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1976

World Problem Networks

as perceived by international organization networks

- / -


Paper presented on behalf of Mankind 2000 and the Union of International Associations to the 5th World Future Studies Conference (Dubrovnik, 1976) of the World Futures Studies Federation. Published in: World Alternatives -- Systems versus Needs: Future of education, Education towards the future. Rome WFSF, vol. 1, pp. 92-99

Abstract

Brief report of the first results of an ongoing project which has so far registered some 2653 world problems and 13,574 relationships between them. This network is related to 12 other series relevant to the alleviation or comprehension of world problems, including : international organizations, treaties, disciplines, values, interdisciplinary concepts, and human development concepts. Current totals are : 12 ,763 entries, 20,022 intra-series relationships, and 10,433 inter-series relationships. The general objectives of the project are considered as well as the specificobjectives for the world problems section. This is followedby a summary of the results, approach used, and difficulties encountered. The information arising fromthis project is published from computer files in the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential. The paper refers to sections of that publication for more extensive examination of the points raised.

Introduction

The project, known as the World Problems Project, was initiated in Brussels in 1972 as a joint project of the Union of International Associations and Mankind 2000. For the UIA (founded in 1910), it is a logical extension of its functions as 8 clearinghouse for information on the networks of international agencies and associations and their preoccupations in every field of activity. For Mankind 2000 (founded 1964), initiator of the series of International Futures Research Conferences, it is ameans of bringing, into focus its prime concern with the place and development of the human being in the emerging world society. Both are transnational, non-profit associations.

The project is conceived as an on joing process to clarify the representation of the following interlinked networks :

Both the relationships of itomc within these series and between these seriesare identified where possible and relevant. This information on computer files is used to produce the 1000-page Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential (Union of Inter-national Associations /Mankind 2000, 1976). The Yearbook is then used as a means of obtaining feedback to improve the representation of the networks represented therein.

Objectives of the project

  1. Identify information items and series which help to clarify the nature of (a) all perceived world problems, both individually and as a complex of interlinked networks, (b) the different kinds of intellectual, organizational and other resources which can be brought to bear on such problems, both individually an? as a totality, (c) the values in the light of wich the problems are perceived and any action is initiated, and (d) the concepts and processes of human development considered to be the ultimate justification of any human actionand which, assuch, both generate world problems and are frustrated by then.
  2. Establish a framework for such items of Information concerning the world social system (particularly those conventionally perceived as being incommensurable or essentially unrelated), in such a way as to permit now items to be registered, if or when they arerecognized, together with any relationships between such. items.
  3. Demonstrate the consequences of tolerating a larger number of information items in a series than isconventionally favoured without regrouping (e.g. 100 to 5,000 items rather than 1 to 50).
  4. Collect and process sufficient information in each of the different information series to demonstrate the nature of this approach and to determine ist viability.
  5. Initiate a process to obtain further information and update the collected information by periodically providing a product which, can be widely distributed to those providing and using such information, be constructively criticized, and used to improve the organized response to world problems. The design and utility of the product, as a vehicle for the information contained, should be such as to ensurethat by its sale it could ensure the financial viability and independence of the project as a continuing exercise.
  6. Experiment with different forms of collaboration between organizations interested in developing particular features of the project or in improving the process by which new perceptions are identified and incorporated.
  7. Demonstrate the extent of the interreletedness of the items of information included and the importance of the possibility of analyzing such information as interlinked networks rather than as isolated items.
  8. Experiment with different methods of processing and displaying the information on complex interlinked networks in order to facilitate their comprehension and an understanding of their mutual significance.
  9. Experiment with different forms of classifying and regrouping the items registered, whilst at the same time ensuring a relationship to existing systems of classification, wheresuch exist.
  10. Establish a flexible computor-based system to facilitate the achievement of the above objectives (including the periodic production of a saleable product)
  11. Determine the nature and quality (a) of the product which can be produced in fulfilliment of these objectives and in the light of a variety of constraints, and (b) of the process which can bo initiated to eliminate defects progressively, despite such constraints.
  12. Determine the extent to which such a process could help to constitute a stabilizing element in the shifting world of images concerning world problems, resources of various kinds, and their interrelationships.

