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Wicked problems and how to stop them turning horrid

By Jennifer Sinclair - posted Thursday, 17 March 2011

Climate change and global warming are what are known in policy circles as 'wicked problems'. Because of their complexity, 'wicked problems' are unlike problems policy makers are used to dealing with. By way of contrast, eradicating smallpox was a simple problem because once an antidote was discovered, a public immunisation program resolved the issue . Wicked problems or complex problems are much more difficult to tackle. They often have many causes, many interests are involved, they often require social change and are unlikely to have a final or definitive solution. In addition, it is recognised any 'solution' to a wicked problem will have unknown consequences. This daunting list of characteristics of wicked problems – such as climate change and there are many others – raises the obvious question of what to do, since by their very nature wicked problems defy resolution and old methods and approaches are not appropriate.

Valerie Brown, an Emeritus Professor at University of Western Sydney, has developed an approach to tackling wicked problems, focussed on collaboration. Professor Brown argues that each of the different interests affected by and implicated in a 'wicked problem' have their own kind of knowledge. Brown has identified five different kinds of knowledges or disciplines in her work on the Murray-Darling Basin. These are: individual knowledge, local knowledge, specialist knowledge, strategic knowledge and holistic knowledge. Brown argues that all these different knowledges need to be brought to bear on the problem in a collaborative enterprise she terms 'the trans-disciplinary imagination'.

Professor Brown is aware that more typically these different kinds of knowledge compete with each other, talk past each other or dismiss each other. We are all familiar with the disparaging critiques of each form of knowledge: individual knowledge is often dismissed as biased; local knowledge as anecdotal; specialist knowledge as jargon; strategic knowledge as self-serving and holistic knowledge as airy-fairy.


The challenge is to orchestrate the different knowledges into a common goal or outcome. Not an easy task, but a necessary one, according to Professor Brown if we are to make any headway on wicked problems. The take-home message is that we have to learn to collaborate with each other and with other interests and knowledges if we are to survive.

This is a profound cultural shift since we have long been taught that competition breeds success, and that we live in a dog-eat-dog world of survival of the fittest. Knowledge production is itself a competitive business. Specialist or expert knowledge has always been at the top of the knowledge tree and thought of as superior to other forms of knowledge. Experts have to fight to become experts (becoming an academic is no push over these days) and so are unlikely to relinquish their status easily. The point is, expert knowledge is still important and necessary, but it's no longer the only or the ultimate form of knowledge helpful to humankind, if it ever was.

Professor Brown's concept of an 'ecology of practice' – different kinds of knowledges working collaboratively towards some kind of accord – is exciting because it provides a legitimate space and role for other kinds of knowledge besides expert knowledge. Local knowledge is important and legitimate, and individual experience and knowledge is too. Holistic knowledge can help keep sight of the bigger questions and issues of how we are going to live and what sort of world we want. The trans-disciplinary imagination is a more genuinely democratic process and procedure than one where experts dispense and impose knowledge on to those with different kinds of knowledge and attachments to the issue. As well as being unequal and hierarchical, in the expert-led arrangement, one party is active and the other parties passive.

Professor Brown's 'trans-disciplinary imagination' which has arisen from her practical work in a number of contexts, has a parallel in the 'collective impact' movement, recently reported on by David Bornstein in the New York Times. 'Collective impact' is really another term for multi-disciplinary collaboration across a range of organisations to address a social problem, such as improving education, rather than tackling it piecemeal. Once we recognise a problem as complex or 'wicked', innovative and daring approaches are needed, if only because technical or expert solutions are ineffectual on their own.

In Professor Brown's schema, all interests concerned with and affected by a wicked problem are co-creating and engaged in working towards an accord, which is as it should be, since all of us have a stake in making sure our world is habitable, sustainable and flourishing. If we are to make any headway on climate change and have the whole of society engaged, perhaps we need multi-knowledge climate change committees, rather than a multi-party climate change committee and committees of climate change experts.

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About the Author

Jennifer Sinclair is a writer and researcher and Adjunct Research Associate at Monash University.

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