Concepts

Feedback we have suggested it might be useful to explain some of the concepts around sustainability, specifically Wicked Problems, and the related concepts of Anticipatory Design and Places to Intervene in a System.  We hope you find the links and information below useful.

Wicked Problems is a term applied to complex social/cultural issues that are difficult to solve for a number of reasons.  Rather than being easily soluble with a purely linear project-planning approach based on absolute certain assumption, they require a systemic/holistic approach to achieve an effective solution.

Recognition of inherent system complexity is growing, especially among players involved in the difficult practice of environmental and social governance on the ground. Complexity, and the resultant Wicked Problems, are of critical importance to educators, practitioners and policy makers. As the Australian Public Service Commission (Tackling Wicked Problems – a Public Policy Perspective, 2007) says:

Successfully tackling wicked problems requires a broad recognition and understanding, including from governments and Ministers, that there are no quick fixes and simple solutions. Tackling wicked problems is an evolving art. They require thinking that is capable of grasping the big picture, including the inter-relationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them. They often require broader, more collaborative and innovative approaches. (Australian Public Service Commission, Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, 2007). 

Broader system understanding and agreements of systemic trends will assist practitioners and communities to more effectively design and target interventions for more viable futures.

Anticipatory Design, Buckminster Fuller Institute, A Design Science Primer page, and links within.

To frame this concept ask yourself: What is the major determinant of sea-worthiness in a ship—is it the Captain, the Crew, or the ship Design?

While a good captain and a capable crew all contribute, only a ship designed for the conditions it faces is likely to survive those conditions – think of the Titanic.

Anticipatory design aims to consider the design criteria for future-oriented human efforts.

We often have fairly accurate information of past trends (e.g. salinity, deforestation, drought, economic factors, temperatures, crop yields etc). Ought we project these into the future based on the way things have always been? Or is it more prudent to anticipate the likely system conditions caused by multiple interacting factors that we are already aware of?

Through science, observation and research we can model trajectories and interactions with variable levels of accuracy. Anticipating alternative scenarios based on the interaction of these factors helps define the gap between what is, now, and what could be or is likely, in the future. And, while we cannot accurately and with certainty ‘predict’ exactly what will occur, we can use the insights gained to more holistically consider how we might need to address these issues as they unfold. (For example, how do you see climate change impacting you/your community in 5 years, 10 years time…)

A more systemic appraisal that takes into account multiple factors and perspectives can empower collective efforts by allowing communities to co-develop a more accurate common picture. Having a more realistic and commonly agreed understanding of what a community faces aids them in reaching agreement on priority concerns and actions. It also informs the systematic design and implementation of more holistic solutions (i.e. considering environmental, social and economic factors) resulting in far more effective responses by and for communities.

Education for Sustainability (EfS) has a critical role informing communities and exploring these understandings to improve future resilience and adaptability.  EfS must anticipate what it might need to look like to enable the necessary changes in communities where these issues are not fully understood.

Places to Intervene in a System, Donella Meadows.  This takes a systemic/holistic approach to analysing an issue and suggests ways to find the best leverage points for change – some will be far more effective than others so make sure you are getting “bang for your buck”.

Our thanks to Neil Davidson for vital assistance in compiling the information on this page.