Wicked Problems, Collaborative Conservation (and Climate Change?)

Spatial fire planning is an emerging vehicle for collaborative planning. Click on the image above to read more about it. Credit: Mike Caggiano, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Colorado State University

This piece by Peter Williams came from the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, which always has interesting posts. As I read Peter’s piece, I remembered Dave Iverson writing about wicked problems for years, including this piece from 2011 on TSW.

In Coming to Public Judgment , Yankelovich (1991) determined that the most critical barrier to making effective and informed choices in a complex world is the lack of forums in which the process of “working through” value differences and preferences can occur. There is growing support among natural resource professionals that a public dialogue must be an integral part of achieving social and political acceptance of forest practices (e.g., Bengston 1994, Clark and Stankey 1991, Shepard 1992). Regardless of value differences, if people are to come to an understanding of, if not agreement on, the problems and choices that confront public lands management, it is likely to be in public forums where open and honest discussion can occur. Unfortunately, from their research on adaptive approaches to forest management, Stankey and Shindler (1997) conclude that such forums are most notable by their scarcity. (emphasis added)

Note that many of Dave’s cites are 20-25 years old. Perhaps we have made some progress since 1997 on public fora? What do you think?

From Peter’s piece:

In fact, approaching a wicked problem as though it were tame and technical is a mistake that often leads to new and more challenging problems that emerge from the mismatch between the problem and the approach.

So, what are we talking about? A wicked problem, at its core, is defined by disagreements about:

-The problem’s nature or type;
-Goals for addressing it;
-How to reach those goals;
-How to tell when it’s solved.
And those disagreements build on each other, often from the very beginning when first explaining or trying to understand the problem. The wickedness of a wicked problem is not about mistakes or misunderstanding; its more about values, priorities and how different people see the world.

There are a number of distinguishing and interrelated characteristics of a wicked problem, according to the two scholars who documented their thoughts about this (Rittel and Webber 1973). We’ve mentioned several already:

-A problem is wicked if it has no definitive formulation, so smart people define it differently;
-A wicked problem has no stopping rule, so it’s hard to gauge success;
-It has no best or worst solution, only ones that are subjectively good or bad;
-It has no clear test of solutions, so decisions simultaneously produce success and failure, which also means there is little sound basis to establish statistical, scientific probabilities;
-It is dynamic and unique in meaningful ways, so every attempted solution is also unique in meaningful ways and leads to an equally unique outcome;
-It is a symptom of other problems and a cause of still others, all with unclear boundaries;
-And last, it has unclear decision makers because different individuals or groups can choose to respond to the problem independently, or even in opposing ways for conflicting reasons.

These characteristics explain why we see wicked problems as tricky like a leprechaun and slippery like a wily coyote, the trickster here in the Southwest.

For me, the most important lesson about wicked problems is that community collaboration and collaborative conservation are the most appropriate ways to address them and to manage them for the long-run. Specifically, it isn’t just that we most often face wicked problems; it’s that our skills and approaches are most suitable for dealing with and managing that tricky type of problem.

Treating a wicked problem like a tame or technical one ignores the wicked characteristics that a collaborative approach embraces. Collaborative approaches — when done well (see The 8 Watch Outs of Collaboration for tips on recognizing problems and getting back on track) — bring different, diverse perspectives together to produce a shared understanding and commitment.

This includes a shared sense of healthy skepticism. That shared understanding, combined with a bias toward action, can be the basis for ongoing learning — knowing that the problem will continue to evolve regardless.

Take note: collaborative conservation and community collaboration most often deal with wicked problems, which is good because their nonlinear, diverse approaches are exactly what’s needed.

It’s interesting to think about climate change as a wicked problem, and many have. Here’s one Australian perspective from 2013 (note the author is not talking about the recent Australian election).

Maybe we could scale up the idea of collaborative approaches to deal with climate change? Can collaboration be scaled up? Do you have examples, say at the state level?

6 thoughts on “Wicked Problems, Collaborative Conservation (and Climate Change?)”

  1. It’s really nice to see this wicked problem piece get in front of this group. I especially like that one of the folks in the photo is a colleague on some of the work I’m about to mention. What I’d like to do is add a few ideas related to scaling up collaborative approaches to address climate change, which truly is as wicked a problem as any.

    Just as background, I’ve been working on this problem or ones like it for quite some time, having engaged with, among a solid list of examples, the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC’s) and similar efforts when those were underway. I also worked on the National Protocol Strategy and the National Monitoring Framework during my USFS time, whether as a project or team lead, a subject matter expert, or a collaborative process expert.

    Today, I’m a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Network for Landscape Conservation, a public-private partnership that serves as a forum for identifying and addressing challenges of working at broad scales. Some of my areas of interest are associated with the challenges of doing conservation science at broad scales and those of scientists working within a collaborative effort regardless of scale. And I’m one of the lead instructors and Associate Director of the Partnership and Community Collaboration Academy where we teach many of these ideas, train folks on the skills, and bring in folks who have tremendous case studies to share.

