University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
World Problems Project (Explanations)

Significance: Constraints on a problem-focused approach

World Problems Project


A number of arguments against a problem-focused approach have been encountered during the course of this project. Although the arguments overlap, in that they are based on common conceptions, they are examined separately below.

1. Major problems versus minor problems

It may be argued that the major problems are well-known and have been adequately described and that all other problems are either components of the major problems or relatively unimportant. This raises the question as to how the importance of the major problems was determined. Was the problem of the environment important before the United Nations conference in Stockholm in 1972? Some international organizations have been working on this problem since the 1950's, but a book produced in 1967 by the well-respected Hudson Institute (Herman Kahn and A J Wiener. The Year 2000; a framework for speculation on the next thirty-three years) makes no mention of either pollution or environment. Importance in this sense means simply as a political issue, since all the information concerning the problem was available whilst the problem was still unimportant.

There are however other ways in which a problem can be important. A problem may not be of importance in its own right but primarily by virtue of its relationship to other problems in the problem complex or network. Consider the case where no significant impact has been achieved by the allocation of considerable resources to the mutually reinforcing problems A, B, D and E, considered to be of greatest importance because of their immediate tangible effects. If it can be shown that A, B, D, and E are all dependent on reinforcement from the seemingly insignificant and little-known problems C and F, then C and F may acquire considerable importance in any policy relating to the problem complex. Their relationships to the other problems, and the possibility that they may lend themselves more easily to available remedies, makes them of vital importance in any general strategy, since any positive results will have beneficial multiplier effects which may alleviate the more tangible problems.

Furthermore, if it can be shown that action on problems C and F is impeded by problems G, M and Q, then the latter may acquire even greater significance because of they way in which they obscure critical leverage points in the problem network at which action and research may be most beneficial with a minimum of resources. The difficulty at this time is that it is apparently not possible to determine which problems are like C and F, and which are like G, M and Q, since all attention is devoted to A, B, D and E, except in the plaintive reports from those attempting to implement the solutions to the latter.

Only by exploring the networks of interrelationships between problems of all degrees of importance and visibility will it be possible to locate the critical leverage points, as opposed to those action areas which can continue to absorb resources without any significant result.

2. Major problems versus subproblems

It may be argued that once the major problems have been identified it is unnecessary to attempt to identify the component subproblems with any degree of precision, whether because the precision is illusory or because the subproblems are merely aspects of the major problem without any significant degree of autonomy. In contrast to this view, the OECD Social Indicator Development Programme (1973) in identifying 24 fundamental social concerns stated that each of these "...may be viewed as the summit of a vertically linked hierarchy of an indefinite number of subconcerns representing the important aspects and means of influencing the fundamental concern. At the same time, there are various kinds of horizontal linkages or relationships among these hierarchies; a particular concern or subconcern may have simultaneous effects on a number of other social concerns." (3)

On this point John Crecine and R D Brunner (1972) note: "Division of problems into subproblems without knowing their overall dimensions hardly ever contributes to a solution. 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."

Also: "The sad fact of the matter is that we know very little about dividing the social problems with which government must deal into component subproblems. Without effective division of overall problems and subsequent assignment of the parts to specific units, government is likely to remain the blunt instrument it now is. All the information, communication, computer capability, all the coordination in the world is useless if not properly mobilized."

The difficulty in identifying subproblems is to determine down to what level of detail it is useful to go in different problem areas. This project explores this difficulty in a number of different problem areas where many levels of subproblem exist (eg commodity problems, endangered species).

3. Irresponsibility of drawing attention away from major problems

It may be argued that drawing attention away from the 5 to 10 problems currently in favour as "major", and giving a comparatively greater amount of attention to seemingly "minor" problems, serves to dilute the already inadequate effort to solve the major problems. In order to understand the major problems better it is however necessary to focus on the minor problems through which they may be connected in unforeseen ways. It is by analyzing the network of all problems that it becomes possible to determine what the major problems are under any particular set of conditions.

