Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

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Encyclopedia Project (Explanations)

Insights: Comprehension of sustainable integration

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


This Encyclopedia may be used like any other reference book. Using any of the indexes, entries on particular topics may be located and consulted. This may be sufficient for many. The organization of the book, with its many cross-references between entries, also permits users to explore "around" any particular entry or "from" it as a point of entry into a network of associated entries.

The deliberate lack of organization on any one page may also lead users to stumble onto entries totally unrelated to that they first consulted on that page. This can be a very fruitful and creative boundary-stretching exercise. Some users see this as the most useful feature of the book.

Such uses, whilst necessary for many purposes, are far from being sufficient in the face of the larger challenge of how to obtain some form of meaningful overview of such disparate kinds of information. Much has been written about the problems of information overload and information underuse, as well as on the problems of lack of information.

A first response with this material has been to group entries by subject, together with corresponding international organizations, in the companion volume Global Action Networks (Vol. 3 of the Yearbook of International Organizations). At one level this provides an equivalent to the "yellow page" telephone directory and may be used to locate organizations dealing with problems in a particular subject area. At another level the organization of the subjects is an ongoing experiment in the interrelationship of subject domains. This interweaving of subjects is designed to stress systemic relationships.

It is clear however that even more radical approaches are required to cultivate new levels of insight into complex patterns of information on "world problems", "human development", and "human values". This possibility is explored in three other parts of this Encyclopedia, of which one of them is implicit:

Some of the implications of these approaches for an integrative understanding of the complexes of world problems, human development and human values are explored below.

1. Integrative concepts

(a) Calls for integrative approaches: The past decades have stressed the importance of interdependence between problem areas and the disciplines capable of responding to them. There have been many calls for "integrative" programmes capable of handling the complexity of emerging networks of issues. "Interdisciplinarity" has been in vogue, especially through the work of systems specialists.

(b) Weakness of interdisciplinarity: But despite acknowledgement of the importance of this dimension, the integrative methodologies have tended to be weak or simplistic and cannot be said to have resulted in breakthroughs adequate to the challenge of the times. In fact such terms tend increasingly to be used as buzz words indicative of appropriate intentions but lacking significant content in practice.

(c) Integration through praxis: Currently the most integrative methodology is perhaps that which assembles a group of specialists to focus on a concrete problem. It is only the concrete case which ensures the integrative dimension. There is little methodology in the way that the disciplines are brought into play or in the way that their representatives interact. It has been remarked that interdisciplinary meetings tend to be integrative only in the binding of the book which holds the individual contributions together -- relegating the challenge of synthesis to the reader.

(d) Need for integrative overviews: The kinds of information in this Encyclopedia call strongly for an integrative overview, especially one which facilitates comprehension. It is for this reason that one section (section KC) reviews the range of integrative concepts as a reminder of the approaches that have been considered and despite the limitations that each may have from some other perspective.

(e) Failure in response to competing perspectives: A major concern with existing integrative approaches is their essential failure in handling competing perspectives. Advocates of any one such approach are ill-equipped to respond proactively to another. It is as though each was an effort at some form of conceptual empire-building, with associated dynamics reminiscent of the geopolitical equivalent and its marginalization of certain underdeveloped zones.

(f) Challenge of incommensurability: An accompanying section (Section KD, 1991) therefore focuses on the challenge of forming comprehensible patterns of sets of essentially incommensurable insights. The authors reviewed in that section have in one way or another responded to the challenge of conceptual discontinuity and disagreement. They suggest lines of exploration which may help to move beyond the sterility of many current initiatives perceived as integrative.

2. Computer graphics

(a) Mapping networks: The kinds of complexity represented by the interrelated entries in this Encyclopedia strongly suggest the value of sophisticated use of computer graphics. There are many ways in which the networks of entries could be graphically represented on a computer screen or on paper. This would offer users a new way of approaching such complexity, explicitly highlighting patterns of connectedness.

(b) Beyond conceptual "tunnel vision": There is a desperate need to move beyond the conventional bias towards describing complexity using text or in tables of statistics. This reinforces what amounts to conceptual "tunnel vision" and fails to suggest new patterns which give clues to new ways of approaching the data.