    I mention all this because, while scaling up is truly important, it also has its own challenges, separate from just an additive approach to collaborative conservation. For example, there are ecological challenges inherent to that broader scale, as well as social, political, economic, and cultural challenges that, at that scale, are meaningfully different than those at more local scales. In addition, though, there are some challenges that do aggregate upwards from more local to broader scales. And there are challenges that emerge from trying to work at that broader scale.

    What I’m suggesting is this: working collaboratively at broader scales isn’t just a larger version of what we might do at a more local scale because the challenges become more complex, not just more complicated. While some challenges do aggregate or add up as we work at broader scales, others seem to multiply as we move up (they’re the same challenge only bigger) and some actually seem to emerge in the sense that we wouldn’t have seen them until we began working at broader scales. Climate change seems a perfect example of a wicked problem that has additive, multiplicative, and emergent challenges all embedded.

    All this seems to suggest that a *process* limited to our experience working on those narrower sets of challenges runs the real risk of being inconsistent with the broader ones because it would have blind spots. This may be painfully obvious, but it seems important enough to call out.

    While we can’t just add up what we know of working collaboratively on more local challenges, we also don’t need to act like we’re starting over, like we don’t have some great resources and experiences to build from. This is because collaborative conservation is, at its core, about learning, especially learning through action and learning collaboratively.

    With all that in mind, the point I’d offer here is this: a collaborative approach seems ideal for a problem like climate change that is wicked and fraught with emergent challenges as we work at different, often broader scales. This is because a collaborative approach can deal with the very sources of that wickedness, including disagreements about the nature of the problem, the goals for addressing it, the options for addressing it, and how we’re even going to know if we’re moving in the direction we want.

    What that might look like and how we do it, however, is the next, perhaps biggest question. I have some ideas, but I’m sure others do as well.

  2. Sharon,
    Thank you for posting this! I think this is really the root problem for many NEPA projects – the framework most teams use to try to implement NEPA isn’t adequate to really engage people with diverse perspectives. When teams attempt complicated (“wicked”) NEPA projects, the instinct seems to be to just throw more analysis into the document to cover everything in case of lawsuits, but a better approach (IMHO) would be to adequately engage all the stakeholders from the beginning.

    A great book on wicked problems and how to collaborate is “A Place for Dialogue: Land Use and Dialogue in Southern Arizona” by Sharon McKenzie Stevens.

    • Conor, thank you for the reference. In my own experience, (projects that “exceeded containment and made it to the RO or into litigation), it seemed clear that the litigants simply didn’t want the activity to occur. So FS folks know they are going to be litigated and put emphasis on a good record. Do you have examples where “all stakeholders with diverse points of view” were adequately engaged from the beginning? Because I am thinking of say, oil and gas, and it seems like some people are totally against those projects. so how should the FS engage them?

  3. Spot-on, Conor. NEPA projects often make great examples of wicked problems. The authors of the original NEPA regulations from CEQ seemed to understand this as they laid out the two basic types of effects (direct and indirect) and then went on to discuss cumulative effects as being the combined effects of direct and indirect from the project, as well as interactions between those effects and between those and the effects of other actions. That emergent aspect of NEPA effects analysis goes directly to the emergent qualities of wicked problems.

    Also, in case folks might be interested, there’s some related literature about what are called “normal accidents” that also might be relevant because, among other insights, it makes a distinction between complicated problems and *complex* ones.

    The words aren’t as important as the concept: the former are problems that may have many parts or pieces, but are pretty linear or additive in how those pieces interact, which means you can deconstruct the problem isn’t pieces with confidence. Those problems lend themselves to assigning probabilities and encourage collapsing on narrow predictions and what’s called “ballistic decisions” (decisions that assume actions and effects will unfold exactly as predicted). Folks may disagree on the ‘right’ answer, but they all agree that there is one.

    Complex problems, however, are problems with emergent qualities that are so hard to predict and sometimes hard to even recognize. Probabilistic approaches can only go so far, but plausibility, as a complimentary approach, can be pretty useful because it encourages a more open-minded, often collaborative approach and ongoing learning to substantiate and validate which of those often many plausible outcomes are actually happening.

    With complex problems, ongoing management and collaboration become that much more important because those interactive and emergent effects mean even the most technically correct predictions are unlikely to unfold as assumed. That seems to suggest collaborative learning, monitoring, and evaluation become crucial, central parts of good conservation and good management. Not the technically complicated and often expensive approaches, but the smart, sophisticatedly slim approaches needed to address complex problems.

    I’d be curious to hear from folks about whether these ideas not only resonate, but seem worth examples of how to make them work on the ground.

  4. This sounds a bit like “adaptive management” : maybe someone has an experience to share about how it worked or didn’t. Anyone? Anywhere?

    • Interesting question. Related, I’ve often wondered whether adaptive management in practice is more closely aligned with traditional probabilistic approaches or really could embrace this extension of what I’ve called plausibility that seems to work with complex, wicked problems. Adaptive management should be the later, which is what Kai Lee and others encouraged. But in practice it might look more like the former, which is some form of trial and error. Still, would be great to hear from other folks with experience.


Leave a Comment