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Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Governance through Metaphor Project

Overview: Metaphor and Patterns Project

Scope and rationale
Organization and structure
Information content
Method and development

Explanatory comments

Reservations and disclaimer
Media used & multi-media

Scope and rationale

A variety of forms may be used for presenting and communicating new information. Designers of any new strategy in response to the global problematique must necessarily select and encourage modes of communication that will facilitate mobilization and coordination of resources, ensure appropriate interaction between those participating, as well as enabling communication with those affected by the strategy but unskilled in the conceptual or procedural language through which it is organized.

  • Metaphors are a special form of presentation natural to many cultures. They are of unique importance as a means of communicating complex notions, especially in interdisciplinary and multicultural dialogue, as well as in the popularization of abstract concepts, in political discourse and as part of any creative process. They offer the special advantage of calling upon a pre-existing capacity to comprehend complexity, rather than assuming that people need to engage in lengthy educational processes before being able to comprehend.

    Although frequently used in international debate through which strategies are defined, the advantages of metaphor have not been deliberately explored to assist in the implementation of such strategies. Each development policy may be considered a particular "answer" to the global problematique. No such answer appears to be free from fundamental weaknesses. A shift to an alternative policy becomes progressively more necessary as the effects of these weaknesses accumulate. However, since each such policy reflects a "language" or mind-set whereby a worldview is organized, no adequate "logical" framework can exist to facilitate comprehension of the nature of such a shift or of the process of transition between alternatives.

    Many familiar metaphors of alternation exist through which the characteristics and limitations of such a shift may be understood. This programme is interested in the possibility of deliberately designing metaphors in support of innovative development.

    Any form of international "mobilization of public opinion" (using the conventional military metaphor), to engender the much sought "political will to change", is dependent upon communication. This is especially the case when the insights required to guide that change are complex, counter-intuitive or simply not clearly communicable within any one conceptual language.

  • Patterns of concepts: Most conceptual schemes, whether purely theoretical or basic to the practical design of a development programme, are organized into sets of concepts, principles, priorities, or functions. Several such sets may be interrelated in a more elaborate scheme. It is the pattern of such interrelationships which ensures the coherence and integrity of the approach. Patterns therefore constitute a special form of presentation. Such patterns tend to be presented in isolation and often such that only the sub-patterns are explicit. Little is known about them as conceptual patterns. Given the need to interrelate concepts into a coherent pattern, so that they can be effectively communicated without loss of information, it is appropriate to explore the design of conceptual patterns of many elements and interconnections, whether explicit or implicit. Such explorations can contribute to the development of pattern languages through which groups can define and interrelate the non-material features appropriate to the quality of life in their environment.

  • Forms of communication: For optimum communication, a strategy should make use of a set of distinct and complementary forms through which information can be communicated under different conditions, with each form counteracting the weaknesses and excesses of others. This section endeavours to describe briefly the range of forms of presentation that can be selected and combined in any communication strategy. It deliberately avoids the usual tendency to focus narrowly on some particular set of forms, such as the mass media.

    The section contains 528 entries each describing briefly a different form of presentation or implying a different mode of communication. Where the information is available, each entry indicates the strengths or weaknesses of that mode, especially in relation to development processes. More details are provided separately.

  • Integrative symbols: This focus emerged from the recognition of the special importance of symbols in embodying significance and giving focus to any campaign or programme and establishing its identity in relation to other initiatives. As a focus for public attention, their choice is far from being an arbitrary matter. It is a response to constraints which need to be better understood if human resources are to be more effectively mobilized. They give visual form to abstract concepts by which development processes are organized especially in traditional cultures which do not respond to conventional forms of presentation. The relationship between the symbols by which people are motivated (or alienated) is also of vital importance. More details are provided separately.


The purpose of this project is to review the range of communication possibilities and constraints of metaphor, pattern and symbol. This is partly in response to the narrow focus of recent major intergovernmental initiatives under the extremely misleading titles of  "International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems" (limited to the mass media) and the "International Communications Year" (telecommunications hardware) by UNESCO and ITU respectively. It is however a direct consequence of participation by the editors in the Forms of Presentation project of the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project of the United Nations University.

Since the early 1980s, in relation to the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, the role of metaphor and pattern in relation to governance, understanding of world problems, articulation of more appropriate organizational strategies, transformative conferencing and dialogue, and knowledge organization. This has been presented at a number of international meetings.

Organization and structure

As a whole the project provides a framework within which to review alternative ways of interrelating items of information to facilitate comprehension and communication.

Experiments: In addition to the research described above, a number of experiments in developing metaphors have been undertaken.

  • Metaphors of alternation: The 1991 edition presented descriptions of 88 metaphors elaborated as an editorial experiment in facilitating comprehension of transition and change, especially in some ordered manner between complementary alternatives (see Metaphors of Alternation an exploration of their significance for development policy-making, 1984). The phenomena selected as substrates for the metaphors include: those familiar to everybody (eg walking, breathing), those especially significant to rural communities (eg crop-rotation, getting water, animal movement), those familiar to industrialized societies (eg driving, media diets, vitamins) and some key physical or technological phenomena (eg electric motors, metabolic pathways, magnetic containment of plasma). More details are provided separately.

