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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Analysis: Vicious cycles and loops

Transformative Approaches Project


1. Pathways and loops

There has long been recognition of how one problem can aggravate another and of how several problems can reinforce each other. This Encyclopedia registers many relationships between problems in complex networks. Clearly such relationships may form chains or pathways linking many problems. But hidden in the data as presented is also the existence of chains that loop back on themselves. No systematic attempt seems to have been made to identify such vicious relationship loops or cycles through which four or more problems constantly reinforce one another.

2. Experimental software

A computer program has been developed as an experiment by the editors to explore the many pathways amongst the world problems documented in this Encyclopedia in order to isolate such loops. This suggests the possibility of moving from a focus on problems as though they were isolated, of which few are, to one in which the focus is on the many vicious loops of which a problem may be a member.

3. Cycles as a unit of analysis

Functionally and conceptually such vicious cycles may offer a better way to approach complex networks of problems. Indeed they serve to make clear that any organization with projects focusing on a single problem needs to be aware of any vicious cycle of which that problem is a part. Unless that organization coordinates its activities with any bodies focusing on other problems in that cycle, its work may be totally undermined. Despite apparent success in responding to a particular problem in the short term, this may not affect the sustainability of the vicious cycle of which it is a part. The problem may be regenerated by pressures building up in other parts of the cycle.

4. "Metabolic" pathways in society

It is interesting to reflect on the parallel to the metabolic pathways documented by biochemists (see Figure 1). Analysis of such pathways has shown the presence of a number of cycles. Many of these now bear names (eg the glyoxylate cycle, triglyceride pathway) because of their literally vital importance to life processes. There is every possibility that cycles linking problems could prove of equivalent importance -- and possibly of greater strategic significance than the individual problems themselves, since it is the cycles that effectively sustain the individual problems.

5. Strategic responses to problem cycles

Ideally a coalition of organizations should form in response to each vicious problem cycle. Information passed between organizations should then match the pattern of impacts between the problems with which they are concerned. The strategic issue may be less one of how to "break" the cycle and more one of how to reverse it, exploiting the fact that problems are functionally linked in this way.

A significant number of problems also alleviate other problems, although this information is less easy to obtain and such links are consequently less frequent in this Encyclopedia. There may therefore be beneficent problem cycles through which problems constrain each other. It could prove strategically advantageous to locate such cycles.

6. Reservations

Before commenting on the experiment in detecting vicious cycles, it is important to recognize that it is precisely through the detection of such loops that attention can be drawn to defects in the pattern of relationships in the data. Detection of loops is therefore in the first place an editorial tool. It raises questions as to the appropriateness of certain links which otherwise may go unquestioned. It also sharpens the discussion on how distinctions are made, using verbal categories and definitions, and how system boundaries are drawn grouping what is represented in this way. Because of the priority given to revising the pattern of relationships for this edition, there was insufficient time to run the program inanything but a test mode. It was not possible to correct obvious defects before running it to detect substantively significant loops only. Nevertheless the results are indicative of a very interesting area for further exploration.

7. Results

Using several 386 and 486 machines in parallel, some 9,519,722 pathways were tested for loops involving up to 7 problems. This process identified 7,303 such loops (3Loop=35; 4Loop=115; 5Loop=527; 6Loop=3,058; 7Loop=3,568). The procedure needs refinement, notably to detect problems that are not in loops. A list of examples is provided.

A simple three-loop is:


A five-loop:

A six-loop:

A seven loop:

Two six-loops linked by a common problem into a figure-of-eight:

8. Configuring interlocking cycles

Given the possibility of identifying such cycles, the question raised below is how this information could be best portrayed through various mapping techniques. One attractive possibility, consistent with some of the approaches below, is to map the circles around the surface of a sphere with whatever interlocking the data implies. The challenge of global governance is to match the complexity of the resulting structure by organized initiatives.

Figure 1: Metabolic pathways

A small portion of a laboratory wall-chart (100 x 132 cm size) reproduced, with permission of the designer, as an illustration of the ability of biochemists to display a complex network in a compact form for use in a work context.

Designed by Gerhard Michal. Published by Boehringer Mannheim GmbH, Germany.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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