-- / --
Part of: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change (UAI Study Papers INF/5, 1970)
The Capacity Study is a tremendous step forward. It spells out the problems to be dealt with. The same may be said for the other reports considered here and also for two other important documents: The Final Report of the Enlarged Committee for Programme and Coordination (E/AC.51/GR/25 2 October 1969) and the General Review of the Programmes and Activities (of the UN system) (E/AC.51/GR123 24 September 1969).
But these reports are not enough dealing as they do with fragments or aspects of the general problem which remains to be defined in all its complexity. The danger of these reports is that each may be considered satisfactory, and even a breakthrough for the bodies for which they were prepared. The wider system context which would reveal the inadequacies in the coverage and interaction of these perspectives has not yet been clearly defined -- despite repeated references to the need for a multidisciplinary overall perspective. The different reports all focus on sub-systems critical to the functioning of the total world system. Yet each report is indifferent to the total world system and to the direct or indirect consequences of its recommendation on the total system. And yet each report criticizes this sort of narrow approach with regard to sub-systems within the system with which it is concerned.
Precise knowledge about the total world system is not an impossibility. Little work is being done on multidisciplinary, general systems methods. As Ackoff points out (see page 43), analyzing the same problem in the light of different disciplines and combining the results is not multidisciplinary thinking. Just as man had the problem of eliminating subjectivity in selecting, using, and developing methods within a particular discipline to deal with a particular problem, the same problem now arises with regard to the selection, use and development of multidisciplinary methods to deal with complex interacting problems.
It would seem that society is as ill-equipped in its ability to work in a multidisciplinary mode as it was to work in a unidisciplinary mode, scientifically, before the advent of Francis Bacon. Man now has to learn to dissociate himself conceptually at a new level from equivalents of the four influences which Bacon identified as distorting the shape of models. (These are the idols of the tribe, the idols of the cave, the idols of the market place, and the idols of the theater. It is the "idols" inherent in the fragmentation into disciplines which are brought into question -- perhaps, respectively: academic purism, discipline isolationism, disciplinary sympathies and antipathies governing the way interdisciplinary teams can form, and disciplinary activities unchecked by social issues or responsibility.)
The statement is frequently made in the debate on the impact of science on society that "for the first time in man's history, we are at the point where we can do virtually anything we wish if we are willing to pay the price.") (McElroy, W.D. Director of National Science Foundation NAS/NAE News Report, November 1969). The UN reports do not identify what the UN system would like to have in terms of communication and information facilities. The recommendations appear to be based on linear extrapolation from outdated concepts rather than taking advantage of the new techniques available.
Nor do the UN reports take into account the rapidity of change. The concept of development as a major issue is being replaced by, or broadened to cover, that of environmental problems. Single programme strategies are becoming suspect.
"Improvement of the environment is not a partisan issue. Nor is it a class issue....'Hungry people don't care about the environment', says one class warrior.
That's the kind of thinking that got us into this mess, In a high technology society, the single-minded pursuit of any goal -- even such a worthy one as feeding the hungry -- is almost always bound to produce undesirable side effects on the environment. Unless we learn to watch for and prevent the side effects, all our past and future efforts toward material progress and social justice will be futile.
To reverse environmental deterioration will be one of the main goals of the next generation, involving all the major functions of society." (Editorial, Fortune, February 1970)
President Nixon reflects this thinking in his State of the Union Message (January 1970) covering the period of the UN Second Development Decade.
"I will now turn to a subject which, next to our desire for peace, may well become the major concern of the American people in the decade of the Seventies. In the next ten years we shall increase our wealth by fifty per cent. The profound question is -- does this mean that we will be fifty per cent richer in a real sense, fifty per cent better off, fifty per cent happier?....The great question of the Seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land and our water?....The argument is increasingly heard that a fundamental contradiction has arisen between economic growth and the quality of life, so that to have one we must forsake the other. The answer is not to abandon growth, but to redirect it." [This type of thinking may presage, in the very near future, a redefinition and broadening from 2nd UN Development Decade to let UN Environmental Development Decade -- for which a non-feedback oriented development information system could not be adequate.]
The commitment of the UN system to economic and social development does not leave the new structures sufficiently flexible to obtain the feedback, from the many bodies concerned, which would permit "quality of life" criteria to be defined and to influence growth criteria.
"Because our strength is derived from the fragmented mode of our knowledge and our action, we are relatively helpless when we try to deal intelligently with such unities as a city, an estuary's ecology, or "the quality of life". (Editorial, Fortune, February 1970, p. 92)
And it might be added, the world system as a whole. The UN system is organized with a built in lag in response to new thinking at the national level and new problem areas, thus establishing a credibility gap.
