Why is an APT approach to wicked problems important?

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Jun 15, 2016 - behaviour, reducing conflicts, building trust among all stakehold- ers and ..... learning processes (Ansell & Gash, 2008; Plummer et al., 2012).

Landscape and Urban Planning 154 (2016) 4–7

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Perspective Essay

Why is an APT approach to wicked problems important? Brian W. Head a,∗ , Wei-Ning Xiang b a b

University of Queensland, Institute for Social Science Research & School of Political Science, St. Lucia, Brisbane, 4072 Queensland, Australia East China Normal University, The Shanghai Key Laboratory for Urban Ecology and Sustainability (SHUES), 200062 Shanghai, China

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history: Received 21 March 2016 Accepted 28 March 2016 Available online 15 June 2016 Keywords: Wicked problems Adaptive management Participatory processes Transdisciplinary knowledge Practice research

a b s t r a c t In this essay, we argue that the adaptive, participatory, and transdisciplinary (APT) approach to working with wicked problems offers valuable assistance to practitioners along two critical dimensions - the understanding of wicked problems, and policy responses to them; and that more context-dependent practice research is needed. © 2016 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction There have been four decades of discussion since the “wicked problem” conception was first formulated by Rittel, Webber, and Churchman (Churchman, 1967; Rittel, 1972; Rittel & Webber, 1973). Xiang (2013, p. 1) has recently summarized much of this literature by suggesting that the wicked problem “lens” emphasizes the following features: indeterminacy in problem formulation; non-definitiveness in problem solution; non-solubility; irreversible consequentiality; and individual uniqueness. The literature has increasingly become receptive of these features as endemic to socio-ecological problems, acknowledging the need for adaptive strategies to “address”, “tackle”, “manage”, or “deal with” wicked problems rather than those that pretend to “solve” them (Xiang, 2013, p. 2). These adaptive strategies recognize and work with the inherent intractability underlying wicked problems (Head, 2008), and are “. . .by nature adaptive, participatory, and transdisciplinary (APT for short). By examining a wicked problem as a whole through a panoramic social lens rather than a scientific microscope, and working with it through an open and heuristic process of collective learning, exploration, and experimentation, the APT approach promises to be efficacious in fostering collaborative behaviour, reducing conflicts, building trust among all stakeholders and communities involved, and ultimately producing better and more satisfying results” (Xiang, 2013, p. 2).

∗ Corresponding author. E-mail addresses: [email protected] (B.W. Head), [email protected] (W.-N. Xiang). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2016.03.018 0169-2046/© 2016 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Leaving aside the large number of instances when the term “wicked problem” has been used in a merely incidental way to denote all kinds of difficult issues, the more considered development and applications of the APT approach have attempted to explore, through this “panoramic social lens”, the diverse contexts in which each wicked problem has been identified and tackled. These exploratory yet nuanced inquiries have been motivated by two distinct yet intertwining streams of challenges. The first is the cognitive challenge of understanding the problem itself, taking into account the evolution of each problem and associated stakeholder perspectives; and the second is the practical challenge of generating responses, on the part of stakeholders and decision-makers, to address or manage the problem (Head & Alford, 2015; Termeer, Dewulf, Breeman, & Stiller, 2015; Termeer, Dewulf, Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen, Vink, & van Vliet, 2016). As such, the APT approach to working with wicked problems offers both cognitive and practical benefits—improving our understanding of a wicked problem in all its dimensions (the cognitive aspects); and enhancing our ability to design and implement practical responses that are appropriate to the situation (the organizational and political aspects). These are further elaborated below. 2. The APT approach improves the understanding of wicked problems Understanding socio-ecological systems (SES, hereafter) – whether situated in large cities or in rural landscapes – is difficult because it involves complexities across three domains: the human systems and processes, the natural systems and processes, and their interactions over place and time. In SES, periods of relative stability

