trap. It encourages a very mechanistic approach to the pattern of dilemmas, reinforcing tendencies to much- contested forms of 'linear thinking'. The linearity may be deliberately challenged by allowing the information to be encoded or projected onto a network. In the light of the arguments elsewhere concerning polyhedral nets (1, Section TZ; 7, 10: available here), in this exercise the network was deliberately chosen to facilitate comprehension of global properties of the pattern of strategic dilemmas by mapping the information in Figure 1 onto an icosidodecahedral net (see Figures 2A and 2B, redrawn for web presentation by David Stevenson). As noted below, the global significance of the pattern, and the basis for its sustainability, only emerges when its form in three-dimensions become apparent.
In the network the principal lines traversing the pattern are used to represent the six selected strategic preoccupations of Figure 1. They are coded by the same letters. In two dimensions most of the relationship lines can only appear as broken, although in three dimensions they are seen to form unbroken interlocking circles defining the integrity of a sphere, as is seen when the original polyhedron is reconstructed in 3 dimensions (see Figures 4 and 5). In this exercise, the interlocking of these circles creates a pattern of triangles and pentagons on the surface of the sphere (more apparent in Figure 5). These may be understood as simpler (3-valent) and more complex (5-valent) bargaining arenas around specific concerns.
Each triangle in the network can be described by a 3-letter code reflecting a particular combination of the original 6 strategic functions. On the basis of work on coding the declaration issues according to these functions, a tentative indication of the significance of each 3-letter code was formulated in a 2-column table (see Figure 2-5): one indicated a development-focused application of the strategies; a second indicated an environment-sensitive application of the strategies. In both cases typical problems resulting from inappropriate implementation could be identified. Keywords from that indication have been inserted into the network diagram.
It becomes clear that on a single network pattern (Figure 2A), two triangles appear with the same code, and are therefore used here to indicate the development-focused and the environment-sensitive keywords for that code combination. They are on opposite sides of the network (notably when displayed in three dimensions). Only half of the 20 possible combinations appear on that pattern. A further 10 appear in the second version (Figure 2B). The two versions result from the different orders in which the functions can appear. The full range of Earth Summit issues and strategies is effectively mapped onto these two networks.
It is necessary to use two alternate versions of the network pattern with this approach. This may not be the case with other coding approaches along these lines. Complementary projections are however also required in geographical mapping. Organic molecules essential to life (notably benzene) are based on resonance between two complementary structures. Most tensegrity structures (see below) exist in right- and left-handed versions.
In contrast to the Earth Summit approach, the patterning exercise here emphasizes the necessarily global structure of the network of issue-specific bargains. Namely it starts from an assumption of inter-sectoriality (functional globality) and allows specific sectoral (functionally local) concerns to emerge as features of the pattern of strategic options. From this perspective, it seems extremely doubtful that local issue-specific bargains (emissions, forests, etc) can be effectively struck in isolation from the global context of strategic dilemmas -- as tends currently to be assumed. Any such isolated bargains would therefore tend to be unsustainable in the longer-term.
This perspective does however suggest that articulation of these dilemmas within a global framework may redistribute the tensions which currently make it extremely difficult to achieve issue-specific bargains of any consequence in isolation. This redistribution may well provide unsuspected contextual support for such bargains by rendering explicit a new pattern of checks and balances. Where bargains are no longer treated in isolation, tensions which would otherwise have to be dealt with explicitly within a given bargaining arena (reducing the probability of success) may now be recognized implicitly as contextual to that bargain. This stresses the importance of treating the totality of Earth Summit issues as a set of inter-weaving strategic options in order to reduce the difficulty of achieving success on particular fronts. This is a specific challenge to the design of information systems and interfaces.
This approach points to new policy possibilities in which the degree of global consensus required is reduced to a minimum (in a design sense) by localizing the patterns of disagreement. In this way disagreement no longer acts globally -- tearing apart the global community. Rather it is locally confined and understood as a long-term strategic dilemma on which 'consensus' can only be achieved in the short-term. Sustainability thus lies at the global level not at the local level.