The changes in the UN reports are conceived in the unidimensional terms of maximum economic growth as a goal and the means to facilitate this -- the concept of development. The consequences of this thinking are now evident. The need to think in terms of "change plus context of change plus consequences of change" is now evident -- this is not unidimensional but rather multidimensional thinking. This can be seen to be the approach that should have been taken to economic growth in the past. This type of thinking requires far greater sensitivity on the part of the organizational system to all the features of the economic, social, environmental subsystems. It requires new types of organizational structure to handle the rapidly changing conditions. These structures must solve the administration problem of cross-jurisdictional contact with simultaneous preservation of autonomy. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Great Britain's Minister of Technology and Power, suggests the line we should be taking:
"To take an architectural parallel, we should be replacing the social and technological pyramids in society with geodesic structures, in which each member connects with all its neighbouring members, giving the whole a cellular appearance and great stability." (Maintaining human supremacy. New Scientist, 7 August 1969, n. 276)
This change needs to be backed up, and because of the implementation problem, preceded by an information system designed not in terms of isolated organization units, but rather in terms of multidimensional networks of interacting organizations. Here organizations are conceived (and this is reflected in the computer programs and processing) as embedded in a web of actual and potential relationships. This approach makes evident the best strategy the network as a whole can adopt in attacking particular problems -- themselves described within the computer in the web-like interacting form that is beginning to be understood. Wedgwood Benn continues:
"In such a society, the concept of a total information system would be much less terrifying. It would certainly be necessary to have it, just as every cell in the body depends upon the central nervous system. But it would not limit or inhibit the full contribution that each part could make to the whole. It would be a tyranny only if we let it be a tyranny, provided that -- but only provided that -- the information system covering everybody was integrated and rounded in such a way as to take account of the individual needs of everybody. This would actually help to personalize all administration so that we got beyond disintegrated categories right down to the human level." (ibid. p. 276)
It is not only important to restructure these systems but also to develop progressively better ways to assist individuals to understand the complex processes of the social system which they attempt to handle -- this is essential to improve decision-making, increase the number of variables which it takes into account, and increase the ability to control change through planning.
"But planning can have a different structural if not temporal, relationship from ordinary decision-making when we examine how planning might be related to a social system. Planning, instead of dealing with problems and their solutions, could deal with the design of social systems to produce systems less likely to generate problems." (Forrester, J.W. Planning under the dynamic influences of complex systems. In: Jantsch, E. (Ed.) Perspectives of Planning. Paris OECD, 1969, p.237)
"To explore the behavior of our social system we must combine the economic, the political, the psychological, and the technological. The system must characterize not only the conditions of the society as a whole but must also deal with how that society appears to the individual." (Ibid. p. 506)
It is only with this comprehensive integrative approach "re-uniting the many fragmented intellectual disciplines" that we can "begin creating understanding out of the present confusion."(Ibid 507). And it is with this approach that the available resources to tackle problems can be used more effectively.
"The hope for designing better systems lies in the existence of key influence points in complex systems where a small number of actions will radiate a desirable effect throughout the system." (Ibid 507).
The network approach lends itself to computer analysis which can detect such points where minimum resources can produce a maximum change. It also ensures the presence of institutional safeguards.
The rapidity of change is such that, even as multidisciplinary approaches become accepted and the significance of an organization's network of contacts is recognized, non-academic problems arise in the grey areas between the territory of different disciplines. Examples are comprehensibility, isolation of decision-makers, the effect of complexity on the public, institutional legitimacy and participation, privacy as a human right, impact of science on society, application of knowledge, urgency, etc. Single purpose structures and programmes such as those advocated for the UN are not adequate in this highly fluid situation.
Perhaps the most important reason for a highly general approach arises from the need to recognize the danger inherent in a developing problem situation. Problems are registered as having different degrees of importance by different groups. An organization or information system is needed to "contain" the process of problem detection. For, as parts of the crisis currently faced are detected -- to the point of becoming sufficient to act as a focus for private funds or, at a later stage, government action -- new organizations and information systems are created in response. The crises thus have decision-makers on the run with the continual need to replace inadequate structures.
