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?