lst June 2007
Celebrating the Institutional Century of the UIA (1907-2007)
Senility, immortality or
This text has been distributed as a press release on 1st June 2007,
the occasion of the centenary of the creation of the UIA in its earlier
form as as the Central Office of International Associations in Brussels.
The document is structured so that paragraphs can be readily cut for particular
uses and length requirements.
Background information is able through the links and the end of the document.
[see also automatic (approximate) translations into French,
German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish]
Summary: Discusses the original vision of
a century-old "Union of International Associations" and the nature
and challenges of institutional
aging in general, using the UIA as model of many such international initiatives.
Points to some of the "secrets" of UIA longevity and viability before
raising questions as to its identity and how it can
be understood to "exist". The challenges it
faces -- common to many elderly bodies facing an institutional Apocalypse
in a chaotic 21st century -- are highlighted in order to point to possibilities of
its "reincarnation" through four complementary initiatives consistent
with the original vision. These are also described separately as a Union
of Imaginative Associations, a Cognitive
Fusion Reactor (ITER-8), a University
of Earth, and a Union of the Whys.
A century ago, on 1st June 1907, three pioneers of international
organization created the Central Office of International Associations in
Brussels with some 20 international associations as members. This was transformed
in 1910 into a Union
of International Associations (UIA) -- extraordinarily daring imaginative
acts at the early beginnings of what is now an international community of
thousands of governmental and nongovernmental bodies. The Belgian co-founders
Otlet (1868-1944), Henri
La Fontaine (1854-1943) and Cyrille Van Overbergh.
Otlet was closely associated with the international development of the bibliographical
sciences of classification, notably the Universal
Decimal Classification. La Fontaine was awarded the
Nobel Peace prize in 1913, and was later to be closely associated with the
development of the League of Nations and the precursor of UNESCO.
Otlet, subsequently described as the "man who wanted to
classify the world," is now recognized by historians as having been
an early visionary of what the world wide web was to become. In the pre-computer
era, at the peak of his efforts prior to World War I,
Otlet had been responsible for the accumulation and classification of 11
million library file cards (many hand-written). In that period the UIA profiled,
with much substantive detail, all extant international organizations and
their activities in a voluminous Annuaire
de la Vie Internationale
As with any beloved relative -- and as a future prospect for
many of us -- how is it appropriate to hail the capacity of an institution
like the UIA to survive 100 years? It still exists. For decades it has
notably produced a Yearbook
of International Organizations: guide to global civil society networks whose
contents are also made available over the web, together with the interlinked
profiles of the International
Congress Calendar, the Who's
Who in International Organizations, and the Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential. These now constitute an
integrated set of 13 databases profiling entities such as organizations,
meetings, biographies, problems, strategies, and values.
Otlet's vision was to bring a degree of order to the multifarious
approaches to human and social development and their consequences for
the planet -- a presumptuously optimistic contribution to the possibility
of their "coordination".
He indeed had a dream. In developing beyond its initial bibliographical and
organizational focus, the UIA then continued to seek ways to recognize, honour
and represent the full spectrum of human initiatives and preoccupations manifesting
in an organized manner across national boundaries -- both in isolation and
within the complex networks of relationships between them. Otlet himself
addressed the challenge of the "problem
-- as a precursor to the subsequent concerns of many futurists.
Whatever one's belief, one can be enchanted by the improbable
variety of such institutional endeavours -- many as seemingly ill-adapted,
ridiculous and endangered as some animal species in nature. As containers
for human aspirations, many may be caricatured as identity vehicles for egos
-- wonderful (wo)men in their institutional flying machines -- to borrow
from a famous caricature of the early development of aircraft. From such
a perspective a body like the UIA may be seen as a model exemplifying the
challenges of institutional aging, raising questions that might well be asked
of much larger and better funded institutions that are becoming increasingly "long
in the tooth", perhaps even the United Nations -- itself negligent
of massacres, past and ongoing, that it was specifically designed to prevent?