By the time new structures are operational and careers are dedicated to them, they become a positive hindrance to the solution of the original problem which is then recognized to be dependent on other factors in the light of new understanding of the nature or ramifications of the total social crisis. This is an ongoing process, partly illustrated by a scientists metaphorical description of public understanding concerning the environment:
"First islands of anxiety about specific environmental ills -- like the redwoods, the rivers, or the slums -- rose from a sea of apathy; when they rose further, land appeared between them; we became aware that all these separate environmental issues were connected, all part of a single challenge to our civilization." (quoted in Fortune, February 1970, p. 91)
The error is to consider this process completed, unique or resulting in a final definition of the "single challenge". (A similar description could have been of development problems at the start of the First Development Decade.) Continuing the use of the metaphor, the environmental continent which has become apparent must be considered as one amongst a number of continents, each of which may be conceived of as an island emerging from a sea of ignorance concerning the complexity of the system of which we are a part. Each such set of islands gives rise to a further continent, and so on. It is this process which must be mastered with appropriate organization and information structures.
The situation is complicated because both new islands and new continents are detected by groups whose opinions are not initially accepted at the centres of power, or which have varying degrees of influence in those centres. Old islands and continents tend to be the focus of attention of groups which have succeeded in penetrating through to the centres of power. The structures required must allow for this process and attempt to resolve the conflicts to which it gives rise.
The danger arises when one island or continent is suddenly set up through political processes as the single challenge, or a number of such "single" challenges compete for resources and backing. The world system cannot afford to put all its eggs in one problem area in the hopes that this will prove to be the ultimate key to the totality of problems. A new or better definition of the problem does not justify a complete switch of resources. Although it may provide dramatic solutions to particular problems, it may jeopardize the process of finding and implementing solutions to new and related problems -- because of its very success.
The organization and information system should be structured to handle changing definitions of problems and problems requiring different strategies (e.g. different speeds of response) rather than fall victim to each new definition of a problem and the strategy required for its solution.
To restructure adequately the international development programmes, very close attention should be given to urban development programme achievements in highly complex environments like the U.S.A.. Many of the same problems exist at the planning and management levels -- many of the problems there may only become evident at the international level after a further increase in the complexity of international programmes, namely later in the Second Development Decade. The equivalent coordination problems at the national level have not been organized out of existence even with the greater cohesiveness of the national power structure. Is it likely that the same problems could be organized away at the international level? It may be the case that a number of the critical recommendations made in the Study could achieve administrative changes which, in the light of past experience in urban systems, would only have a slight effect on the problems they were intended to solve. At the end of the Decade (after 20 years of effort), the UN may be faced internationally with a situation similar to that of urban reform in the U.S.A. today:
"After two thirds of a century, the main stream of urban reform in America is faced with disenchantment. Part of the disenchantment comes from those who feel (wrongly) that no improvement has been made -- that cities and metropolitan areas are as dirty, ugly, congested, crime- and corruption-ridden, and as generally degraded as ever. Part comes from intellectuals, professionals, and liberals who no longer see a clear path to reform, for they are only aware of the pitfalls in past and present programs. Part comes from the black and the poor who feel that they have not benefited much from the vast public programs and expenditures. And part comes from the new opinion leaders of the young who reject the administered life, which they claim is a hallmark of twentieth century urban reform as well as of American society in general." (Meyerson, Martin. Urban Policy: Reforming Reform. Daedalus, Fall 196S, p. 1410).
The concepts, organizational structure and information systems required for effective advance must profit from the experience at local and national level, for they must also overcome the difficulties at such levels to handle adequately the international problems in the world of the future.
This implies a need for a more objective precise approach to all the fields of concern, organizations, and processes in the world system. The equipment is available to do this but not enough people to supply the general action-oriented systems background to use it in new ways to achieve the desired solutions -- nor the administrative channels through which they could work.
The UN needs to revitalize its conception of the organizational world within which it functions. Not only should it attempt to ensure proper reticulation of its own activities with those of other bodies, it should see this operational requirement as merging into a comprehensive educational programme to show all the different organizations, processes and subsystems as linked. Concentrating on a narrow conception of the UN system encourages and reinforces divisive thinking on the part of everyone thus mitigating against achievement of world peace -- to the extent that the solution to world peace lies in the minds of men.
At present no single organization acts as an effective focal point for examination of all problem areas. There is not even a central collecting point for all world problem descriptions. As a result nobody is in a position to think about them in broad enough terms, or even to be constantly reminded of the need for a more general approach to encompass the synergistic effect of their interaction. As in the case of the UN system of organizations -- no one knows. And again, no one knows how many organizations there are, what they do and how they are related to one another. Yet it is this organizational network which absorbs the energies of millions of individuals and stabilizes the world system.
