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

Comments: Future possibilities

World Problems Project


1. Possible future improvements

(a) Inclusion of new problem entries and revision of information included in each entry, with addition of information where appropriate to produce a more complete description.

(b) Revision and extension of the system of relationships between problems to include such features as (a) relationships arising from a situation in which one problem is perceived as having displaced another, as a result of new understanding of the nature of the problem (whether or not this understanding is widespread); (b) relationships arising from recognition, as a result of analysis, that a problem is a symptom of a more fundamental problem (as distinct from cause-effect relationships between problems of equivalent level); (c) relationships arising from educational considerations, namely indicating the next more complex problem, in which the nature of the problem is reformulated in more sophisticated terms; and (d) relationships arising from the historical order in which problems were perceived and displaced by others.

(c) Extension of the system of relationships between problems to other series to include such features as: (a) international organization sub-units specifically concerned with the problem; (b) resolutions of major United Nations bodies dealing specifically with the problem; (c) qualification of relationships, such as those with international bodies, to specify whether they are concerned with policy, research, management, public information, or information exchange.

(d) Inclusion in entry descriptions, where appropriate and where such information is available, of statements criticizing the existence of the problem as described (namely counter-arguments or counter-claims).

(e) Inclusion in the entries, where appropriate, of other subheadings such as (a) details of how the problem has developed over time and how it is expected to develop in the future; (b) list of countries in which the problem is known to occur; (c) information centres which keep track of the problem (other than international organizations); (d) standard reference books dealing with the problem; (e) international meetings dealing with the problem.

(f) Development of alternative problem classification systems.

(g) Identification of key people who are closely associated with action against particular problems by functioning as catalysts for the generation of new organizations, programmes, or other initiatives. A separate section listing such people could be cross-referenced to the problems series.

(h) Development of computer programmes to draw attention to errors in the ways in which the hierarchies of cross-references for particular problem-areas have been indicated.

(i) Development of computer programmes to plot out onto "maps" certain problem networks around core problems. Such maps could be included as illustrations accompanying the descriptions of such problems in future editions. More complicated maps could also be constructed showing how the network of organizations matches, or fails to match, the network of problems. Collections of such problem-based maps could be published in a form of atlas accompanying future editions of this volume. The identification of vicious and serendipitous cycles is of special interest in the light of the preliminary investigation (see discussion in Section TZ).

2. Questions for the future

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

(a) How 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"?

(b) How can comprehension of complexity be improved without artificially forcing relationships into (definitive) hierarchical groupings thus doing violence to any inter-hierarchical linkages?

(c) Might it not be useful to investigate the result of using the mathematical technique to convert relationships between points into points in a network? 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.

(d) Given that the number, variety and relationships of human diseases, and the nature of their effects on the individual are now well understood, do they not suggest ways for organizing thought about the range and variety of psycho-social problems and their impact on the psycho-social system?

(e) Is it as ecologically inappropriate to ask the question "What are the 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"?

(f) Can the relationships between problems (or between organizations) be usefully conceived as analogous to the food webs and trophic levels within 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?

(g) 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 determine 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)? Thus anything that keeps an ecosystem oscillating (or "spastic"), retains it in a state of low maturity, whence the possible 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?

(h) 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-quantitative relationships and entities documented lead to valuable insights of greater acceptability? In other words, to what extent can knowing less about more (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?

(i) To what extent is the complexity of the problem system 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 so that they lend themselves to easy debate in public and in a policy-making environment? 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 problems 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 (ie of less variety) than that of the psycho-social system itself can only be made to succeed by suppressing or ignoring the variety (ie reducing the diversity) in the psycho-social system so that it is less than the relative simplicity of the control system? Such suppression tends to breed violence, however.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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