Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

Project Overview

Context: This is the description of a long-term project, initiated in 1972 by Mankind 2000 in collaboration with the Union of International Associations, resulting in a succession of four hardcopy editions of the "Encyclopedia", the last in 1995 (the first being titled Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential). Subsequently the databases of the component projects (listed below) have been variously integrated into a succession of project initiatives (described in the Projects Overview). The most significant of these, on the initiative of a consortium of organizations, funded by the European Commission (DG XIII: Info2000) from 1997-2000 was the Ecolynx - Information Context for Biodiversity Conservation designed to provide a multi-media context for online information on biological conservation issues. Access is available to the online archive version. A comprehensive overview is also available in a Wikipedia entry on the Encyclopedia initiative

The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential was the result of an ambitious effort to collect and present information on the problems with which humanity perceives itself to be confronted. It aims to clarify the challenges such problems represent to concepts, values and development strategies. The Encyclopedia encourages the discovery of a new conceptual dynamic for understanding and action, sufficiently complex to encompass the factions, conflicts and paradigms by which people are separated -- both from each other and from a promising future.

The Encyclopedia (in its online archival version) consists of a number of extensive data sets. These are hyperlinked within each other and to each other, as well as to compatible data sets -- notably those which makes up the Yearbook of International Organizations. This volume profiles the 50,000 international bodies from which the data for the Encyclopedia is largely derived.

Further general information is available on this page. There is also a set of general comments on the project as a whole, as well sets of explanatory comments on its sub-projects.

Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential
Sub-Projects (and Comments) Databases
(and Maps)
Profiles Links
World problems (C) 56,564 276,791
Strategies - Actions - Solutions (C) 32,547 284,382
Human development and potential (C) 4,817 19,757
Human values and wisdom (C) 3,257 119,255
Integrative / unitary knowledge (C) 633 -
Potential questions 1,058,278 -
Governance through metaphor . .
Metaphors and patterns (C) experiment .
Transformative approaches . .
Visualization (virtual reality) . .
Sound (music) . .
Compatible projects
International organizations / NGOs (C) 61,398 896,750
Biographical profiles (C) 20,847 26,383
International meetings (C) 241,392 267,445
Bibliographies (C) 20,237 1,089
Subproject database relationships in 1976
(click on image below for enlarged version)
Shifting the focus from isolated issues and strategies to cycles of issues and strategies
Organizational strategies and programmes that focus on only one problem in the chain tend to fail because the cycle has the capacity to regenerate itself. Worse still is that such cycles tend to interlock, creating the complex of global problems which causes so many to despair. The good news is that identifying vicious cycles is a first step towards designing cycles of strategies to reverse or break them. Better still some problems are linked by serendipitous cycles in which each problem alleviates the next -- and, even better, some strategies function in serendipitous cycles to reinforce each other and break vicious problem cycles. Detecting them is a future focus of the Encyclopedia project.

In the past, much effort has gone into the focus on seemingly isolated world problems, such as unemployment, boredom, endangered species, desertification or corruption. Work on the newly published Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential has now shifted its focus to the hunt for complex networks and even vicious cycles of problems. A cycle is a chain of problems, with each aggravating the next -- with the last looping back to aggravate the first in the chain. The more obvious loops may be composed of only 3 or 4 problems. Far less obvious are those composed of  7 or more.

An exampleof a vicious cycle is: Alienation -> Youth gangs -> Neighbourhood control by criminals -> Psychological stress of urban environment -> Substance abuse -> Family breakdown -> Alienation. Such cycles are vicious because they are self-sustaining. Identifying them is also no easy matter. Like the search for strange particles in physics, much computer time is required to track through the aggravating chains linking problems. A preliminary search along 9 million such pathways has so far identified 19,000 cycles composed of up to 7 problems -- of which 2,873 are specifically identified on the CD-ROM.