What are the symptoms of institutional aging and when do they
tend to emerge? Do some age mentally whilst still apparently young? How
does loss of collective memory tend to manifest? How does an institution
cope with diminished vision, loss of hearing, or even impeded speech capacity
-- if these challenges are even acknowledged? Should some be seen
to need walking frames to ensure a degree of mobility? When is an institution
a cause for concern as a danger to itself, if not to others? Beyond the progressive
dependence on prosthetic devices, is it an organ transplant that may
be necessary to survival -- a heart, a head, or even a whole body transplant
-- especially after having been preserved "frozen" (cryogenically) or "moth-balled"
during an extended period of hubris? Is a form of senile dementia to be recognized,
especially when any coherence is a matter for pleasant surprise? When are
what forms of therapy appropriate -- whether remedial medication, or happy
pills -- and how are their advocates to be distinguished from purveyors of
snake oil potions? And in the final phases what provision is it appropriate
to make for hospice care or life support -- and how are the issues of dignity
and euthanasia to be addressed?
From a larger, long-term perspective, how do those associated
with the institution distinguish between the prospects of senility, immortality,
reincarnation and nothingness? What happens to the living spirit that
inspired the creation of the institution and the dedication of many to its
operation over decades? How is it to be understood as "moving on",
especially when many involved are focused desperately on "hanging on"?
As with elephants in the jungle, where do old organizations go to die?
For the UIA, upheld by some as a model organization, how well
does it model many worthy elderly institutions that are ill-adapted to the
future? Tragically there is the case of the UIA's "elder sibling",
Federation for Information and Documentation (FID), well-known
to librarians, that reached its centenary in 1995 but now only "exists" in
a comatose legal condition.
Over a chaotic century, marked by unique levels of conflict,
bloodshed and mismanagement -- very probably to be replicated in the
coming century -- how is the institutional and intellectual effectiveness
deployed through international institutions to be assessed? In that respect,
what might be the wider lessons of the successes and failures of a body
like the UIA with its focus on knowledge management? Are complacency and
optimism more appropriate attitudes rather than any expectation that younger
institutions might act more appropriately than their elders?
The UIA may indeed be said to have survived two world wars
that notably devastated institutional structures in Belgium. Support from
the Belgian government had however been withdrawn in 1934 leaving only an
essentially skeletal secretariat, dependent significantly on volunteers.
briefly attempted to use the UIA as a front. With the benefit of a legacy
from La Fontaine, it was then reconstituted in 1948 as an institute
-- thereafter achieving a measure of recognition from UN/ECOSOC with regard
to its profiling of organizations. It also survived the subsequent interplay,
notably in Europe, of the opposing socio-political ideologies of the Cold
War and that of the largely hidden conflict between Catholics and "free
thinkers" (freemasons). These were exemplified by their
honourable henchmen and veterans duly represented in the UIA statutory bodies,
presumably in some cases on behalf of the relevant intelligence agencies
attentive to its allegiance as a strageically placed gatherer of intelligence.
Formally it has benefitted from the special status accorded to international
associations under Belgian law. But what significance is to be attached to
the fact that its unpaid secretaries-general over many decades have been
retired Belgian ambassadors?
Belgium is of course the country of choice for such mutually
opposing shadowy forces to co-exist and flourish in surreal ambiguity --
protective over decades of a uniquely appropriate niche for an uncompromising
information clearinghouse on international phenomena. The UIA also survived
the familiar arrogance of intergovernmental officials and their destabilizing
programmes -- some to be ironically solicited as members of the UIA following
Management theorists have long debated the secrets of organizational
longevity. As asked of any relative of great age, what was the secret of
the UIA's success over many decades marked by a multitude of other organizational
failures and bankruptcies? In contrast to many bodies, the UIA has never
been an ideal recipient of programme funding. Its focus has been too uncompromisingly
international (rather than "field level"), interdisciplinary (rather
than sector or issue specific), and long-term (rather than matching the deliverable
requirements of short-term political budget cycles and fashions).