  • Transformation metaphors: Earlier editions of the Encyclopedia have used the Chinese Book of Changes as a template for the generation of metaphors relevant to networking (1986) and policy-cycles (1991). On this site this experiment has been further extended as a very extensive demonstration (Transformation Metaphors derived experimentally from the Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching) for sustainable dialogue, vision, conferencing, policy, network, community and lifestyle This is accompanied by a commentary, 1997).

  • Pattern language: The pattern language work of Christopher Alexander suggests the possibility that the physical pattern he explores of relevance to architecture and urban planning may be of relevance as templates to organization at the social, conceptual and psychic levels. Of his 253 patterns, 66 have been explored in this way (5-fold Pattern Language, 1984). The approach is discussed in a commentary.

    The 253 entries are an editorial experiment based on a "pattern language" developed by a team led by the environmental designer Christopher Alexander as an aid to designing physical contexts in which quality of life is enhanced. Selected patterns have been used, according to the methods of the previous section, as substrates for metaphors such as to suggest ways in which social, conceptual and intra-personal contexts may also be "designed". A special merit of Alexander's approach is the detailed integration between the component patterns provided by relationships reflecting a profound understanding of the socio-physical environment which is extremely realistic, exceptionally harmonious and unusually sensitive to development potential. The cross-references presented here are metaphorical versions of the relationships indicated by Alexander's group.

  • Adapting formal declarations:

Information content

The results of various experiments with metaphor, as explained explained below, are also presented on this site as demonstrations:

Method and development

The procedures used in preparing this section are discussed in detail in a commentary.

Development: In addition to the refinement of the selected metaphors, the variety of phenomena used as a basis for such metaphors could be increased. A better indication could be provided of the strengths and limitations of each metaphor. This would enable groups of complementary metaphors to be interrelated by a pattern of cross-references as explored in Section MP. This points toward the possibility of producing a repertoire of metaphors that may be used to communicate complex insights into a wide range of social phenomena whilst at the same time empowering them conceptually to explore new patterns of organization in which dynamic processes are emphasized, rather than static structures.

In addition to the refinement of the description of each form, much more effort is required to determine under what conditions any particular form is appropriate or inappropriate. This would then enable cross-references to be inserted linking forms together into patterns of complementary forms that could prove more effective than present reliance on a limited number of unrelated forms.

The selected groups of patterns could be further developed, especially that based on the use of Alexander's work as a substrate. That work was deliberately designed to produce a "pattern language" which people and communities could use to design their own environments. An analogous pattern language could be developed to enable people and groups to design (and redesign) their own conferences and organizations.

Explanatory comments

Detailed explanations and commentary are also provided in a collection of 40 documents. As a whole the projects provide a framework within which to review alternative ways of interrelating items of information to facilitate comprehension and communication.

Research studies on metaphor, written in relation to this project and to international organizations, are directly accessible from separate checklists:

Many of these studies have explored the role of metaphor as a basis for new approaches to social and conceptual organization. These are reinforced by the recognition within the software industry that new metaphors are the key to new interfaces for knowledge management. The information on metaphor, and how it can be organized and presented, is seen as one of the keys to the global organization of knowledge about organizations, strategies, or problems.

Note that more general comments and explanations, regarding the collection of projects initiated within the framework of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, are available in a collection of 27 documents.


The contents presented by this project may be considered as complementing the other projects in ways such as the following:

  • Human development: By the manner in which human development options are communicated, and through the evolution of forms of communication following efforts to communicate new insights into human development possibilities.
  • Integrative knowledge: By the manner in which integrative knowledge is communicated, and through the evolution of forms of communication to reflect new aspects of integration.
  • World problems: By the problems of communication in a global society, and by the need to communicate the complex nature of world problems.
  • Transformative approaches: By the evolution of communication techniques (especially in meetings), and by the need to communicate innovative techniques.
  • Human values: By the manner in which human values are communicated, and through the intrinsic value of communication in maintaining the fabric of global society.

Reservations and development

Reservations: The entries indicate the possibility of developing a technique for designing powerful metaphors. As this is an exploratory exercise, individual entries may call for substantial revision. The value of the information in a section of this kind is in the extent to which it gives an understanding of the set or pool of available forms on which a programme designer can draw. There are of course whole libraries on many of the individual entries but they seldom help to convey this understanding. The information available seldom detailed the unique strengths or weaknesses of any particular form as they must necessarily be recognized by those attempting to design a communication strategy using complementary forms. The entries are therefore indicative rather than definitive. Entries have occasionally been included because they raise useful questions about the scope and content of this section.

Although the results of this deliberate editorial experiment are interesting and indicative of further possibilities, the entries raise many questions concerning the appropriateness of the language used. The language is stilted, forced and artificial in order to explore the correspondence between the different metaphorical levels. It highlights the difficulties of making what may be vital distinctions in the social, conceptual and intra-personal realms, compared to the richness and subtlety of the vocabulary and imagery available for similar distinctions at the physical level. This points to the merit of treating the physical level distinctions as a metaphor through which the possibility of equivalent distinctions at other levels may be explored.


Statistics on metaphors and patterns, in the light of the methodology of this project, are provided in tables in the commentary and were published in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. They are also also available on-line

Media used & multi-media

The information generated by this project on various aspects of this work has been published initially in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential; subsequently it has been made available on-line.

The current multi-media experiments are seen in part as the exploration of visual metaphor to offer new insights into the challenges of organization. The experiments with sound are in part based on the recognition that in the search for harmony in global society, there is some merit in exploring the extensive and well-articulated understandings of musical harmony.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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