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and minor incremental change are constantly punctuated by shifts in system dynamics and by variable outcomes at different scales. Knowledge and actors’ perceptions, opinions, and preferences are always provisional and changing, and attempts by planners and policymakers to modify these systems are bound to be confronted by unforeseen forces and effects. This is evident in many of the more frequently analyzed issues such as urban and landscape planning, land-use conflicts, managing constrained natural resources, and protection of ecosystem services. The attempt to better understand SES with the positivist approach has been shown inadequate and even misleading (Churchman, 1967) because the significant irregularities and unpredictable interactions in SES are not readily amenable to the rigorous yet often mechanistic requirements underlying this approach (Churchman, 1967; Flyvbjerg, Landman, & Schram, 2012; Geyer & Rihani, 2010). Alternative strategies have been sought and proposed. Unlike their positivist counter-parts which aim to find law-like regularities and predictable cause-effect relations through often rigid mathematical models and physical sciencelike empirical or experimental methods, they tend to accept the intractable nature of socio-ecological problems, recognize gaps in human knowledge about system dynamics of SES, and celebrate the diversity in actors’ perceptions and perspectives. The common denominators of these suggested strategies are the ideas of adaptation, participation, and transdisciplinarity, and a calling for the APT approach. For example, Batty (2007) summarizes some of the long-term shifts in thinking that underlie urban SES planning research and practice. He claims that, instead of being a “product” of scientific design, rational planning and evidence-based decision-making, cities largely evolve through generative processes anchored in relationships: “. . .it is clear that a radical shift in metaphor is taking place to thinking of cities and societies as organisms, as biological rather than physical systems. . ..This is also a switch from thinking of cities as being artefacts to be designed, to thinking of them as systems that evolve, that grow and change in ways that might be steered and managed but rarely designed from the top down. This also reveals a shift from an emphasis on structure and form to one of behavior and process and it mirrors the slow march from the physicalism which dominated city planning a generation or more ago to a serious concern for social process.” (Batty, 2007, p. 3) In a similar vein, Ostrom (2005) argues that, given the large number of contextual factors, and their unpredictable patterns of change, proposals for regulatory intervention in SES are more akin to experiments than to the predictive certainties of physical laws (Ostrom, 2005, p. 243). Socio-ecological problems cannot be “solved” through imposing planning blueprints or prescribing “policy panaceas” (Korten, 1980; Ostrom, 2007). The participation of stakeholders is vital both for establishing what is known about an issue (values, perspectives, practical knowledge of context) and for establishing parameters for appropriate and feasible responses. There is no single “best solution” independent of time, place, and people: the outcomes forged under different conditions are likely to show significant and reasonable variations (Ostrom, 2010, 2012; Cash et al., 2003). The calling for the APT approach manifests a fundamental shift in planning and policy rationality, from instrumental to collaborative rationality. In the decades after 1945, encouraged by the advancements in modern science and technology, social planners and public policy analysts undertook ambitious schemes aimed at social improvement. These programs were seen as grounded in the emerging


social sciences, inspired by the instrumental rationality of mainstream physical and natural sciences. The apparent failures and inadequacies of these programs became increasingly evident, causing a crisis in confidence concerning the adequacy of the knowledge base and effectiveness of the program designs in the 1970s and 1980s (Friedmann, 1987; Innes, 1995). This crisis has triggered two opposite reactions. The first reaction was to call for the social and socio-ecological sciences to become even more committed to instrumental rationality and positivist research methods. The second reaction was to critically reflect on the very ambition of rational comprehensive planning; among these critics are Rittel and Webber’s (1973) critique of instrumental rationality in policy and planning practices, Rein’s assertion of the centrality of values and conflict resolution in policy practice (Rein, 1976; Schön & Rein, 1994), and more recently, Flyvbjerg’s proposal for phronetic social science that examines power, interests and values in local contexts (Flyvbjerg, 2001, 2004; Flyvbjerg et al., 2012). In the context of social policy and planning, two aspects of instrumental rationality are noteworthy. The first is the tendency to focus in detail on just one selected element of the social or socioecological puzzle, thus overlooking the rich context and interplay between the many layers of causality and interaction; and second is the use of efficiency metrics as the yardstick for ranking various methods for achieving a specific goal, without reflecting on the inherent value of that goal. As the “evidence-based policy” movement gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s within both the research and practitioner communities, the key focus was centered on designing and implementing specific policy instruments to achieve specific desired effects. The scientific inquiry into policy effectiveness, which focuses on “what instruments work to produce what effects under what conditions”, sought to isolate causal linkages between instruments and effects. Instrumental rationality was exemplified in the use of legal and economic instruments such as regulatory standards, prices, and material incentives. The modern ideological focus on promoting economic growth sits comfortably with a predisposition toward technocratic solutions and the use of economic incentives (Kay, 2011). From a practical viewpoint, instruments and interventions have to be deployed in highly variable contexts, which require designers and policymakers to craft local variations (Sanderson, 2009). These contexts are often very complex. Hence, there are serious limits on the capacity of narrow instrumental prescriptions to address complex and value-laden socio-ecological issues, such as the “livability” of urban environments for under-privileged residents, or the impacts of urbanization upon ecological assets and scarce natural resources. Given the high levels of knowledge uncertainty and divergence in values – both of which are characteristic of SES – it is simply not possible, nor desirable, to understand and manage such complex social and socio-ecological problems through a centralized administration and enforcement of rules, as they tend to over-ride the diverse values and goals underlying these complex issues (Schön & Rein, 1994). Instead, such issues require extended deliberations among the many stakeholders whose diverse knowledge and perspectives are crucial for both the understanding and management of socio-ecological systems (Duckett, Feliciano, Martin-Ortega, & Munoz-Rojas, 2016; Lundström, Raisio, Vartiainen, & Lindell, 2016). This recognition of the importance of divergent thinking for policy and planning within social and environmental systems is indeed the cornerstone of collaborative rationality (Innes & Booher, 2010, 2016), and fundamental to several influential traditions of social science scholarship, represented variously by Max Weber, Habermas (1981), Schön and Rein (1994), Flyvbjerg (2001), Flyvbjerg et al. (2012), and Ostrom (2007). Here, “collaborative rationality” is regarded as an open process, similar to that in the


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contemporary fable of blind men and a hippopotamus (Xiang, 2013, p. 2), that aims to engage a full range of stakeholders in the discourse, respect the values and interests of participants, and is informed by best-available information. As evidenced in many real world SES studies, including several in this special volume (Head, Ross, & Bellamy, 2016; Huang & London, 2016; Tietjen & Jørgensen, 2016), such participatory and transdisciplinary processes can produce valuable contributions to informing an adaptive planning and policy-making system and significantly enhancing its capacity to deal with uncertainty and intractability (Flyvbjerg et al., 2012; Innes & Booher, 2010). This line of reasoning leads to our consideration of how the APT approach actually re-orients the challenge of crafting more appropriate responses to wicked problems in SES, which are elucidated below.

3. The APT approach enhances planning and policy responses Existing governance arrangements for addressing socioecological issues (as established through policies, plans and programs at local, regional and national levels) have lengthy histories which are difficult to re-orient. Science, material interests, social values and historical precedents are all important sources of these embedded governance arrangements. Diverse patterns of debate, decision-making and program administration contribute to the existing patterns of expectations and also give rise to periodic calls for change. In what ways does it matter whether participants in policy and planning debates are fully cognizant of the “wicked” dimensions of the issues under consideration? The history of planning and policy interventions is littered with failures (Batty, 2014), e.g. cases where major investments in infrastructure services produce negative and wasteful outcomes. A contemporary example is the widespread use of “public-private-partnerships” (PPPs), which are being widely used to fund and deliver major infrastructure projects such as public transportation systems; their poor record in meeting financial targets and program goals (e.g. reduction in traffic congestion) seems to reflect decision-makers’ preference for market instruments over substantive processes of community planning (Hodge & Greve, 2007). The answer to these failures is not “more science, better science, and then effective communication”, but rather a broad and extended engagement with community goals and interests through an open process. This process is needed to structure informed deliberation, rather than to produce optimal technical solutions (Palmer, 2012, p. 5). The choice of approaches needs to be pitched at relevant scales of complexity. Strategies aiming at local, regional or national scales will necessarily entail different group dynamics and require different communication and governance arrangements (Balint, Stewart, Desai, & Walters, 2011; Duit & Galaz, 2008; Innes & Booher, 2010). The SES literature emphasizes that patterns of interaction in complex adaptive systems typically occur across spatial scales, and across policy issue arenas (Everingham et al., 2016; Folke, Hahn, Olsson, & Norberg, 2005; Geyer & Rihani, 2010; Head et al., 2016; Muller, 2016); and therefore the deliberative processes for dealing with these issues will need to pay attention to these interactive relationships. In contrast to the technocratic and instrumental approaches, the adaptive and participatory approaches emphasize the importance of establishing shared goals and the importance of social learning over time. The choice of approaches to address wicked socio-ecological problems needs to acknowledge the significance of building social capital to enhance learning and trust among participants. Ostrom argues that attempts to manage collective action problems should

seek to strengthen social capital and social norms such as reciprocity, trust and fairness at local levels; this is seen as a better approach for some types of problems than relying primarily on external and centralized regulatory rules (Ostrom, 2005, p. 287). Collaborative arrangements, including varieties of co-management for natural resource management, also require trust-building and learning processes (Ansell & Gash, 2008; Plummer et al., 2012). Given the diversity in values and perspectives inherent in wicked problems, the difficulties of improving analytical understanding of wicked problems and methods for addressing such problems will need to be addressed. The most obvious requirement is to develop explicit approaches to knowledge-sharing among stakeholders and decision-makers (Balint et al., 2011; Davies, Fisher, Dickson, Thrush, & Le Heron, 2015). Skilled facilitation of stakeholder and decision-maker groups is an important practical element in building shared perspectives about the problems and about the next steps (Conklin & Weil, 2007; Horn & Weber, 2007). For researchers and practitioners alike, transdisciplinary teams (Norris, O’Rourke, Mayer, & Halvorsen, 2016; Stokols, 2006) will also need to be mobilized to investigate the rich contexts underlying problem scoping and the iterative steps toward provisional responses. In many cases there are value conflicts and ethical dilemmas that need to be worked through (Chan, 2016). In this collaborative work, it becomes possible to transcend the context-free assumptions of positivist science and its search for uniformities. The emphasis in “phronetic” social science on values, power and consequences is a strong reminder that a pragmatic case-based approach can provide sound guidance for working with wicked problems (Flyvbjerg, 2001, 2004; Flyvbjerg et al., 2012). In some instances, major imbalances of power (Acey, 2016) represent massive challenges for approaches which rely on respectful exchange of views within a deliberative process framework.

4. Moving forward with the APT approach With the advancement in social science research in recent decades on the development and application of the APT approach, researchers and practitioners are arguably in a much better position to address and manage wicked problems. Still, there remains much work to be done, both on the cognitive side (how can we better understand specific wicked problems? how do existing understandings clarify or obfuscate the underlying issues?), and on the policy and planning side (how can we better manage processes for reaching credible and legitimate responses?). In particular, much work needs to be done through case-studies, not just for their own sake but for building comparative understanding of how different contexts shape perceptions, expectations and capabilities. Synthesis and theory-building can then develop through a richer array of case analyses. Secondly, the adaptive management approach to policy, planning and collective learning should be seen as encouraging local experimentation. Innovation in addressing wicked problems is more likely in socio-political contexts where it is possible to build a no-blame political culture, which provides some protection for experimentation and adaptation. Attempts to build shared goals and to undertake novel approaches to achieving these goals should be anchored in a social learning culture, which allows for rapid adjustments and feedback loops in a participatory environment. As actors become more aware that there are no perfect and enduring solutions to wicked problems, the theory and practice of incremental advancement and open systems can gain stronger support. And finally, in this participatory and open context, the insights drawn from promising approaches, under different conditions and at different scales, will need to be widely disseminated and discussed.

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