Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Strategic Comprehension

within a strategic reframing of the Union of International Associations (2005)

[reframe index]

Governance context

Since its foundation, the UIA has sought every possible means to use information to frame the challenges and opportunities of governance in an increasingly complex world.

Profiling international advocacy groups (+working links)

A core activity of the UIA is the profiling of some 50,000 international bodies, whether nongovernmental, civil society bodies (NGOs) or intergovernmental agencies (IGOs). This notably includes indication of the working relationships between them so as to provide an understanding of the interweaving network of bodies that constitutes the social fabric -- the social ecosystem through which society is governed.

Profiling articulated world issues (+systemic links)

The challenges of governance of the world are those detected by the vast network of international bodies through which national and local concerns are articulated. From 1972, the UIA has developed profiles of over 50,000 world problems from the documents of international bodies. Great emphasis is placed on the network of relationships between these issues through which particular problems aggravate or alleviate others through "vicious" feedback loops.

Profiling advocated world strategies (+systemic links)

In response to the problems detected by international bodies, strategies and initiatives have been advocated or undertaken. These are effectively governance initiatives, whether undertaken through intergovernmental or nongovernmental bodies. Since 1984, the UIA has developed generic profiles of some 50,000 of these initiatives. Again the emphasis is on indicating the systemic relationships through which individual strategies support or undermine each other.

Registering international meetings

International meetings are the most visible manifestation of the activities of international bodies, in articulating and implementing their strategies in response to the challenges of society -- or in celebration of their values and interests. Since its foundation, the UIA has registered over 250,000 such meetings and continues to focus on the registration of some 7,000 scheduled future international meetings. This information is made available to support the initiatives of international organizations and the scheduling of their activities.

Complexity comprehension

Knowledge mapping: A major concern is the development of new ways to comprehend the complexity of the above networks of insights through visual means and sound. A series of experiments has been undertaken to permit user generation of virtual reality structures to represent these complex networks and interlocking loops in a more meaningful visual way. Profiles of problems and strategies on the web offer users access to interactive self-organizing maps of complex networks under user control to provide conceptual scaffolding for more integrative insights. The challenge is to develop more integrative knowledge maps to provide perspective, overview and context through which detail can be explored interactively. Software challenges relating to comprehension and visualization have been identified in a series of papers. Web experiments using auditory cues are also in progress.

Meaning vs Information

Information overload is a major concern for the future. Fragmentation of knowledge and lack of meaningful conceptual integration processes are tragic consequences for the development process. The UIA knowledge-bases provide a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural context in which to explore these challenges and to develop new conceptual tools relevant to more fruitful policy-making. Studies explore the relevance of metaphor to comprehension and governance.

Integrative comprehension

Shifting the level of insight Registries tend to focus on organizational and other entities in isolation at a time when community building and initiatives depend on working with networks of bodies, using networks of strategies against networks of problems. The UIA with funding from the European Commission, has explored methods of developing, refining and dynamically displaying the self-sustaining, interlocking loops of problems, issues and solutions as a means of shifting the level of analysis beyond seemingly isolated entities. Loop detection and other algorithms have been developed in support of visualization tools to assist mapping and navigation of complex organizational environments. The significance of this work is that there has long been recognition of how one problem can aggravate another and of how several problems can reinforce each other. The UIA data 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. A loop represents a description of a chain of consequences that produces a dynamic outcome by feeding off itself (positive feedback = "vicious" or "virtuous" loops), or by controlling itself (negative feedback). Typically a feedback loop will be an important strategic issue in its own right. The purpose of detecting feedback loops is to raise the level of analysis of individual issues to a higher, systemic level - whether with respect to organizations, problems or strategies. It is a technique that has the potential to add extra meaning to basic data, particularly relevant for policy makers and others concerned with understanding the interrelationships and root causes of problems. This initiative seeks to enhance the capacity of the organizational community in ways that are not possible by a focus on isolated organizations and their relationships.

Enhancing community imagination and vision

The UIA has been actively exploring ways of integrating its registry and profiling functions with the kinds of virtual interactive environment in which imagination can be enhanced to enable the emergence of new styles of organization. These possibilities are seen as potentially vital at a time when conventional structures have proven inadequate under many circumstances. As envisaged by Douglas Engelbart and Ivan Sutherland in the early 1970s, there is every possibility that radically different styles of virtual organization, configurations of concepts, and community may be possible with structural devices whose credibility, coherence and viability can exist only within a virtual environment. There is much creative experiment with virtual environments. The challenge to date is that no databases are adapted to rapidly populate them to enable widespread access using web technology. The UIA data is held in ways that has already lent itself readily to such experiments with immediate payoffs for web users of its data. The significance of such work was recently acknowledged at an international symposium of AI specialists of the Global Brain Group (Brussels, 2000). Further experimentation over the web has been curtailed by lack of resources.

Multi-lingual access

Considerable attention has been given to the multi-lingual challenge and to automatic translation procedures. Emphasis is placed on multi-lingual keyword access from a variety of languages, even when data is only available in English. Organization descriptions have been translated into French, for example, with ACCT support.


Since the 1970s, the UIA has sought ways to move beyond linear text to honour the reality of networks of relationships between issues and the networks organizations and strategies that endeavour to respond to them. The hypertext environment of the web has been ideal for this, as well as various kinds of visualization and mapping techniques. The cognitive possibilities of sonification have also been the subject of experiment. 

Metaphors and patterns

Since the early 1980s the Union of International Associations has been exploring 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.

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.

Experimental representation

The UIA has undertaken a variety of online experiments in representation of complex patterns of information using virtual reality techniques, mapping techniques and classification systems of non-western  cultures.