Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

Status message

You are currently in UIA's online document archive. These pages are no longer maintained. To search the full archive click here.

The Encyclopedia is currently undergoing redevelopment !

5.3 Feedback loops and dependent co-arising

1. Challenge of multiplicity

The different sections of this Encyclopedia pose a major conceptual challenge. It is one thing to aspire to order the strategic challenge in terms of 5-10 major problems, global strategies, values, or understandings of human development -- especially if the challenge is seen within the context of 5-10 major institutions of world governance. It is quite another to deal with 5,000 to 10,000 or more in each case. And yet it is with the latter that people identify, not the former -- which tend to be abstract in the extreme and arrogant in their effective exclusion of alternative insights and priorities.

But how is meaning to be isolated from 5,000 to 10,000 of anything? And what could be the nature of that meaning?

2. Mapping networks

Much effort has been invested in this Encyclopedia, and in its companion Yearbook of International Organizations, to indicate links between organizations, between problems, between values, between strategies, and the like. These exercises map networks. Building on this, in the case of the 160,000 links between problems, a further effort has been made to detect self-sustaining feedback loops, or vicious cycles, that ensure the persistence of certain problems. How is meaning to be derived from such information, even though a focus on loops implies a potentially fruitful new level of analysis?

3. Dependent co-arising

Buddhist understanding of complexity has been cited in other volumes of this Encyclopedia. But in this connection the notion of "dependent co-arising" is relevant. In contrast to the conventional concern with detecting prime causes against which resources could be usefully deployed, Buddhism stresses recognition of patterns or circuits of contingency. The factors of concern are sustained by their own interdependence.

4. Patterns of conditionality

In a process understanding of reality, there is recognition of continual flow, of the radical impermanence of all things. No feature, whether material or conceptual, is then aloof from change. Patterns of conditionality emerge in a context which may appear chaotic and random. Consistent with David Bohm's understanding of "holomovement", factors of existence are mutually determined, providing occasion and context for each other's emergence and subsiding.

5. Attachment to transitional objects

The Buddhist response is to recognize that suffering, whether individual or collective, is caused by the interplay of factors, and especially by the delusion, aversion and craving that arise from misapprehension of them. Strategic ineptness, whether individual or collective, might then be understood as a result of reifying and clinging to what is by nature contingent and transient -- to transitional objects.

6. Risk of asystemic strategies

Such insights have immediate relevance to the strategic challenge. The tendency to focus on particular issues and to formulate global strategies in response to them can be seen as part of the problem -- especially when such strategies fail to encompass the variety of factors sustaining a pattern of problems. Agenda 21, arising from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992) is a case in point. Although claiming to respond to systemic issues associated with development and environment, it is essentially an asystemic document in which few linkages between its constituent chapters are acknowledged. It can thus only engender systemic failures when it is "successfully" implemented on a chapter by chapter basis through fragmented institutional systems at the international or local levels.

7. Feedback loops

The feedback loops between problems suggest another perspective. Problems do not engender each other as in linearcausality. They help each other happen by providing occasion or locus or context. In so doing they in turn are affected through a mutuality or reciprocal dynamic. The power of problems arises not from particular problems but from the relationship between them.

This is consistent with the perspective of Robert Fritz, composer-turned-management consultant in Corporate Tides: redesigning the corporation (1995). He sees structure in organization in terms of tension between actual and desired states. In its productive or virtuous form, this structural tension engenders resolving actions, with actions coming to an end when a desired outcome is reached. When organizations are structured so that resolving actions reinforce each other "they produce networks of resolving behaviour which amplify the magnitude and scope of the enterprise. They have synergy." Conversely, when organizations are not well structured, the tension results in oscillation (such as between centralization and decentralization), giving only the illusion of change. Well-meaning initiatives for change then gradually revert back into the original condition.

For Buddhism, the response to the generation of the interlocked pattern of problems is to recognize their radical interdependence through a new approach to perception. It is accepted that this understanding is hard to convey because it is essentially counter-intuitive and opposed to conventional reliance on the security of fixed understandings.

8. Shifting the level of analysis

The possibility of focusing on feedback loops is a major feature of this Encyclopedia. It offers new ways of ordering conceptual, institutional and communication relationships. This is consistent with the insights of systems theorists but goes beyond their need to limit attention to loops which can be defined mathematically in cybernetic terms. An early focus on complex loops is described elsewhere (see Note 9, para 80).

Topological loops could be considered closer to insights from Buddhism and to the radical cognitive challenge implied from that perspective. Buddhism has however failed to seek ways of marrying its insights, as expressed in mandalas and other patterns, to the emerging possibilities of pattern management using new computer technologies.

The set of problems can therefore be usefully understood as emerging as a set. The requisite set of strategic responses can also be seen as a corresponding set. A major question is how such sets are to be understood as globally organized or articulated. For it is through such understanding that the transition can be achieved to higher levels of strategic response -- however these are to be understood and communicated.

From a strategic perspective on the patterns of relationship between strategies responding to problems, the question is whether a focus on mutually reinforcing or constraining strategic loops could lead to a new level of strategic response. Beyond the single strategy, this would constitute a dynamic response to loops of problems through a circle of matching strategies. It is through the recognition and management of interlocking strategic loops that more effective approaches may lie -- whether at the global, local or individual levels.

9. An underlying dilemma

However the underlying dilemma of the Buddhist perspective remains -- reliance on particular patterns, and attachment to them, can in no way be considered a recipe for success, especially in highly turbulent times. How "real" are any of these many strategies, embedded as they are in political and public relations language games?

For whom are they real, why, and for how long? Present despair over the policy vacuum and the futility of many initiatives may perhaps be understood as a negative perception of what may emerge as a radical shift in understanding.