But perhaps of greatest importance, people may identify more easily with non-major problems and unless the interrelationship of all problems can be demonstrated such people cannot be convinced of the merit of allocating resources to the major problems. It could also be argued that programmes to mobilize public opinion in support of the major problems have been in operation for sufficient time to have been able to make any significant impact possible. In the report of the United Nations Secretary-General reviewing the Dissemination of Information and Mobilization of Public Opinion Relative to Problems of Development (E/5358, 21 May 1973) it is noted that: " is difficult to escape the conclusion that... the state of public opinion on matters of development, particularly in the industrialized countries, is generally less favourable today than it has been in the past." It also notes: "It would probably be unfair to conclude that a sudden callousness had overcome public opinion in the developed countries. It is more like a closing of the gates to a pattern of generalizations perceived as outworn by over-use."

Since a high proportion of available resources will continue to be allocated to the major problems, experiment with alternative approaches is justified to see whether it is possible to break out of the pattern of out-worn generalization. The greatest danger lies in the probability that the United Nations system's public relations and public information programmes will lead the informed public and many decision-makers to believe that the U.N. is doing all that can or need be done and has the attack on every world problem well-coordinated. This automatically devalues the activities of other bodies, reduces the allocation of resources and support to them, dampens initiative from the local and national level which is not channelled through governmental and U.N. channels against U.N.-perceived problems, and effectively nullifies the type of constructive criticism which can lead to renewal of effort, new approaches, and galvanization of the political will necessary to the accomplishment of all international programme objectives.

4. Problems versus values

It may be argued that it is a mistake to focus on the negative features of society, namely problems, rather than on the positive features, namely values or goals, which are a basis for consensus formation and the coherence of society. And yet it is the irony of the times that problems have greater currency than values and would often appear to be the focal point for greater consensus. People can agree about problems and they lend themselves to action-oriented debate. To an important degree, with the loss of common positive symbols and the absence of a universal ethic, common problems perform a unifying function. In addition they are easier to identify with precision.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, through its Secretary-General's Ad Hoc Group on New Concepts of Science Policy (1971), in discussing the formulation of problems, notes that: "The systematic identification and formulation of new problems are the more necessary because the distinguishing characteristic of many of the present social demands is that they are defined more by the dissatisfactions they engender than by a precise formulation of the satisfactions looked for: existence of dissatisfaction, in other words, does not automatically imply a recognition of preferable alternatives. The complexity of society and the limitations of knowledge make it difficult or impossible to envisage realistic alternatives. This is one of the frustrations of modern society: today's "hungers" are not easily defined. Thus, environmental pollution, the chaos of city life, and the inadequacies of the universities arouse discontent that is not expressed in precise alternative concepts of the types of environment, city, or university desired. Although in many cases these discontents may be based on misperceptions of the objective situation, we must recognise that the perception is itself part of reality. Thus the discontent cannot be alleviated by physical measures alone: it requires an understanding of the total situation."

The emergence of problems may therefore be considered as the actualization of hitherto unrecognized values. A problem is in some ways a value in disguise and may signal the presence of new values. In the DEMATEL Project of the Battelle Institute, one element of the definition of a problem was that it related implicitly to a value system (A Gabus, 1972). A problem is an instance of value-dissonance.

5. Problems versus solutions

It may be argued that at a time when everyone is aware of the problems, and many are suffering from excessive awareness, any further emphasis on problems rather than solutions is unconstructive. From this perspective, what is lacking at this time are collections of information on solutions, not collections of information on problems. As will be seen below, however, most of the available information tends to be either on the major problems or on conventional solutions to existing problems. Unless a clear picture of the range of problems is available, and it is not, the solutions proposed may either be solutions to non-critical problems or solutions that will simply aggravate other problems as a result of their successful implementation. There is also the point that solutions envisaged for today's problems are already inadequate by the time they are implemented because of the evolution of the problem environment. A focus must therefore be maintained on tomorrow's problems in the light of current predictions. This approach does not preclude cross-referencing the problems identified here to a parallel collection of information on solutions.

6. Unmanageable number of problems

It may be argued that once any attempt is made to look beyond the 5 to 10 currently favoured major problems there is no limit to the number of problems which can be identified and described. Any problem area can be broken down into subproblem areas that can in turn be broken down further. The exercise then becomes impossible because of the amount of information, and is of questionable value for the same reason. This argument could, however, also be applied to the activities of the botanist and zoologist who now recognize some million species of plants and animals respectively. But zoologists, for example, have found ways of handling this degree of diversity without needing to limit themselves to such basic categories as mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, and insects. The question is whether some similar approach can be made to the range of problems. Only a deliberate attempt to collect such information can provide a basis for any response. This section is itself a demonstration that it is possible to collect information on more than 10 problems without the data becoming uncontrollable.

