Mapping World Problems
a technique illustrated by relations between IGOs and
particularly for the case of the United Nations system
- / -
Previously published in International Associations
pp. 414-417 [PDF version
]. In 1971 the Union of International Associations did a preliminary
study to establish the feasibility of producing a comprehensive map of world problems.
From August 1972, in association with Mankind 2000, it worked on the preparation
of a Yearbook of World Problems
to describe and interrelate the, possibly several thousand, problems which are
the concern of different international bodies. The following text accompanied
the announcement of this.
It is becoming widely accepted that world problems do not exist in isolation
from one another. They are linked together in complex networks of causeeffect
relationships. Social problems contribute to economic problems which both interact
with education problems, health problems and agricultural problems. We have
not yet begun to understand all these interlinkages. The Club of Rome sponsored
study (See : Quo Vadis UNO ?, International Associations, 1971, 10) at
M.l.T. under Dennis Meadows attempted to study some key relationships using
computer techniques. This project has sparked off much enthusiasm and further
projects (A new body is being created in Paris called the Institute for Systemic
Analysis) - but it has also given rise to much countercriticism. The situation
is not clear, but whatever the outcome there is a consenus that we need to be
able to look at networks of problems. The following paragraphs describe a very
symple technique for clarifying one's own perception of any network of problems
with which one is concerned.
Any executive faced
with a maze of
problems in his organization's environment can usually, note down 510 key problems. If asked, he
usually show some of these problems
are dependent upon other problems - but beyond that point the
becomes unprofitable because the
situation gets too complex and it is not
clear how he could usefully display
the interrelationships in a manner
which he and his colleagues can
It was precisely this difficulty that faced the Union of International Associations
in preparing for its Seminar on the Philosophy of International Nongovernmental
Organization (Milan, 17-19 May, 1972) in attempting to show the linkages between
all the different issues surrounding the current crises in the relations between
IGOs and NGOs.
At first an effort
was made to note
down all the problems in boxes on a
large sheet of paper and draw in the
cause-effect arrows between them.
This proved totally impracticable because there were too many groups of
linked problems and no satisfactory
means of juggling them all into position on one satisfactory diagram. This
approach was therefore abandoned,
except as a useful way of looking at
groups of closely related problems
in a comprehensive manner.
The method finally adopted was to :
1. Note down each problem on a separate card (12 x 8 cm);
2. Number each card in sequential order (in the UIA case it was from 1-88
marked in the upper left hand corner of the card);
3. Use the same identifying numbers to label the linked problem boxes on
the sketches prepared in the preliminary attempt.
4. Mark the linkages (identified in the preliminary attempt) between the
problem boxes into the set of cards.
- the numbers of the problems which the problem-on-the-card causes or aggravates,
namely outgoing links, are clearly marked (in the UIA case, in the bottom
right hand corner of the card in question)
- the numbers of the problems giving rise to or aggravating the problemon-the-card,
namely incoming links, are clearly marked (in the UIA case, in
the bottom left-hand corner of the card in question). Any new linkages
between two problems can of course be marked in at any time.
5.The object is then to sort out the cards in a manner which groups
closely related problems together. There may well be a space limitation (e.g.
getting the complete problem map onto double-folio) which will govern : a)
the size of boxes to be allocated to the text on each card, b) ,the number
of columns of boxes c) the number of rows of boxes. The sorting operation
is a matter of time, patience and successive approximation to a best fit.
6. Once the cards are sorted, the text on the cards can be typed onto a sheet
with columns of empty boxes already drawn for all the problems. The number
of the problem should also be typed in (from the upper left hand corner in
the UIA case).
7. Arrowed lines can now be drawn between each numbered problem box on the
basis of the other numbers on the cards, indicating to which problems it is
linked (i.e. in the UIA case, the numbers from the tower lelt and right hand
corners of the cards). These are the inter-problem linkages. The numbers in
the boxes may now be erased. The above procedure gives a comprehensive map
of all the problems and their interlinkages. Inspection of the finished map
however may suggest other linkages which should also be drawn in.
Preparation of the
problem map in this
way may over-emphasize some problems at the expense of others. To
compensate, it is of course possible
to look at a particular problem and
decompose it into subproblems (i.e.
replace one box by several interlinked
as a system), or alternatively to combine several into one.
The map below is the result of the UIA exercise at looking at many of the problems
touching on the relationship between IGOs and NGOs. This map was originally
started with a view to inclusion in: Anthony Judge and Kjell Skjelsbaek. International
nongovernmental organizations and theirs functions. In: A.J.R. Groom and
Paul Taylor (Eds.) Functionalism; theory and practice in international relations.
London, University of London Press, 1973.
The boxes are grouped together into problem sub-systems whose boundaries could
have been marked by dotted lines. This was not done because it increased the
visual complexity of the flow-chart in this case. An attempt was made to have
the fundamental causes in the top left hand corner, and the final results in
the bottom right hand corner.
Experimental map of world problems
A map or flow-chart of this kind does serve to show the degree of interlinkage
of problems normally treated in isolation. For those interested in the use of
computers, there is no reason why this sort of approach should not be developed
to look at very complex networks of problems and produce the maps automatically.
The map is a reminder to those who wish to focus on a particular part of the
whole system that their actions affect other parts, either aggravating other
problems or resulting (feedback) in a magnification of the difficulties in the
area with they are concerned. (This was a principle conclusion of the Club of
Rome study). Once a study of this kind is completed the key question is do the
lines of communication and information flow between the departments and organizations
responsible for each group of problems match the pattern linkages between the
It is appropriate to quote (once more) Stafford Bear's adaptation of Le Chatelier's
Principle to social systems :
Reformers, critics of institutions, consultants in innovation, people in
short who 'want to get something done', often fail to see this point. They
cannot understand why their strictures, advice or demands do not result in
effective change. They expect either to achieve a measure of success in their
own terms or to be flung off the premises. But an ultrastable system (like
a social institution)... has no need to react in either of these ways. It
specializes in equilibrial readjustment, which is to the observer a secret
form of change requiring no actual alteration in the macro-systemic characteristics
that he is trying to do something about . ( Stafford Beer. The cybernetic
cytoblast management itself. Chairman's Address to the International Cybernetics
Congress, September 1969.)
N.B. For use of a similar approach to
identify problem hierarchies, see : J. Christopher Jones. Design
Methods. Wiley-lnterscience, 1970, pp. 350-355.
Advances in information, communication, and computer capability, advances
in our ability to coordinate, etc., are useless, if not properly mobilized.
Consider the problem of poverty among minority groups. Our nation is committed
and is likely to remain committed to reducing poverty. We do not know how
to approach solving the problem without creating other undesirable conditions
in the process. Our government comes at a problem, like minority group poverty,
from many directions : some officials are convinced that all that is necessary
is to stimulate economic growth, others call for better education, still others
advocate a direct transfer of income, and of welfare. This is much like many
blind men feeling parts of an elephant and then being asked to describe it.
The man who describes a trunk is as right as the man who describes a leg both
are partially right. Division of problems into subproblems without knowing
their over all dimensions hardly ever contributes to a situation. But, it
is precisely this division into subproblems that must be achieved, however
badly, if an organization is to effectively pursue an objective or execute
a program. Without knowing the structure of a problem, it is difficult, if
not impossible, to efficiently design solutions or government organization.
(Crecine and Brunner. In: Information Technology; some critical implications
for decision makers. New York, The Conference Board, 1972, p. 178.)