Perhaps the most obvious feature of its "secret" has been
a high-degree of long-term discipline, a method
dating from its early association with the sciences of classification
and knowledge organization. Necessarily matching this was an ability to attract
and inspire long-term staff, despite the
working conditions that are laughable to career professionals in
more conventional bodies. The attraction had much to do with the comprehensive
international, interdisciplinary preoccupations of its subject matter --
impossible within the highly fragmented programmes of academic, commercial
and intergovernmental bodies, especially when constrained by overt or covert
ideological agendas and financial performance.
However, to ensure viability the UIA was able to generate high-quality
reference tools that no other bodies could produce consistently at the price
-- despite the occasional destabilizing efforts of politically-motivated
projects. This professionalism has been marked by an unusual collaboration
over decades with one of the world's most prominent publishers of
reference books for the library market -- K
G Saur Verlag (Munich), variously
bought and sold by multinational corporations in the information business.
The professionalism was achieved by an early, and unusually high degree of
computerization to enhance the efforts of collaborators -- who never exceeded
some 20 in number. This capacity to make early use of emerging technologies,
from in-house networks to remote web servers, ensured a continuing competitive
advantage and credibility, notably with respect to web based visualization
of complex networks of organizations and their preoccupations.
Also vital to the survival of the UIA was the ability to manage
seemingly incommensurable priorities, whether those of scholars of international
relations, market researchers (notably in the international
conference industry), intergovernmental organizations challenged by international
associations -- or those of nonprofit associations of volunteers. These
interfaces, and the ability to "communicate in their languages", added
to its long-term reputation in the information sciences, more recently reframed
as knowledge management.
Symptomatic of these variegated competencies over the years
has been: the early Printing World Award of Her Majesty's Stationery
the most innovative application of computers to typesetting"; in-house
development of automatic translation facilities to convert its English language
organizations database into French under contract to the Agence de la
Francophonie; involvement in the project on Goals, Processes and Indicators
of Development of the United Nations University; evaluation of NGO relations
with UNESCO on behalf of UNESCO; solicitation by the contracted manager of
ICANN's .ORG web domain to partner in the bid for its future management;
major project funding from the EU directorate for the information society
to enhance the multi-media adaptation of UIA data for biodiversity in partnership
with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre; and successful evaluation
by the World Bank for adaptation of its databases to international development.
Given its multifacetted nature, what exactly is the UIA? Given
the problematic international legal status of nongovernmental organizations,
to what existent does it even "exist"? Given some disrupted decades
of nebulous existence, and the lack of any financial contributions
from its eminent members, to what extent has it existed as more than
a pattern of operations between individuals grouped in a secretariat --
about which issues of accountability and appropriate democratic management
could be legitimately raised?
Clearly it is a "nonprofit" organization,
or perhaps -- given its dependence on self-funding as a successful information
"business" -- this should be reframed as "not-for-profit".
The UN effectively defined it as a form of international registry on which
its agencies and others have been dependent -- especially for long-term statistics.
On the other hand, given its strategic position in an emerging knowledge
society, perhaps it should be understood as more characteristic of the many
virtual initiatives responding to opportunities on the web -- especially
given its technical expertise and nimbleness. And of course, at least for
scholars, it could be understood as a constituent of international civil
society -- an NGO in the more generic sense of the term, especially given
its continuing dependence on voluntary commitment of staff beyond any contractual
Unstated, as with many bodies dependent on the contributions
of collaborators beyond the call of duty, the UIA might be said to have been
an ecosystem of somewhat idiosyncratic individuals since its founding in
1907 as the Central Office of International Associations. It was they who
made the impossible happen where more professional organizations prudently
feared to tread. Curiously this ability was above all dependent on a capacity
to focus on a high level of detail, recording patterns of thousands of relationships
between organizations, problems, values, strategies and the like -- a process
now well described as hyperlink editing.