The project is therefore an exercise in the development of a framework and a procedure to obtain, handle and interrelate diverse, and seemingly incompatible, categories of information. As such it is a bridging exercise between those domains, whether governmental or not, primarily concerned with : problem detection, research, policy formulation, organizational development, remedial programme action, educational re-presentation of problem information, and public information on action programmes against problems.

The constraints considered significant in both determining and justifying the above objectives include :

1. The difficulty of achieving any degree of intellectual consensus on matters of concern to more than one discipline or school of thought.

2. The difficulty of achieving any for" of action-oriented consensus on matters touching the concerns ofdifferent nations, ideologies or cultures.

3. The difficulty of assembly and processing the large amount of relevant information on factors significant to any overview of the problems of the world and the resources which can be brought to bear upon them.

4.The difficulty of mobilizing the necessary financial resources and skilled personnel to undertake such a task, given that it is neither within the mandate of any official body nor legitimated by any academic perspective.

Objectives of World Problems Section

1. Identify a complete range of world problems, as rioted in internationallydistributed publications or cited in international debate, as a preliminary to determining their relationship to one another and to entries in other information series considered relevant.

2. Provide sufficient description of each problem, on the basis of published documents, in order to give and understanding of its nature, incidence, and the claims (and counter-claims) made for its importance.

3. Provide a context for information on world problems of an essentially different and frequently non-interacting nature, without excluding those problems which are not recognized by some intergovernmental organization or which tend to be prejudged as irrelevant.

4. Identify relationships between the problems included in order to gain some understanding of the complexity of the network of world problems and as a preliminary to producing maps of such networks.

5. Identify relationships between the problems included and entries in other series as a preliminary (a) to predicting the recognition of new problems (9.9. occupation- related. commodity-related. industry-related. etc) and (b) to obtaining some understanding of the degree of mismatch between the network of problems and the networks of international organizations, treaties and disciplines which attempt to contain the problems.

6. Experiment with classifications of world problems according to different schemes.

7. Experiment with ways of grouping problems, within some hierarchy of problems, in order to avoid the need to consider problems at a level of detail greates than necessary (e.g. a problem category rather than the multitude of component problems), as determined by the specificity of relationships to other problems and to entries in other information series.

Method and Definition

The original stimulus for this project was that there appeared to be no widely accepted definition of a "world problem", and no indication of how many there were and of what kind. In order to build up as comprehensive a data base as possible, the criteria for problem inclusion and exclusion were initially kept to a minimum. The emphasis during the selection procedure was not on whether adequate proof existed that a problem was a valid and significant one according to some objective standard. The emphasis was rather on including those "problems" which wellestablished international constituencies indicated as significant in terms of their own frame of reference, whether or not the validity of the problem is challenged by the perspective from some other frame of reference. In effect, all problems were sought which were identified by some functionally significant collectivity which manifests itself in some way at the international level (whether as an organization or through self-selected spokesmen).

This open-ended approach permits the registration of all the problems perceived as real whether or not, as Stafford Beer suggests (1970), most of the problems with which society believes it is faced are bogus problems generated by theories about social progress and the way society works. The existence of information questioning the validity of a perceived problem is therefore treated as information about that problem (in a "counterargument" subsection or the description).

In order to simplify the task, the problems registered had to be cited in published documents. preferably those arising through the work of international organizations. Responses to a questionnaire to international organizations were used only as an indication of the existence of a problem for which published documents were required. The Union of International Associations receives much material of this type in connection with the production of its various reference works, including the Yearbook of International Organizations (1976).

Criteria were progressively elaborated to reduce the inclusion, in this first round, of very detailed problems which were nested within other problems. In other words, when a distinct hierarchy of problems is as encountered, suitable cutoff points were selected within the hierarchy below which more detailed problems were not considered (although they might be cross- referenced, without establishing a separate entry).

This approach led to the elaboration of : (a) a list of tentative positive definitions as a guideline for problem identification ; (b) a list of general criteria for inclusion of problems identified; (c) a more specific set of criteria for the exclusion of certain kinds of problem. The latter relate mainly to operational problems, or problems which are handled and solved as part of the normal procedure of some organization or discipline.

The relationships between problems were also registered on the basis of information present in the available documents. In the case of both the problems and their relationships. the aim was to clarify the extent of the problem domain to the point at which the defects in the presentation of any particular area would be fairly readily apparent to the bodies concerned with that area. In this way the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential is designed to serve as a stimulus for critical feedback to improve the representation of the networks it attempts to identify.

Preliminary Quantitative Results

The accompanying table summarizes information on the number of entries in each series, the number of intra-series relationships, and the number of interseries relationships. Figures given are for relationships, but where these do not correspond to the total expressed as a relationship pair (rather than a crossreference), the totals have been given in brackets.

The intra-series relationships of the "functional" type, in the case of the world problems, were composed of relationships of problems to :

As the first results of an ongoing exercise, these figures are of course only indicative of the kinds of numbers which are being encountered. In particular, a further process is required to eliminate inconsistencies in the pattern of relationships. These may arise when functional relationships between problem hierarchies are registered from different points in the hierarchies leading either to gaps or unnecessary duplications. Also since cross-references were included to problems for which no separate entry was established, where several such crossreferences exist to the same unregistered entry this would tend to justify including the problem as a new entry. This clarification is however seen as an integral part of the further development of the project. Some much difficulties are natural to the whole process by which new problems and relationships are perceived under different names and penetrate slowly through the knowledge system to collecting points where inconsistencies may become apparent.

It is important to note that because it is not necessary to be able to define a problem or its relationships in quantitative terms, many loosely defined "soft" problems can be included and related to the more conventional "hard" problems. Particular attention was given to such soft psycho-social problems where encountered, since in many cases they may prevent remedial action on "hard" problems.

No data is available on problems by category because no attempt was made in this first phase to develop a classification scheme for the problems. The main reason being that it confused two operations : the administrative one of filing the problems and their relationships, and the subsequent intellectual one of experimenting with a variety of classification schemes. Many of the more interesting problems are multi-faceted and do not lend themselves to simplistic classification.


Table 1.

SERIES CODE

A

C

D

F

H

J

K

M

P

R

S

T

V

TOTAL

ENTRIES

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

incorporated

3300

241

1845

132

228

428

421

606

2653

77

1197

931

701

12763

cross referenced

-

-

-

-

-

311

-

-

4791

698

-

-

-

5800

TOTAL

3300

241

1845

132

228

739

421

606

7444

775

1197

931

701

18563

INTRA-SERIES RELATIONSHIPS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hierarchical

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

* contextual

625

235

1417

.

.

.

. .

5013

-

. . . .

* component

752

235

1417

157

.

535

. .

6612

698

. . . .

* associated

790

-

983

-

.

-

. .

554

-

. . . .

Functional

881

-

-

-

.

-

. .

6408

-

. . . .
TOTAL

(2423)

(235)

(2400)

(157)

.

(535)

. .

(13574)

(698)

. . .

(20022)

INTER-SERIES RELATIONSHIPS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A International organizations

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

C Traded commodities

203

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

D Intellectual disciplines

478

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

E Economic sectors

109

516

.

. . . . . . . . . . .

H Human development concepts

22

-

22

-

. . . . . . . . . .

3 Occupations, professions.

1284

-

572

89

-

-

. . . . . . . .

K Integrative, interdisciplinary

48

-

54

-

7

-

. . . . . . . .

H Multinational corporations

-

480

-

-

-

-

. . . . . . . .

P World problems

1036

122

1282

39

-

-

-

. . . . . . .

Q Human diseases

91

-

-

-

-

-

.

197

. . . . .

S International periodicals

193

-

1440

-

-

-

-

-

151

-

. . . .

T Multilateral treaties

536

27

-

13

-

46

-

-

227

.

.

. . .

U Human values

614

-

-

-

37

-

47

-

353

-

83

. .

