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World Problems and Human Potential: a data interlinkage and display process

Describes intentions and results of Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential.

World Problems and Human Potential
Data description
Data handling and uses

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Abstract: 'World problems' have been the subject of intense debate for some time. Concern and action have tended to focus on 'important' problems as determined by their visible effects and consequent political significance, so that it is rare for more than ten problems to be named in the same context. The author argues for the representation of problems, and the organised resources brought to bear on them, by interlinked networks, thus permitting computer-assisted, non- quantitative analysis and display of such structures to aid detection and comprehension of their strengths and weaknesses of policy-making significance.

A version of this paper appeared in Futures (the journal of forecasting and planning), Vol. 7, 3, June 1975, pp. 209-220. It was based on a paper prepared for presentation to a course on future studies, Inter-University Centre of Post-graduate Studies, Dubrovnik, March 1975 and to a session at the 2nd General Assembly, World Future Society, Washington, DC, June 1975. [Version française] A subsequent report appeared as World Problems and Human Potential: significance and preliminary results of the World Problems Project, International Associations, 28, 1976, 2, pp. 102-108. (For the current situation with regard to this project, and the status of tbe Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, see:


A preliminary investigation in 1971 by the Union of International Associations showed that there was very little in the way of systematic descriptive listing of world problems, awareness of how many there were, or views about whether such information would be useful. An attempt had been made by Hasan Ozbekhan in 1968, which listed 28 Continuous Critical Problems,' and this was later extended to 48 in an internal document of the Club of Rome before the Limits to Growth exercise.

Such extended lists begin to include problems which are not of importance in their own right but primarily by their relationship to the other problems in the problem complex or network. If some problems are commonly dependent on reinforcement from apparently insignificant and little-known problems, these latter may acquire considerable importance in any policy relating to the problem complex. Furthermore, if it can be shown that response to them is impeded by other problems, these last may acquire even greater proportional significance in the network.

The relationships and significance of each of the lesser-known problems may well be recognised in the appropriate sectors of the available literature, but may thus only influence a limited sector of society. This means that information systems, organisations and programmes often recognise only one particular set of problems and over-identify with them (Hasan Ozbekhan, 1969; Donald Schon, 1971). This results in a multiplicity of candidates for 'the kg problem' requiring maximum allocation of resources to parties, none of which may intercommunicate, even though each may stress the importance of defining its own problem in relationship to other problems. Hasan Ozbekhan makes the point:

This almost subconsciously motivated attempt, that of a sector to expand over the whole space of the system in its own particular terms and in accordance with its own particular outlooks and traditions, compounds the problem by further fragmenting the wholeness of the system. For sectors cannot become systems, they can only dominate them; and when they do they warp them. Hence this tendency toward the spreading of sectoral primacies over the full social space must be viewed with alarm. It is a portent, and an ominous one, of the conflicts and dislocations that await us unless a system-wide integrative approach is worked out ...

There is the suspicion that the network of problems may be better integrated than the networks of organisational and conceptual resources which could be brought to bear upon them. In Donald Schon's words:

The map of organizations or agencies that make up the society is, as it were, a sort of clear overlay against a page underneath it which represents the reality of the society. And the overlay is always out of phase in relation to what's underneath: at any given time there's always a mis-match between the organizational map and the reality of the problems that people think are worth solving . . . There's basically no social problem such that one can identify and control within a single system all the elements required in order to attack that problem. The result is that one is thrown back on the knitting together of elements in networks which are not controlled and where network functions and the network roles become critical.

Our information on society is not yet sufficiently well organised to permit us to construct detailed maps of organisational and problem networks in order to identify clearly, simply and with precision the areas of weakness and strength.

The lack of any such mapping makes it easy for individuals and agencies to embed themselves in 'communication niches' (the social analogue of environmental niches) and to marshal arguments and limited support for any problem, irrespective of its importance in the problem complex. This does not help consensus formation and formulation of a network strategy to inter-relate the multitude of agencies. Government, agency and media control of information aggravates this situation since it provides an increasingly potent basis for 'adjusting' the outside world so that it is compatible with the survival and growth aims of the agency. Those with any control over information are able to put forth interpretations of 'social reality', the critical nature of a given problem, programmes to deal with it, and evaluations of those programmes as implemented, based on knowledge either unavailable to those who could challenge the interpretation or unavailable when a challenge might be most effective. (Donald Michael, 1968)

Single agencies (if they are not already memorials to past problems) may obtain only inadequate support, resulting in ineffectiveness. Alternatively, they may use their excessive support to dominate and warp their particular social environment, leading to compensating effects which some identify as new problems. The only court of appeal is the political arena of factions, parties and competing schools of thought in which the dynamics are largely dependent upon the ambiguity, oversimplification, or biased projection of any mapping and the aggravation of any consequent consensus instability.

It was these points which prompted the Union of International Associations [1] to undertake a data-collection exercise early in 1972 using the resources of the network of 2500 international governmental and non-governmental organisations on which it maintains profiles in its Yearbook of International Organizations and related publications [2]. The exercise was an attempt to elicit information from organisations on the problems they believed to be within their area or particularly relevant to them. The response was not immediately usable. Subsequent searches through international organisation literature suggest that this may have been partly because of the difficulty of identifying and isolating descriptive material on problems in their programme-oriented documentation. In addition few people are equipped to give an immediate response to a request for precise description of the problems with which they are concerned because problems tend to be perceived as embedded in a continuum of interrelated concerns. This set-back precluded any early publication and led to a search for funding a more comprehensive project.

The initial intent had been limited to the production of a compilation of interrelated world problems as perceived by international organisations. The project has since evolved through several concepts of the content and structure of the immediate end- product. It has been funded privately on behalf of Mankind 2000, which is particularly concerned with human development as it relates to world problems now and in the future [3] The joint project of Mankind 2000 and the UIA is continuing in this vein, with informal arrangements for possible future inputs from the Center for Integrative Studies. The first result is a Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential produced from text held for updating and cross-referencing on magnetic tape files via the UIA's computer-typesetting software used to produce the Yearbook of International Organizations (which the new publication cross-references).

Because of the amount of information (about 1000 two-column pages or 9 million characters), structural complexity and manner of production there are difficulties in providing enough copies for examination in proof form. The first edition is therefore to be considered a draft edition.

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