A preliminary investigation in 1971 by the Union of International Associations showed that there was very little in the way of systematic descriptive listing of world problems, awareness of how many there were, or views about whether such information would be useful. An attempt had been made by Hasan Ozbekhan in 1968, which listed 28 Continuous Critical Problems, and this was later extended to 48 in an internal document of the Club of Rome.
Such extended lists begin to include problems which are not of importance in their own right but primarily by their relationship to the other problems in the problem complex or network. If some problems are commonly dependent on reinforcement from apparently insignificant and little-known problems, these latter may acquire considerable importance in any policy relating to the problem complex. Furthermore, if it can be shown that response to them is impeded by other problems, these last may acquire even greater proportional significance in the network.
It was these points which prompted the UIA to undertake a data-collection exercise early in 1972 using the resources of the network of 2500 international governmental and non-governmental organisations on which it maintains profiles in its Yearbook of International Organizations and related publications. The exercise was an attempt to elicit information from organisations on the problems they believed to be within their area or particularly relevant to them.
This long-term project was initiated in 1972 in collaboration with foundation Mankind 2000. For an early description of the project see the external wesbite for the article World Problems and Human Potential: a Data Interlinkage and Display Process, written by Anthony Judge in 1975. At the time it was judged to be an "impossible project", but the first published work based on this research was the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential published in 1976, then under its current name of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential in 1986 and 1991. The publication was then expanded to 3 volumes, titled the Encyclopedia of World Problems, Volume 1: World Problems published in 1994, Volume 2: Human Potential in 1994, and Volume 3: Actions, Strategies and Solutions in 1995. Also available is a statistical overview of the development of the Encyclopedia research from 1976-1995.
Research was also significantly developed from 1997-2000 through a collaborative project with the European Commission called Ecolynx designed to provide a context for information on biological conservation issues. Similarly, the Interactive Health Ecology Access Links project (IHEAL), also in collaboration with the European Commission in 1999 enabled further research on mapping the connections between the problems humanity is faced with, and the strategies envisaged to address them, in the context of environmental health. In November 1999, full-scale dynamic access to the main databases was opened up to the public via the entry portal at http://uia.org/user
For nearly three decades, the Encyclopedia has been a project ahead of its time and catching up with its destiny. With each new edition, or electronic variant, more people appreciate and acknowledge its achievements and are inspired by its potential - which some have suggested is a basis for a futuristic electronic knowledge system, or alternatively a conceptual framework which can hold and interlink the full range of dilemmas and possibilities of human development. It has never ceased to be an "impossible" project in any final sense - but it has proven to be a "do-able" project whose realization day by day and year by year, is enriched rather than weighed down by its vision.