TOTAL

4614

1348

3848

766

88

1991

156

480

3407

288

1784

932

1134

(10433)

TOTAL RELATIONSHIPS

(7037)

(1583)

(6248)

(923)

88

(2526)

156

480

(15981)

(996)

1784

932

1134

(30455)

Structural analysis

The major concern is this project is to portray Information on items and their relationships in a form which enables those directly concerned to improve the quality of the representation of the networks which they perceive. In this may the data held will lend itself to progressively moreuseful forms of structural ana|ysis using graph theory and possibly to more general analysis based on topology. The letter is particularly desirable sinceit should permit characteristics of networks and subnetworks to be studied as totalities. Very little work appears to have been done in this area in the social sciences, possibly because an adequate body ofdata has hitherto been lacking.

An immediate concern is therefore to use the available data on Computer tape to see what form at structural analysis can byapplied to it and. what kinds of results emerge. For example, it should prove useful to conduct computer comparisons of the degree of isomorphism of a network of interrelated problems and the corresponding network of organizations (or treaties, etc) which purport tofocus on them. If the functional interlinkages, particularly communications channels, of the latter do not correspond to the linkages (or degree of structural complexity) of the problems, then it is probable that that problem complex is uncontained, and uncontainable, by the programmes of the agencies as they are currently implemented. Such analysis should help to drewattention to possible logical inconsistencies, duplications or omissions in the pattern of relationships currently registered. It should elselead to the identification of types of networks and a "network vocabulary", (For a more detailed discussion and references, see UIA/Mankind 2000, 1976, Appendix 5)

Mapping

Alee of concern is the development of programmes to select and prepare the available date for plotting in map form under computer control. Such maps of networks of problems, and/or the networks of organizations, treaties, etc. concerned with t___, maywell provide a unique opportunity for obtaining a detailed overview of such networks to facilitate comprehension of the complexity which they represent. Such maps (perhaps bound into "atlases") could Be of value in detecting the emergence of further problems, in researcn, in education, and in a policy-making environment. They would be of value to problemfocused remedial programmes whore any given action may haveindirect negative consequences. Clearly it is also the use of such mapeby such bodies (049. as a mooting aid) which will lead to rapid feedback on any inadequacy in the representation of the networks portrayed. (For a more detailed discussion and references, see UIA/Mankind 2000, 1976, Appendix 7)

Structural exploration

The availability of data on computer tape opens up the possibility of using interactive graphics devices with 4CRT tube in order to portray networks and experiment with their exploration. This approach has been successfully used as a research aid in structural design and representation of chemical structures, where there ere problems of Comprehending a relatively large number of structural relationships in their totality. It does not appear to have been explored inthe social sciences. (For a more detailed discussion and references, see UIA/Mankind 2000, 1976, Appendix 6).

Comment

It is not possible to do more then note very briefly the points which emerged fromthe process of registering problems identified in the documents of international and other bodies. These include I

  1. Overwhelming general desire to conclude that there are only a limited number of major problems, associated with an inability to recognize that the number of problems, recognized night be greater then 10 (or occasionally 50). Great emphasis is placed on naming "the most important problem" or problems.
  2. Absence of consensus concerning the relative importance of problems, or concerning the existence of many of them. most problems have supporters wich consider their problem to be (among) the most importent.
  3. Inability to recognize the nature and number of acknowledged relationships between problems.
  4. Inability to recognize the consequences Of the resulting complexity for ability to comprehend the network of problems in an adequate manner.
  5. Lack of clarity or consensus on the m___er in chick problems could be disaggregated into subproblems.
  6. Reluctance to focus on problems rather then goals, values, solutions or programmsaction.
  7. Reluctance to accept that problems may be examined independently ofthe concerns of a particular institution or perspective.
  8. Reluctance to accept that problems can usefully bo considered as wille-defined entities which can be conceived as embedded in networks of well-defined relationships.
  9. Assumption that sufficient information is already available on problems and their relationships.
  10. Considerable lack of precision in thinking about, identifying, and naming problems (to the point that values, goals and problems are frequently confused, e.g. in the case of "peace").
  11. Tendency for problems to be disguised, neutralized or denatured by their treatment :as agenda items in meetings, as programme/budget items in organizations, as symbols in public information programmes, as events in news media, 89 legal violations, as subjects in information systems, or as intellectual puzzles associated with theoretical problems by the research community.