Scope and challenge
Although it is still possible to gather and configure so much detail into book form (or onto the CD-ROM version of the Encyclopedia and Yearbook), the editors are much concerned with new ways of visualizing complex networks of relationships. The challenge is to find meaningful ways to navigate through such complexity and to evoke imaginative insights in response to it. In a section on transformative approaches, the editors explore the implications for computer graphics, transformative conferencing and the design of policy cycles capable of responding to vicious problem cycles.

Much emphasis is placed on the potential of new metaphors for governance as a major unexplored resource to enable paradim shifts. The suggestion is made that many institutions and policies are trapped in inadequate policy metaphors. In this spirit the Encyclopedia even contains an extensive exploration of the relevance to governance of fruitful cross-fertilization between poetry-making and policy-making -- seen as equivalent to the mythical challenge of arranging a marriage between Beauty and the Beast.

The Encyclopedia offers radically different perspectives to policy-makers, social researchers and those concerned with development strategy. It is also fascinating reading for any individual with concern for human affairs and wary of the risks of "tunnel vision" in conventional approaches to crises and opportunities.

Most encyclopedias focus only on positive, sanitized aspects of society, presenting an idealized worldview that denies the shadow of humanity. This is one of the few even to mention the existence of such phenomena as corruption (96 entries), torture and many others that do not appear on the agendas of international conferences. It attempts to present the world as many experience it, whether negatively or positively.

Users of the Encyclopedia are encouraged to discover new approaches to understanding and action through the deliberate juxtaposition, within the same context, of contradictory perceptions and fundamentally incompatible viewpoints. By juxtaposing different, but complementary, perspectives, the Encyclopedia is deliberately designed to challenge unquestioned patterns of response to the crises of the times and to evoke new insights in the reader. In this sense it is full of shocks and creative surprises.

This unique 3-volume reference book is a comprehensive sourcebook of information on recognized world problems, their interconnections and the human resources available to analyze and ultimately respond to them. Many are seldom, if ever, described elsewhere in specific or precise terms. Much of the information derives from the United Nations and other intergovernmental agencies, as well as from the many international nongovernmental bodies documented in the companion 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations.

Juxtaposing conflicting perceptions and priorities -- identifying the dynamic reality of world society
The Encyclopedia is innovative in that considerable effort has been devoted to identifying and juxtaposing the many conflicting perceptions and priorities which constitute the dynamic reality of world society. Such information is usually difficult to extract from research literature stressing theories, administrative documents justifying programs, political manifestos defending ideological positions, or from news commentaries on current events.

No other publication identifies such a complete range of problems transcending national boundaries. The world problems in Volume 1 are complemented by a group of sections in Volume 2 indicating ways in which appropriate responses may be conceived. What emerges are patterns, relationships and configurations uncharacteristic of the usual fragmented and specialized perceptions, or of the policies and institutions that have themselves become barriers to understanding and meaningful change.

The phenomena identified in this publication are those which inspire both hopes and fears, whether real or imaginary, about the world's future. They constitute a challenge to creative remedial action, functioning as a powerful stimulus to the development of society. The Encyclopedia deliberately presents fundamental contradictions -- of cultures, ideologies, beliefs and even "facts" -- in an effort to explore the complex, dynamic middle ground of possible solutions to the problems of the global village.

Cross-references and (hyper) links
There are cross-references between entries in the principal sections. If present, these are listed at the end of each entry. In some cases there are also cross-references between entries in different sections. Generally there are two main groups of cross-references:

Logical relationship between entries in a section:

  • Broader, or more general, entries
  • Narrower, or more specific, entries
  • Related entries
Functional relationship between entries in a section:
  • Causally preceding entries: Other entries that may be considered to precede the entry in any causal chain or process
  • Causally following entries: Other entries that may be considered to follow from this entry in any causal chain
  • A further distinction may be made between a constructive and a destructive causal chain.
Vicious problem cycles and sustainable strategic loops: The functional relationships between problems have been searched to locate vicious loops, shifting the level of analysis from isolated problems to problem cycles (examples). This approach also permits detection of serendipitous loop relationships between strategies. See detailed comment and visualizations
Project development

For a statistical overview of the development of the Encyclopedia databases, see:

Specific descriptions, see:

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential