Valerie Brown: Wicked Problems and Transdisciplinarity

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Science-as-usual will not solve complex problems. This is the starting point for Tackling Wicked Problems: Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination, edited by Valerie Brown, John Harris and Jacqueline Russell.

The idea that problems might be “wicked” was developed in a 1970s paper (“Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”) by Horst Ritteland Melvin Webber:

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems.

“Tame social problems have for decades been the province of systems analysis,” writes historian Howard Segal, reviewing Tackling Wicked Problems (“Solutions beyond systems analysisNature sub. req.):

Such thinking holds that if a team of experts fails to solve a social problem, one can simply add more experts until a solution is found. … The book shows that systems analysis is still applied, but its utopian aspirations have faded.

Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research founding director Mike Hulme, also writing on Tackling Wicked Problems, uses his review to highlight the narrow emphasis on the STEM disciplines (pdf):

The political orthodoxy in liberal Western democracies is that investment in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and maths – provides the most assured basis for future economic vibrancy and social well-being. … There are few books which mount such an audacious challenge – one that is both theoretically and practically informed – to the presumptions of the positivism underpinning the STEM ideology.

I’ve been a fan of Brown’s work since her book, Leonardo’s Vision: A guide to collective thinking and action, and the edited volume, Social Learning in Environmental Management: Building a Sustainable Future.

She introduces the new book in a podcast that, recorded by the publisher: Earthscan, is re-broadcast by Radio Ecoshock (along with an interview with political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, and talks by philosopher of science Jerome Ravetz and open source legal advocateEben Moglen).

From Brown’s talk (transcribed without ellipses):

Wicked problems are embedded in society, and since you can’t cure a society, you clearly have to take some other approach to it.

Wicked problems have many causes. They involve multiple interests. They evade any simple definition, because all those interests would have a separate definition. So we need a new way of thinking about science before we can resolve a wicked problem.

I’m going to propose that we need a new science, and I call it transition science. Resolving a wicked problem calls for transition science based on collective decisions. It’s multi-causal, involving multiple interests.

If you have multiple interests, each has its own knowledge construction. Individual knowledge is based on personal, lived experience. Local knowledge is based on shared community events. Experts contribute from a particular box that they are trained in. Strategic knowledge is the organizational agenda. Holistic knowledge gives focus and vision.

The knowledges reject each other. One of the troubles in working to bring them together is that there is a grain of truth in each. Individual knowledge can be biased. Local knowledge can be merely anecdote. Specialized knowledge can speak in jargon. Strategic knowledge is by definition often self-serving. And holistic knowledge is often dismissed as airy-fairy.

Looking at transition science, I’m going to suggest that it’s a nested set – the relationships between these knowledges are many and varied. But for constructive decision-making, you’re going to need them all.

See also:
Transdisciplinary Inquiry
Clumsy Responses to Wicked Climate Problems

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