As a world, we face formidable ‘wicked’ problems that straddle human and environmental systems. Wicked problems are mired in immense complexity – involving eye watering networks of different drivers, all interacting with each other in diverse ways. Just as an illustration of this complexity, here is an attempt I made back in in 2013 to map all the nodes and links between the meanings society attributes to climate change and the responsibility for action on mitigating climate change impacts. Simple right?
So, as you can imagine, all of this complexity makes managing wicked problems immensely difficult, especially when we start to think about managing them in the future. It is simply impossible to accurately predict how such complex problems will evolve. Yet failure to act on current wicked problems will likely have severe, negative impacts for future generations.
So what is to be done? Are there any approaches that can help us to manage wicked problems? Last year’s Facing the Future conference focused on interdisciplinarity as an approach that could help us manage wicked problems. In fact my own PhD explores the use of scenario planning as an interdisciplinary tool for managing wicked problems. However, it wasn’t until I observed, first-hand, a Transmango-run scenario planning workshop on food security in Tanzania that I began to fully understand the potential value of interdisciplinary approaches.
Wicked problems like food insecurity are impossible for any single individual to understand in their entirety and to understand how they may evolve in the future. This leaves gaps in each individual’s knowledge, which can lead to potential challenges and opportunities being missed – to the detriment of effective management. However, every individual has expertise and experience in their own fields and in their own everyday lives. If this expertise is pooled in an effective and structured way and used for deliberation, as was the aim of the Transmango workshop in Tanzania, then the diversity of knowledge may help to fill in the gaps in each individual’s knowledge, thus improving the management of wicked problems like food insecurity.
At Facing the Future 2015 we were challenged to construct a remit for an imaginary research institute that aimed to tackle wicked problems in a interdisciplinary way. Afterwards, I thought “what if that research institute wasn’t imaginary, but we made it a reality?” The attendees at the conference all possessed expertise in particular fields and, of course, in their everyday life, so why not pool that expertise to tackle wicked problems in a interdisciplinary way?
Hence, after discussions with several other attendees, we decided to set up the Facing the Future Community. Our ideas don’t go quite as far as creating a brand new interdisciplinary research institute, but we have come up with some quite ambitious ideas. The initial plan is to build an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on managing wicked problems. Beyond that, we have a number of ideas including: maintaining a Facing the Future blog – featuring contributions from scholars in different fields, creating an online postgraduate journal, awarding prizes for postgraduates doing outstanding transdisciplinary work, and even running activity weekends designed to link interdisciplinary groups of students with people working in industry, agriculture, policy and NGO sectors.
So, if the idea of a Facing the Future Community captures your interest, why not come along to Facing the Future 2016 – Realising Resilience. The plan for the Community remains in its infancy, and we would love to hear new ideas and inject new inspiration at this year’s conference. So remember: Facing the Future 2016 – Realising Resilience, 30th May – 1st June 2016, University of Aberdeen. Early bird registration ends on 29th February!