7. Multiplicity of problem interrelationships

It may be argued that any attempt to record the potential interrelationships between a large number of problems leads to such a large number of interrelationships as to be unmanageable. Thus 1,000 problems could give rise to over 990,000 interrelationships. If however the information collection is limited to those relationships that have been recognized, the number of actual interrelationships is much more limited and therefore quite manageable. Again only a deliberate attempt to collect such information can prove whether such an approach is impractical.

8. General, unstructured approach versus particular, structured approach

It may be argued that any such project is only manageable and of significance if it is conducted in terms of some particular viewpoint such as the policy requirements of a given organization. Or else, it may be argued that a particular classification scheme or model must first be developed to guide the subsequent collection and presentation of information. These are however precisely the difficulties at this time. There is a multiplicity of oriented projects and models with no effort at interrelating them or suggesting that they should be interrelated. And yet it is the disagreement amongst the advocates of different approaches which hinders the formation of any consensus or general strategy and the mobilization of adequate resources. The challenge is to develop a project that is as general and minimally structured in its approach as is feasible, but without losing coherence and utility. This project is an experiment in that direction.

9. Inadequate theoretical framework

It can be argued that a project of this kind cannot be fruitfully undertaken without a well-articulated theoretical framework. This can be viewed as essential in defining what are to be considered problems. The theory of problems is however poorly developed to the point of being non-existent. There is even the suspicion that problems are in an important respect undefinable. A special weakness of relying on any particular theory, is that only those phenomena which fit the theory are then considered worthy of collection. But such inadequacies should not prevent the collection of information that may assist in articulating more appropriate theoretical frameworks in the future.

10. Erroneous conception of a problem as a well-defined entity

It may be argued that problems, by their very nature, are nebulous and poorly defined, and that therefore a numeric identifier cannot be usefully and meaningfully allocated to a problem. Any such treatment of the problem in fact distorts the nature of the problem and gives it a precision that it lacks in reality and implies that it possesses characteristics which it may not have. It is therefore impossible to make a list of world problems because what is perceived as a problem is in fact a cultural variable. Any such attempt therefore forces all problems into the same mould and implies that they can all be conceived as having common features particularly when embedded in a network of problems. The notion of a relationship as a simple link between two problems may also be considered unsatisfactory for similar reasons.

This project is however not so much concerned with what a problem is as a problem but rather with how a problem is perceived and discussed in terms of the labels given to it. It is in denoting the variety of phenomena as "problems" that the above errors may be encountered, but once this has been done and has achieved the present acceptability it then becomes permissable to identify the semantic domain in question by a numeric identifier and to attempt a summary description of the processes believed to be associated with that domain.

11. Sufficiency of information on problems

It may be argued that there is already a very large amount of information available on most problems. Some problems have one or more books describing them; some have whole specialized libraries devoted to them; many are covered by specialized periodicals and abstracting systems. Under such circumstances a summary description could not do justice to the complexity of the subject matter and the available knowledge.

Against this it must be said that only specialists can afford the time to scan such quantities of information, and only well-endowed institutes can afford to obtain even a small proportion of the available material. In addition, as was discovered during this project, the information is rarely structured in such a way as to make evident the nature of the problem, let alone the relationships between one problem and another. Such information is scattered through a multitude of documents, except in a few isolated cases. Whilst many documents exist, they may well be effectively unobtainable during the time they are needed.

Current international information systems do not facilitate access to many vital documents. Such documents may be quickly out of print, and normal booktrade delays may be up to two months between Europe and America and up to six months in the case of some developing countries. But whether available or not, the widening gap between the exponentially increasing quantity of data available for consumption and man's very limited capacity for acquiring and processing useful information needs to be bridged by new methods of presenting information. The attempt in this project to hold problem information in networks of relationships which can be plotted on maps or displayed on computer graphics devices is an experiment at reducing the current difficulty.