Points raised

Some interesting questions that emerged during the course of work on this project include :

  1. Hou can networks of relationships be analyzed systematically as networks to determine what are the most important focal points for action, and what different meanings could then be attached to "importance"?
  2. How can comprehension of complexity be improved without artificially forcing relationships into (definitive) hierarchical linkages
  3. Might it not be useful to investigate the result of using the mathematical technique to convert relationships between points into points in a networks ? Useful insights may then emerge from being able to switch between the perception of problems as linked in a network of relationships and the perception of problems as relationships which intersect at certain points.
  4. Given that the number, variety and relationships of human diseases, and the nature of theireffects on theindividual arenow wellunderstood, do they not suggest ways for organizing thought about the range and variety of psychosocial problems and their impact on the psycho-social system ?
  5. Is it as ecologically inappropriate to ask the question "What arethe five most important problems (organizations etc) in the social system" as it is to ask the question "What are the five most important animals (plants, etc.) in the natural environment" ?
  6. Can the relationships between problems (or between organizations) bo usefully conceived as analogous to the food chains and trophic levelswithin which animals are embedded ? Does this help to suggest why different kinds of problems emerge as being of major importance at different times ? How might the evolution of problems and problem systems be conceived in this light ?
  7. From what is the stability of a "problem ecosystem" (as it might emerge from the previous point) derived ? Is it useful to distinguish between degrees of (negative) maturity of problem ecosystems and to attempt to determina the amount of energy required to maintain them ? Is anything suggested for better understanding of problem systems by the fact that a highly diversified ecosystem has the capacity for carrying a high amount of organization and information and requires relatively little energy to maintain it, whereas, conversely, the lower the maturity of the system, the less the energy required to disrupt it (as emphasized by R. Margalef, 1969 ? Thus anything that keeps an ecosystem oscillating (or "spastic"), retains it in a state of low maturity, whence the oossible danger of simplistic reorganization of organizational, conceptual or value systems. Is the problem of understanding and organizing the maturation of natural ecosystems of a similar form to that of understanding and organizing the disruption of problem ecosystems ?
  8. Given the absence of sufficient comparable information to produce sensitive, widely-acceptable, quantitative world models covering all aspects of the psycho-social system, to what extent can increasing the number and variety of non-quantitativerelationships and entities documented leadto valuable insights of greater acceptability ? In other words, to what extent can knowing lessabout mare (and organizing that knowledge) compensate for not being able to know more about less ? Can any relationships be established between the amount of information, the type (quantitative, structured or unstructured, qualitative), the manner of representation, and its degree of acceptability ?
  9. To what extent is the complexity of the problemsystem with which humanity is faced greater than that which its organizational and intellectual resources are capable of handling ? Worse, is there a widespread unacknowledged preference for simplifying the representation of complex problem (and other) systems down to less than 10 elements sothat they lend themselves to easy debate in public and in a policy-making environment (as might be suggested by some of the work of communication psychologist George Miller) ? Are organizational and conceptual resources then marshalled and structured to match the problem system as simplified rather than to handle it in its more dangerous complexity, thus running the (unacknowledged) risk of leaving the problem uncontained and uncontainable by the resources available ? Does this suggest a corollary to Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety which might read :That any attempt to control a psycho-social system with a control system of less complexity (i.e. of less variety) than that of the psychosocial system itself can only be made to succeed by suppressing or ignoring the variety (i.e. reducing the diversity) in the psycho-social system so that it is less than the relative simplicity of the control system ?

References

Stafford Beer. "Managing Modern Complexity". In The Management of Information and Knowledge. Washington DC, Committee on Science and Astronautics, US House of Representatives, 1970, 41-62.

R Margalef. "On Certain Unifying Principles in Ecology" In A S Boughey (ed), ContenporaryReadings in Ecology. Belmont, Dickenson. 1969

George Miller. "The Magical Number Seven, plus or minus two; some limitations on our capacity for processing information. In The Psychology of Communication. Basic Books, 1967.

Union of International Associations. Yearbook of International Organizations. Brussels, UIA, 1976, 16th edition.

Union of International Associations/Mankind 2000. Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential. Brussels, UIA/ Mankind 2000, 1976. (Title changed from 2nd edition to Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential)

N.B. Complete lists of references relating to different aspects of the project described here are included in the last publication cited above.

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