Despite its notable achievements, and like many other organizations,
the UIA is seriously challenged by the turbulent socio-economic environment
of the emergent information society in which the focus has shifted from the
hierarchies of the past, to networks, onto the virtual worlds of cyberspace
and its dynamically gated communities. Many would argue that the web is proving
to be of greater significance and future relevance than the United
Nations -- characteristically slow in recognizing its potential, if not highly
resistant to it. However, despite the nimbleness of the UIA, it has not been
able to maintain its own strategic advantage. In the web world, the operational
significance of each of the terms in the "Union of International Associations" of
Otlet's century-old dream calls for radical reinterpretation.
To have any
relevance, "union" needs to be understood dynamically as a verb
relating to continually emerging coherence.
Many understandings of "international" are now misleading or irrelevant
when the challenge has more to do with what can be rendered "intelligible"
across sectoral and other boundaries in the process of knowledge management.
In a world of multi-media and virtual organization, increasingly reliant
on image management, "associations" need to be understood in terms
of connotations -- preferably marked by hyperlinks as learning pathways and
feedback loops. It is in this sense that one effort at reframing the UIA
saw it as a Union of Intelligible Associations -- appropriately responsive
to the un-intelligibility of an increasingly complex world.
As with many institutions, the statutory bodies of the UIA
have responded to the 21st century, like rabbits paralyzed on the highway
at night -- their vision impaired by the glare of the onrushing future. Windows
of opportunity have been systematically missed. Information luddites
resist necessary innovation in communication for purposes of decision-making,
which reverts defensively to dysfunctional directive patterns of the past
-- unable to envisage more appropriate processes to elicit support and vital
funding. Incompetence in the face of the complexity of the challenges engenders
negligence. Structures implode as a consequence of unsustainable contradictions.
Life threatening illness is tragically engendered in those obliged to internalize
stress in "sick institutions". The parallels with human senility
become ever more apparent.
What more appropriate forms of organization and action are
younger bodies to take in a period increasingly challenged by terrorism
-- perhaps as the shadowy early manifestation of new forms of organization
and social change? An Australian member of the UIA staff, Anthony Judge,
on his recent retirement after some 40 years of developing the strategic
capacity of that body, sees the challenge as partly one of reclaiming the
heritage of misappropriated collective endeavour -- misappropriated by those
seeking to perpetuate neo-colonialist patterns of self-interested mismanagement
in defiance of the potentials of open-source information initiatives. The
much-publicized ethical inadequacies of major intergovernmental leadership
are indicators of the challenge.
Faced with analogues to senile dementia, how can the many aging
institutions of the 20th century transform their dreams and inspirations
into forms appropriate to the 21st century? In a world increasingly challenged
by faith-based governance, unmanageable crises, policy "surprises",
and the expectations of Apocalypse soon, what might be understood as the "four
horsemen" of some international institutional Apocalypse? And what might
be the appropriately remedial responses in the light of Otlet's dream?
- The predicted triumph of chaos over order (consecrated by
physicists' Second Law of Thermodynamics) calls for shifting beyond the
possibilities of the "intelligible" order to the "imaginative" -- if
not to the "inspiration"
of faith-based policy-making. Hence the need for a "Union
of Imaginative Associations" to sustain new thinking and the excitement
of shifting paradigms -- mitigating dependence on psychedelic and other surrogates
to stave off boredom. This is an operational transformation of Otlet's original
focus on hierarchical "classification"
as the static key to what is now clearly a challenge of dynamic coherence
in response to insights emerging and evolving rapidly within increasingly
- A second horseman is that identified by management cybernetician Stafford Beer (under
the name Le Chatelier's Principle) whereby, like any competent hydra, the
institutional system adapts to initiatives for remedial social change --
that it happily welcomes -- such as to completely nullify the desired effects
of that change. Hence the need for a psychosocial analogue to the recently
launched ITER mega-project to develop
a nuclear fusion reactor -- an analogue that might be described as a "Cognitive
Fusion Reactor" --
an imaginal transformation of energy resourcing (ITER-8). Where Otlet hoped
for a necessary degree of operational focus through normalization and coordination
of international programme initiatives, here the challenge is how to configure
the pattern of collective initiatives such as to ensure sustainable benefits
from psycho-social energy. Ironically research on cognitive fusion is currently
primarily of relevance to the comprehensible integration of information
required by fighter pilots in making split-second decisions.