And in a situation where
"...advances in a technological society are marked by growing complexity and accelerating rates of change. The manager is in an environment which is becoming increasingly complicated and is changing more quickly. His decisions tend to involve a growing number of relevant factors, while the interrelationships between them become more numerous and tangled." (Tricker, R.I. Towards the total system. Management Today. November 1969, pp. 110-118)
to know and be able to contact the organizations operating in the world system is an absolute minimum basis for a management information system.
The absence of organization information has a further consequence. In the current debate about the need for social indications to give a picture of the state of society (as a complement to the widely accepted economic indicators), this lack precludes the possibility of using a measure of the number of person-person, person-organization, or organization-organization links as social indicators. Each gives a different measure of the complexity, degree of integration or even sophistication of the society.
The fact that the interaction between disciplines and organizations concerned with fragments of problems is so low, means that man is beaten in the face of the web- or hydra-like nature of the total problem situation -- but only if the traditional approaches continue to be adopted. New management techniques are required to elaborate reticulated strategies which would complement and reinforce one another in a manner which could lead to effective control of webs of interacting problems.
These and other problems of resistance to change should be accepted as important factors around which proposals for change must be designed. It is not sufficient to design a system and then hope ("One must continue to hope that one day the rich nations..." I. p.14) that resistance will not counteract its effectiveness. It has not yet been proved that more highly integrated, multi-purpose, low volume, low cost data banks focussed on the minimum critical management information cannot be created to avoid and even counteract many of the factors opposing effective change, by building the presence of such resistance into the system in order to get a realistic overall picture which could simultaneously act as a stimulus to the needed integrative research.
We need an information system which will enable us to detect weak points in the network of interacting problems, and in the network of organizations with which we attempt to combat them, but which will also point out opportunities systematically (with the aid of American systems analysis and Russian cybernetics) for more dramatic change with the same or fewer resources. In other words, we want to be informed of new strategies which will have a multiplier effect on the value of the resources available. This could be achieved if the problems and organizations were treated in the information system as networks -- and not as a reflection of administrative thinking which it is admitted does not correspond to the best that is available.
We do not yet have a sufficiently clear action-oriented picture of the world system. We need one quickly before, or whilst, we start tinkering with subsystems. Action under present conditions is either a waste of resources ($ 1000 million of aid "wasted" in 1968 due to "lack of coordination" according to O.E.C.D.) or may well lead to disaster (e.g. pollution). As Matthew Arnold said a hundred years ago "What if our urgent work now is, not to act at any vice, but rather to lay in a stock of light for our difficulties?" -- whilst we still have some time.
We cannot afford to be satisfied with the traditional relationship between different groups in the decision-making process faced with a situation in which:
"...the world is becoming so complex and changing so rapidly and dangerously and the need for anticipating problems is so great, that we may be tempted to sacrifice (or may not be able to afford) democratic political processes." (Kahn, H. and Wiener, J. Faustian powers and human choices: some 21st century technological and economic issues. In: Ewald, Jr. W.R. (Ed.) Environment and change: the next fifty years. Indiana University Press, 1968)
New approaches are required quickly for we are faced with the "law" enunciated by Yehezkel Dror (Rand Corporation):
"While the difficulties and dangers of problems tend to increase at a geometric rate, the knowledge and manpower qualified to deal with these problems tend to increase at an arithmetic rate." (Prolegomenon to Policy Sciences: From Muddling through to Meta-Policymaking. Paper presented at a symposium on policy sciences at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting, Boston, 1969).
The current political impracticability of any meaningful world government should not preclude creation of the needed organizational structures and broad-based, multipurpose information systems to provide management information in a form which multidisciplinary problem and resource management would require if global strategies were not fragmented in terms of single-discipline, single-mission, single-jurisdiction, single-nation or short-term political criteria with little sensitivity to second and third-order consequences. Adequate presentation of such information should encourage the process of "self-coordination" on the part of bodies which select and define the problem areas they evaluate as critical within a particular management context. "Self-coordination" represents a step towards grass-roots planetary management without the traditionally impossible precondition of political and formalized coordination and the associated, possibly un-democratic, lack of sensitivity to non-political bodies. All factors -- both political and non-political -- relevant to the control of change need to be juxtapositioned within compatible conceptual frameworks and rapid-response information processing systems. The basic minimum information of this type is that or what bodies are doing what, where and when -- it is this which should structure data describing other features of the world system.
For further updates on this site, subscribe here