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3.2 Climate change and development as 'wicked', complex problems

Climate change and development as complex systems

The features of climate change and development processes and problems as described in Section 3.1 do not fit neatly into conventional scientific characterisations of problems. This may seem obvious, as the scope of climate change and development problems clearly extend beyond the individual natural and social sciences. Even so, is it possible to apply a conventional 'modern' or scientific approach by first defining and understanding a problem in order to identify and develop possible solutions? Growing experience with attempts (and failures) to solve complex, multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder problems suggests that the conventional 'modern' or scientific approach does not work in such situations. To explore how such problems can be addressed, it is helpful to consider alternative ways of viewing problems. Thinking around 'complexity science' is outlined in 3.2.1.

3.2.1 Complexity science

Increasing appreciation of the difficulties, indeed failures, of scientists in finding solutions to complex problems has led to a search for alternative approaches to formulating problem and problem solving.

Complexity science encompasses a range of ways of looking at the dynamic unpredictable behaviour of connected systems, networks and problems, whether these are purely physical or stretch across social and natural systems. Nine key characteristics of complexity systems can be identified (Ramalingam and Jones 2008):

  1. Interconnected and interdependent elements and dimensions.
  2. Feedback processes that shape how change happens.
  3. The behaviour of systems emerge - often unpredictably - from the interaction of the parts, such that the whole is different from the sum of the parts (a characteristic known as 'emergence').
  4. Within complex systems, relationships are frequently nonlinear, ie when change happens, it is frequently disproportionate and unpredictable.
  5. Sensitivity to initial conditions means that small differences in the initial state of a system can lead to massive differences later.
  6. Order underlying the seemingly random behaviours of some complex systems can be explained in terms of movements across boundaries of dominance of different structural equilibria (known as 'strange attractors').
  7. Adaptive agents (living organisms) react to the system and to each other.
  8. Self-organisation characterises a particular form of emergent property that can occur in systems of adaptive agents.
  9. Co-evolution describes how, within a system of adaptive agents, co-evolution occurs, such that the overall system and the agents within it evolve together, or co-evolve, over time.

Source: compiled by unit author based on Ramalingam and Jones (2008)

Climate systems, broadly defined to include factors affected by greenhouse gas emissions, show all the characteristics of complex systems. Development processes also have these characteristics. This is particularly the case when we consider their interactions.

What problems do complex systems pose for problem solving? A helpful perspective on this question is provided by thinking about 'wicked' problems.

Climate change and development as 'wicked' problems

The principal characteristics of 'wicked' problems are summarised in 3.2.2.

3.2.2 Wicked problems

'Wicked problems' are problems that have a particular set of characteristics that make them difficult to address - but are common and important in modern societies. Wicked problems are not bad in a moral sense, but pose intractable difficulties to conventional scientific problem-solving approaches. They have the following principal characteristics (Rittel and Webber 1973; Australian Public Service Commission 2007):

  1. Wicked problems are difficult to define clearly; have many interdependencies and often have multiple causes, and these can be defined at different levels in hierarchies of causes.
  2. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem, as the information needed to understand the problem depends upon initial ideas for solving it (and thus depends upon the backgrounds, training and experience of those looking for solutions).
  3. There is no test of a solution - any solution, when implemented, will generate intended and unintended consequences over an extended period of time, and hence change the problem.
  4. Similarly, solutions are not true-or-false, correct-or-incorrect, but good-or-bad, and thus their evaluation and acceptance depends upon judgments that are likely to differ widely between individuals and groups with different interests, values, and backgrounds.
  5. Every solution is unique, as every problem is unique, but there is also no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error as attempts at solutions themselves change the problem.
  6. Solutions are socially and organisationally complex, and require co-ordinated action by a range of stakeholders, including government agencies at national and subsidiary levels, non-profit organisations, private businesses, civil society groups, and individuals, and do not fit neatly within the responsibility of any one agency.
  7. Solutions tend to involve changing behaviour.
  8. Some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.
  9. There is no definitive solution or resolution to the problem, at the end of which the problem is solved - rather the problem and measures to address it continually evolve.

Source: compiled by unit author drawing on Rittel and Webber (1973); and the Australian Public Service Commission (2007)

Again, climate change and development pose problems that have many of the features of 'wicked' problems. This is particularly the case when we consider their interactions.

Which features of 'wicked' problems are encountered in attempts to decide what needs to be achieved in tackling climate change, how, by whom, when, with what resources, and from whom?

The boundaries and elements of climate change as a problem interact and are difficult to define (potentially extending from individual lifestyles to international government agreements; from primary school education to climate change modelling). This means that there is no definitive formulation of the problem. As the climate and knowledge and perceptions change, so the problem changes. Local sub-problems differ from place to place. Stakeholders from developed and developing countries, from different industries and interest groups, have different perspectives and goals. Co-ordination and behavioural change are critical, and unintended consequences are likely. Climate change policies have not generally been marked by dramatic success!

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