There is a need for richer, and more challenging, imagery to capture the complexity of strategic options to clarify new options both for policy makers and wider audiences. The two-dimensional representation, for 'local' purposes, of the 'global' structure of the Earth clarifies the challenge. The importance of the shift to three-dimensional representation is particulary obvious in this geographical parallel between representations of the Earth as a globe, and the many efforts to project such information onto 2-dimensional maps -- each with their special distortion. It is the inadequacy of the 2-dimensional representation which highlights the value of the 3-dimensional structure in stressing globality and providing a context for local issue-specific arenas.
Both in the two- and three-dimensional forms the imagery proposed here is an invitation to reflection along new lines. As intended, it deliberately breaks with familiar patterns. It invites further reflection and experiment to better portray the relation between global and local -- and the strategic opportunities which emerge. It is possible that the main value of the structures presented lies in the mapping exercises that they encourage, namely in the creativity and reflection that they evoke, rather than in any particular pattern which may be favoured. A 'structural outliner' has been proposed (11) as a specific software package to facilitate such exploration by end-users, notably of transformations between the range of polyhedral structures in Figure 4. 'Packing' and 'unpacking' systems of categories, according to needs for detail or simplicity, is one of the advantages of using the system of interrelated polyhedral forms of Figure 4.
The merit of the 3-dimensional representation of the Earth Summit issues is that it may be used to clarify why strategic dilemmas appear to emerge. Bargain arenas have been recognized here in pairs of triangles in a network pattern. The 'dilemma' in each case may be seen as a failure to recognize the global properties of the structure which separate the two complementary (but distinct) arenas -- for these are on opposite sides of the spherical structure. Collapsing the distinctions into a two- dimensional representation, in which the triangles are super-imposed, is what guarantees the appearance of a dilemma. It is an appropriate global consensus which allows them to be understood as separate, thus eliminating the dilemma.
In practice the construction of three-dimensional spherical structures (like geodesic domes) requires understanding of more than those surface features with which the bargaining arenas have been associated here. According to the principles of tensegrity (namely tensional integrity) explored by R Buckminster Fuller (10), new types of self- sustaining global structure may be created by a particular three-way pattern of tensile forces. Such a structure is not supported or maintained (by special authority structures). It is pulled outward into sphericity by inherent tensional forces which its geometry also serves to restrain (10). It responds as a system with local stresses being uniformly distributed throughout the structure, and uniformly absorbed by every part of it as a classic example of synergy. It is not necessary that these structures should be patterned on regular polyhedra, but the tension networks are most economical when their strands run for considerable distances without changing direction -- and preferably along great- circles. As the work of cybernetician Stafford Beer (12) is illustrating, there is every possibility that such structures may come into their own to ensure the sustainability and integrity of Internet conferences.
Tensegrity structures clarify ways in which individual bargains need to be interlocked using local elements of disagreement ('compression elements') within the global network of agreement ('tension elements'). Tensegrity structures are effectively patterns of sustainability. The challenge is to find useful ways to encode such patterns to offer insights into the strategies of sustainable development.
It is important to recognize that there are whole families of network patterns that correspond to different spherical structures in three dimensions (see Figure 4). Figures 2A and 2B suggest just one way of 'cutting' the conceptual or strategic 'cake'. There are indications that increasing the complexity of the network in order to explicitly capture more detailed issues could provide global contexts which make it even easier to handle issue-specific bargains. What is required is a special database which could enable people to shift between different levels of functional detail as is done between maps in geographical atlases and in geographical information systems.
The arguments above stress the systemic significance, at the global level, of interlocking circular sequence of relationships. To take the investigation further data is required to clarify the nature of such relationships in practice and across a wide spectrum of issues of relevance to environment and development in the broadest sense.
