About the Encyclopedia

The Encyclopedia of World Problems is a long-term project, initiated in 1972. It is a resource which attempts to present the world as people experience it, whether negatively or positively. The phenomena described are those which inspire both hopes and fears about the world's future, whether real or imaginary. The world is complex and rapidly changing so that anticipating and planning in the face of a myriad of interconnected problems is becoming increasingly challenging. Our ability to conceive adequate solutions is often undermined by our lack of understanding of the nature of problems in their wider context.

The Encyclopedia is a unique tool that offers an holistic approach to problems and strategies. It not only systematically identifies recognized world problems, but also maps the complexity of their inter-relationships. The Encyclopedia also has the potential to identify the strategies and solutions that humanity actually or potentially uses to confront problems, as well as mutually reinforcing strategic cycles.

The Encyclopedia allows policy makers, researchers and other users to discover new approaches to understanding and action, and to challenge unquestioned patterns of response to the crises of the times. It helps clarify the conceptual challenge of interrelating and disparate, or even contradictory information, within our complex societies. It provides a framework to hold the variety of existing perspectives at a global level and to provide means for exploring their relationships. The Encyclopedia can also empower individuals and societies in their response to the problematic conditions of the moment by facilitating an alternation between cultural perspectives, ideologies, beliefs and even "facts".


A preliminary investigation in 1971 by the Union of International Associations, led by Anthony Judge, showed that there was very little in the way of systematic descriptive listing of world problems. This prompted the UIA to undertake a data-collection exercise using the resources of the vast network of international organizations profiled in its Yearbook of International Organizations.

This long-term project was initiated in 1972 in collaboration with the foundation Mankind 2000. At the time it was judged to be an "impossible project", but the first work based on this research was published in 1976 under the title Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential.

The UIA also had activities prior to 1939 which illustrate its long-term interest in relation to the Encyclopedia project. These include publication of the Annuaire de la Vie Internationale (1908-1909 & 1910-1911) which included information on problems with which international organizations were concerned at that time. Also published was a Code des Voeux Internationaux; codification générale des voeux et résolutions des organismes internationaux (1923) which listed those portions of the texts of international organization resolutions which covered substantive matters, including what are now regarded as world problems and what amount to plans or strategies for their solution.

Paul Otlet, co-founder of the UIA, also produced in 1916 a book entitled Les Problèmes Internationaux et la Guerre which identified many problems giving rise to and caused by war. In 1935 he attempted a synthesis, Monde: essaie d'universalisme -- connaissance du monde; sentiment du monde; action organisée et plan du monde, which touched upon many problems and their solution within a society in transformation. The preface bore the title The Problem of Problems, a topic he had first explored in 1918.

Potential uses and application

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. For instance, the researchers at the UIA are 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 the section on Transformative Approaches to Social Organization, the implications for computer graphics, transformative conferencing and the design of policy cycles capable of responding to vicious problem cycles are explored. Much emphasis is placed on the potential of new metaphors for governance as a major unexplored resource to enable paradigm shifts. The suggestion is made that many institutions and policies are trapped in inadequate policy metaphors. In this spirit theEncyclopedia 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. It will prove useful to many people or organizations, such as:

  • policymakers, and governmental public officers
  • development agencies
  • students, universities, academies, libraries and documentation centres
  • international institutions, organizations and embassies
  • commercial enterprises and entrepreneurs
  • editors and journalists
  • scientists and researchers
  • and many concerned, creative and participative individuals like yourself