(c) Non-linear sense of context: This opportunity is discussed in greater detail in Section Z. But the sense can perhaps best be given by pointing to the role of the subway map as a visual guide to a complex transportation network. Such a map permits users to orient themselves in terms of where they are, where they want to get to, whilst allowing them to consider various options for getting there. It provides a non-linear sense of context and raises questions about other locations on the map and the ways of getting there.

(d) Towards an atlas of relationships: Equivalent maps could be produced for the network of problems, possibly bound in an "atlas" (or made available on computer via CD-ROM or via videodisc). They could also be related to other maps of the networks of international organizations. Such tools offer a new response to data that is already overwhelming in quantity.

3. Metaphors

(a) Inadequate dissemination of integrative insights: Whilst the two previous opportunities are indeed fruitful lines of exploration, the urgency with which new insights are required suggests such efforts are of marginal value. Both are relatively specialized tools. It is not clear that they would be used creatively. Nor is it clear that any emerging insights could be effectively communicated to the non-specialists who would have to approve initiatives based upon them. The communication processes of the international community are not adequate to the task of disseminating integrative insight such as to prevent erosion of the richness that is a guarantee of its appropriateness.

(b) Metaphor as a widely accessible resource: Metaphor is widely used at all levels of society to communicate complex insights. It is used as much by the slum dweller endeavouring to empower himself in response to an essentially alienating environment as it is by the politician in communicating new programme proposals to the electorate. It is also used by hard-nosed managers in articulating business strategies and by nuclear physicists in endeavouring to comprehend mathematical abstractions. Metaphor is an important device in the creative process. It is fundamental to certain advertising techniques.

(c) Articulation of complex policy options: The use of metaphor as one of the major unexplored conceptual resources in responding to the challenge of the times is considered in Section MZ. The argument there is that metaphor provides a way of articulating complex policy options which could not otherwise be rendered credible. As such it provides the opportunity for exploring the kinds of policies which could be of sufficient complexity to respond to the dilemmas of the times -- several steps beyond the "nuclear umbrella".

Many of the metaphors in Section MZ specifically address the difficulty of interrelating essentially incompatible perspectives and of providing some understanding of the dynamics between them and how they can be appropriately managed.

(d) Communicability of metaphor: One of the principal merits of metaphors is that like humour and rumour they are readily understood, memorable and they travel well -- with relatively little loss of the richness which ensures their appropriateness. They call for relatively little investment and do not require expensive delivery systems. They do not threaten existing structures. They complement conventional educational techniques and media presentations. They are also extensively used in the political arena. The challenge is therefore more one of providing better metaphors and creating greater awareness of how to use them and of how to avoid becoming trapped by bad metaphors.

(e) Simplistic approaches to "sustainable development": The poverty of insight guiding current thinking may be illustrated by the concept of "sustainable development". The current credibility of that option is perhaps best illustrated by the metaphor of "having one's cake and eating it too". This illustrates the dilemma. But the strategic complexity through which the dilemma might be resolved is not captured by that metaphor, or by any other.

The metaphor of "stewardship" indicates an appropriate attitude but does not get to grips with the how -- and relies on imagery evoking benevolent paternalism (at its best). By contrast, a rich metaphor indicated in the text is that of "crop rotation", implying a cycle of distinct and complementary policies to ensure the sustainability of any long-term initiative. This honours the reality of opposing policies and indicates how they may function creatively in relation to one another.

(f) Metaphor as a traditional vehicle for insight: Exploration of metaphor as a response to current dilemmas is not as far-fetched as it may seem. In many traditions insight is carried from generation to generation through metaphor, often expressed in mythology. In crisis, cultures have drawn on such metaphor in articulating an appropriate response. Many of the insights concerning more profound states of awareness are expressed in metaphor, as are the spiritual journeys through which they are encountered.

The concern at this time is to understand what richer metaphors might be more appropriate, to clarify ways of designing and using metaphor in the policy process, and to empower people to use their own metaphors to redesign their own psycho-social environments in the light of their own insights.