12. Theoretical superficiality

This project emerged partly in response to the initial Club of Rome exercise on "Limits to Growth" which promised hopes of understanding the complex dynamics of the world system through computer models. It was believed that authenticated facts could be married with theory to provide an integrated, in-depth framework through which the difficulties and opportunities of the world system could be explored. Collection of problem perceptions, in which all "facts" are a matter of interpretation, can be viewed as totally superficial by comparison. Since that time many competing world models have been produced, each in response to perceived inadequacies in the others. The models have been unable to reflect the full range of problems in the real world, especially those that are less readily quantifiable, even though they may have considerable impact on world dynamics (eg "alienation", "blasphemy", "corruption"). With the failure of planned economies, the limited value of such models for elitist policy-making in the real-world has become even more apparent. They deny the impact of images of problems, however misguided. This project is an effort to register the expressed concerns of different segments of the population with a view to using a different class of mathematical tool to approach such complexity and render it comprehensible.

13. Inappropriateness of "problem-solving"

The response to problems, especially in the international community, has come to be dominated by a "problem-solving" perspective that is increasingly questionable. Donald Schön (1979), in commenting on this, notes: "The problem-solving perspective contains three central components. It directs our attention, first of all, to the search for solutions. The problems themselves are generally assumed to be given...If problems are assumed to be given, this is in part because they are taken always to have the same form." He sees this as based on an instrumentalist assumption. "Problem solving consists in the effort to find means for the achievement of our objectives in the face of the constraints that make such achievement difficult...The problem always engaged in searching some problem-space in order to find means well-suited, in the face of constraints, to the achievement of some objective function." He also notes however that there have been increasing difficulties with this perspective and that a sense of inadequacy has begun to spread among practitioners of social policy and among the public at large. The social situations have turned out to be more complex than was supposed. According to Schön, it becomes increasingly doubtful in the case of social policy that we can make accurate temporal predictions or design models that converge upon a true description of reality. "Moreover, the unexpected problems created by our search for acceptable means to the ends we have chosen reveals...a stubborn conflict of ends traceable to the problem setting itself." This project might therefore be considered a response to his concluding point that, in the domain of social policy, there is a need to understand better how problems are set.

14. Project approach as instance of the key problem

It may be argued that the allocation of resources to the collection of information on problems is in itself an example of the general tendency to substitute action about a problem for action on the problem. The problems are denatured by the process and lose the potency that they have in the real world. Worse still, any attempt to draw attention away from the key problem (such as capitalism or communism) to a multiplicity of pseudo-problems, which at best are symptoms of the key problem, merely serves to aggravate current difficulties, whilst profiting from them. All action can however be criticized in this way, particularly when there is disagreement on what the key problem is or what problem components should be tackled in what order in any strategy. This project is an experiment in alleviating both the difficulties from which such disagreement arises and those to which it gives rise.

15. Problems as human constructs

There is increasing recognition that problems are human constructs, namely artifacts of concerned minds. In the words of Donald Schön in discussing problem-setting in social policy (1979): "Problems are not given. They are constructed by human beings in their attempts to make sense of complex and troubling situations. Ways of describing problems move into and out of good currency." From this perspective it might be argued that any attempt to document problems is quiet unrealistic, resembling in some respect efforts to document dreams and to attribute some reality to them. But it may also be argued that if problems are treated as realities, with some persistence over time, then it is important to understand how people are influenced and moved by such realities.

16. Problem perception as cultural bias

In the light of the previous point, if problems are artifacts of concerned human minds, it has also been suggested by Kuang-ming Wu (1982) that they are the artifacts of Western minds. For him the supposition of "problematicalness", with its attendant implications for reason, for principles, and for history, is so deeply ingrained in Western consciousness that its denial seems absurd. But, in the light of his interpretation of Chuang Tzu, to conceive of life as presenting problems to be solved is a misconception of life. If there are indeed major problems of culture, and cultural attempts to respond to them, then history is not merely a chronicle of episodes but allows of interpretation as a form of drama. With a problem-oriented vision it is possible to speak of the rise and fall of civilizations, of a dialectic of progress or devolution, and of the importance of roles in history in relation to problems. But if it is not necessary to see life as presenting problems or to understand life in relation to problems, then these features of historical consciousness are not as important as they presently seem. Alternative views are then also possible and may even prove more appropriate.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed by Anthony Judge
under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.