There has long been recognition of how one problem can aggravate another and of how several problems can reinforce each other. Volume 1 of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1) registers some 120,000 relationships between 9,800 problems in complex networks. Much of the information derives from documents of international organizations. Clearly such relationships may form chains or pathways linking many problems. But hidden in the data as presented is also the existence of chains that loop back on themselves, especially chains of problems that aggravate one another in succession. The more obvious loops may be composed of only 3 or 4 problems (see Figure 6). Far less obvious are those composed of 7 or more. An example is: Alienation > Youth gangs > Neighbourhood control by criminals > Psychological stress of urban environment > Substance abuse > Family breakdown > Alienation. No systematic attempt seems to have been made to identify such vicious relationship loops or cycles through which four or more problems constantly reinforce one another. Such cycles are vicious precisely because they are self- sustaining.
A computer program has been developed as an experiment to explore the many pathways amongst the world problems documented in the Encyclopedia database in order to isolate such loops. This suggests the possibility of moving from a focus on problems as though they were isolated, of which few are, to one in which the focus is on the many vicious loops of which a problem may be a member.
Functionally and conceptually such vicious cycles may offer a better way to approach complex networks of problems. Indeed they serve to make clear that any organization with projects focusing on a single problem needs to be aware of any vicious cycle of which that problem is a part. Unless that organization coordinates its activities with any bodies focusing on other problems in that cycle, its work may be totally undermined. Despite apparent success in responding to a particular problem in the short term, this may not affect the sustainability of the vicious cycle of which it is a part. The problem may be regenerated by pressures building up in other parts of the cycle.
It is interesting to reflect on the parallel to the metabolic pathways documented by biochemists. Analysis of such pathways has shown the presence of a number of cycles. Many of these now bear names (eg the glyoxylate cycle, triglyceride pathway) because of their literally vital importance to life processes. There is every possibility that cycles linking problems could prove of equivalent importance -- and possibly of greater strategic significance than the individual problems themselves, since it is the cycles that effectively sustain the individual problems.
Ideally a coalition of organizations should form in response to each vicious problem cycle. Information passed between organizations should then match the pattern of impacts between the problems with which they are concerned. The strategic issue may be less one of how to 'break' the cycle and more one of how to reverse it, exploiting the fact that problems are functionally linked in this way.
A significant number of problems also alleviate other problems, although this information is less easy to obtain and such links are consequently less frequent in the Encyclopedia. There may therefore be beneficent problem cycles through which problems constrain each other. It could prove strategically advantageous to locate such cycles.
Before commenting on the experiment in detecting vicious cycles, it is important to recognize that it is precisely through the detection of such loops that attention can be drawn to defects in the pattern of relationships in the data. Detection of loops is therefore in the first place an editorial tool. It raises questions as to the appropriateness of certain links which otherwise may go unquestioned. It also sharpens the discussion on how distinctions are made, using verbal categories and definitions, and how system boundaries are drawn grouping what is represented in this way. Because of the priority given to revising the pattern of relationships there was insufficient time to run the program in anything but a test mode. It was not possible to correct obvious defects before running it to detect substantively significant loops only. Nevertheless the results are indicative of a very interesting area for further exploration.
Using several 386 and 486 machines in parallel, some 9,519,722 pathways were tested for loops involving up to 7 problems. This process identified 7,303 such loops (3Loop=35; 4Loop=115; 5Loop=527; 6Loop=3,058; 7Loop=3,568). The procedure needs refinement, notably to detect problems that are not in loops.
Given the possibility of identifying such cycles, the question raised by the earlier discussion is how this information could be best portrayed through various mapping techniques. One attractive possibility, consistent with the spherical emphasis above, is to map the circles around the surface of a sphere with whatever interlocking the data implies. More sophisticated software is required to 'massage' such circles around the spherical forms in approximation to structures such as those in Figure 5.
The challenge of global governance is to match the complexity of the resulting structure by communication pathways (notably through Internet conferences) and organized initiatives.
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12. Stafford Beer. World in torment; a time whose idea must come (Presidential address to Triennial Conference of the World Organization of Systems and Cybernetics, New Delhi, 1993). Includes summary of syntegrity scheduled to appear in book form under the title: Beyond dispute; the invention of team syntegrity.
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.