- The third horseman might be that identified by psychiatrist Ross
known to cyberneticians as Ashby's Law
of Requisite Variety) whereby strategic
failure is guaranteed through ensuring lack of requisite variety of insight
in seeking to navigate or control a challenging turbulent environment.
Typically this takes the form of eliminating consideration of possible
alternatives -- tunnel vision or groupthink -- possibly under the recently
exemplified banner of "binary
Where Otlet, through the UIA, successfully brought together the executives
of international associations to focus the curriculum of an early "International
here the transformed challenge is to enable a "University
of Earth" to
harness understanding of the variety of grounded patterns of nature that
so successfully embody sustainable development -- a learning environment
for ecosyntegrity (extending an insight of Stafford Beer).
- The final horseman might be that exemplified by the widely
recognized consequences of Murphy's
Law, but better articulated
as "systemantics" (in
John Gall's exploration of how and why institutional systems tend to fail).
This is typically evidenced by the emergence of corruption and nepotism
in international systems, and denial of it in any public discourse about
it -- notably on the part of the relevant authorities and academic disciplines.
Where the UIA played a key role in the early professionalization of international
meetings through its International Congress on Congress Organization, here
the transformed challenge might best be embodied in a
"Union of the Whys" as a
focus for critical insight on the challenges of dialogue processes amongst
those with a claim to the wisdom vital to any coherent response to the
Is it such a set of complementary initiatives -- a Union of
Imaginative Associations, a Cognitive Fusion Reactor, a University of the
Earth, and a Union of the Whys -- that would constitute a reincarnation of
the much-challenged Union of International Associations, as now proposed?
Should the spirit of the UIA be seen as having "reincarnated" several times
in the past century, as with the League of Nations' "reincarnation" as
the United Nations? Given the complex challenges of the future, would such
complementarity be more able to carry forward the essential flame of Otlet's
original inspiration ?
References / Contacts
W Boyd Rayward:
- The Universe of Information: the Work of Paul Otlet for international
organisation and documentation. Moscow, VINITI, 1976 (FID Publication
520). [PDF image file; TXT
- The Union of International Associations until 1914. Chapter 8 of
The Universe of Information. [PDF
- The International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID).
In: Encyclopedia of Library History, edited by Wayne A. Wiegand and
Don G. Davis, Jr., Garland Press, 1994, pp. 290-294. [text]
- The Origins of Information Science and the International Institute
of Bibliography / International Federation for Information and Documentation
(FID). International Forum on Information and Documentation,
1997, vol. 22, no 2, pp. 3-15 [text]
- Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext. Journal
of the American Society for Information Science, 45
(1994): pp. 235-250 [text]
- Anticipating the Digital World: Paul Otlet and his Paper Internet.
Bartels Lecture at the University of Leeds, 2002.
- H.G. Wells's Idea of a World Brain: a Critical Re-Assessment, Journal
of the American Society for Information Science, 50, May 1999,
pp. 557-573 [text]
- Anthony Judge (anthony.judge @ gmail.com):
of International Associations -- Virtual Organization: Paul Otlet's
100-year hypertext conundrum ? 2001 [text]
a Documentary Pilgrimage: UIA -- Saur Relations 1982-2000 2001 [text]
- Emergence of
a Union of Imaginative Associations: engendered by a Union of Intelligible
Associations from a Union of International Associations, 2007 [text]
the Heritage of Misappropriated Collective Endeavour: the case of
the Union of Intelligible Associations, 2007 [text]
- Françoise Levie and Benoît Peeters. The Man Who Wanted
to Classify the World / L'homme qui voulait classer le monde. Bruxelles,
Sofidoc, 2002, 60min film, English and French versions
- Union of International Associations
- What's New (including releases) [text]
Other resources: Windows
on the Union of International Associations
Photographs: In addition to the documentary film (above), numerous photographs
of Paul Otlet are available on the web.