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Configuring Relationships between World Problems and Cognitive Resources

Challenges of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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Abstract of a paper for presentation to Universal Knowledge Tools Conference (Toronto, 8-10 June 1995) of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)


Much effort has gone into the focus on seemingly isolated world problems, such as unemployment, boredom, endangered species, desertification or corruption. Work on the newly published Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential has now shifted its focus to the hunt for vicious cycles of problems. A cycle is a chain of problems, with each aggravating the next --with the last looping back to aggravate the first in the chain. The more obvious loops may be composed of only 3 or 4 problems. 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.

Such cycles are vicious because they are self-sustaining. Identifying them is also no easy matter. Like the search for strange particles in physics, much computer time is required to track through the aggravating chains linking problems. A preliminary search along 9 million such pathways has so far identified some 19,000 cycles composed of up to 7 problems.

Organizational strategies and programmes that focus on only one problem in the chain tend to fail because the cycle has the capacity to regenerate itself. Worse still is that such cycles tend to interlock, creating the complex of global problems which causes so many to despair. The good news is that identifying vicious cycles is a first step towards designing strategies to reverse or break them. Better still some problems are linked by serendipitous cycles in which each problem alleviates the next.

The long-term database programme, from which the Encyclopedia is periodically generated, currently aims to interrelate databases on: perceived world problems (ca 13,000), organizational strategies (ca 15,000), constructive and destructive human values (ca 5,000), international organizations (ca. 20,000), understandings of human development (ca. 4,000). In each case specific relationships are registered between the elements of each database (eg 120,000 linking world problems) and with other databases.

This paper focuses on two complementary challenges in response to this mass of data. The first concerns new approaches toconfiguring patterns of linkages between conceptual entities in order to highlight higher levels of ordering, notably by mapping loops onto surfaces with interesting symmetry and other properties, as with a sphere. The second concerns the potential of new metaphors for governance, as an unexplored resource through which to comprehend and act on such complexity. The suggestion is made that many institutions and policies are trapped in inadequate policy metaphors.

Most initiatives focus only on positive, sanitized aspects of society, presenting an idealized worldview that denies the shadow of humanity. In this approach an effort is made to juxtapose, if not to integrate, conflicting perceptions which characterize the dynamics of society. The challenge of interdisciplinarity is seen as one of creating new frames for inherently incompatible perceptions, using the more sophisticated resources of mathematics and the arts (including poetics) to pattern their relationships.

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