Solving 'wicked problems': ten principles for improved environmental management

Commentary by: Jaboury Ghazoul, ETH Zurich
June 23, 2013

As agriculture continues to expand at the expense of forests in the tropics, humanity struggles to meet environmental protection goals. Despite global efforts towards sustainable agriculture and some progress towards the gazetting of protected areas, there are as yet no general and effective solutions for meeting both conservation goals and food needs, and thus the loss and degradation of natural habitats continues. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has estimated a 70% increase in food production will be needed by 2050 to feed a population that will exceed 9 billion. How can such food production be met in ways that conserve the environment while also alleviating poverty?

We have long known that there is no silver bullet and no quick fix. Targeted scientific research offers innovative solutions for specific problems in particular contexts, but has long been recognized as being able to provide only partial solutions that may even generate substantial new problems. Agricultural innovation through intensification, for example, has raised yields but also threatens environmental goods and services and undermines the natural resources on which future food production depends. There are also many uncertainties that we have to negotiate, and trade-offs that are poorly understood and not easily resolved. Moreover, we disagree about the weights that should be afforded to different societal values, and while we can negotiate solutions we may have different understandings of the system we are engaged with, and different capacities to shape the discussions and influence others.

Yet people and societies must make decisions. We believe that the quality of decision-making is a function of the process by which the decision is reached, i.e. an ongoing process subject to negotiation, learning, adaptation, and improvement. Are there essential elements of this process that are required to maximize the chances of successful ecosystem management outcomes? We believe there are. In our recent PNAS paper (Sayer et al. 2013) we outline 10 principles to guide the process of decision-making in landscape management contexts.

Deforestation for palm oil in Malaysia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Deforestation for palm oil in Malaysia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

These principles emphasize that the integration of agricultural and environmental priorities will require a people-centered approach applied at landscape scales. Indeed, "people" and "society" have been notably absent from such considerations and, as a result, conservation has generally failed to acknowledge the priorities of people who live and work within biologically diverse landscapes. Acknowledging different priorities is, of course, not sufficient to resolve environmental problems – priorities need to be aligned towards a mutually agreed goal. This is not easy, and hence many environmental challenges are termed "wicked" problems that have no clear definitive formulation or final solution. The principles we outline provide steps by which wicked problems might be negotiated.

Ten Principles

Principle 1: Continual learning and adaptive management.
Learning from outcomes can improve management. There is a never ending potential for surprise, but each surprise is an opportunity for learning, and can lead to the development of new understanding and improved management strategies.

Principle 2: Common concern entry point.
Solutions to problems need to be built on trust. Trust emerges when objectives and values are shared, which is rarely the case at the outset. Trust can, however, be built by identifying immediate ways forward through addressing simple short-term objectives. This provides a basis for stakeholders to begin to work together, and will build the confidence and the trust needed to address further issues.

Agricultural workers pick tea leaves in Uganda. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Agricultural workers pick tea leaves in Uganda. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Principle 3: Multiple scales.
Outcomes at any scale are shaped by processes operating at other scales. An awareness of these higher and lower level processes can improve local interventions, inform higher-level policy and governance, and help coordinate administrative entities.

Principle 4: Multifunctionality.
Landscapes have multiple uses, each of which is valued in different ways by different stakeholders. Tradeoffs among differing land uses need to be first recognized and quantified before they can be reconciled.

Principle 5: Multiple stakeholders.
Failure to engage the many different actors in decision-making processes will lead to suboptimal, and sometimes unethical, outcomes. All stakeholders should be recognized, even though efficient pursuit of negotiated solutions may involve only a subset of stakeholders.

Principle 6: Negotiated and transparent change logic.
Transparency is the basis of trust, and is achieved through a mutually understood and negotiated process of change. A shared vision is necessary, and requires consensus on general goals and the process by which they are to be reached. All participants need to understand and agree on the general logic, legitimacy, justification and risks for a course of action.

Principle 7: Clarification of rights and responsibilities.
Rules on resource access and land use shape social and conservation outcomes and need to be clear as a basis for good management, while access to a fair justice system allows for conflict resolution and recourse.

Soy fields in the southern Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Soy fields in the southern Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Principle 8: Participatory and user-friendly monitoring.
To facilitate shared learning, information needs to be widely accessible, and the validity of different knowledge systems must be recognized. All stakeholders should be able to generate, gather, and integrate the information they require to interpret activities, progress, and threats.

Principle 9: Resilience.
Unplanned system changes are usually detrimental and undesirable. Actions and conditions that enhance the capacity of recovery after perturbation will sustain processes and benefits in the longer term. Factors that contribute to system resilience include ecological, social, and institutional attributes.

Principle 10: Strengthened stakeholder capacity.
People require the ability to participate effectively, and effective representation and institutions are needed.

We believe that these principles, presented briefly here, represent a minimal set of essential conditions to address complex and dynamic 'wicked problems' which are all too prevalent in land use scenarios.

Agricultural landscapes are not just for food and farmers

Agricultural landscapes produce food, but also provide multiple values and services to diverse interest groups. Managing such landscapes is an evolving outcome of ongoing negotiation, and frequent conflict, among these interest groups. The principles we have outlined provide a framework by which negotiated outcomes might be navigated most effectively. We do not underestimate the challenges of implementing any of these principles. Experience tells us that the process of change towards improved management is slow and frequently beset with setbacks. Yet experience also shows that failure to address these elements leads to increased conflict and ultimate failure. There are challenges at many levels. Not least, landscape approaches imply shifting from project-oriented actions to process-oriented activities, that is a change in thinking away from top-down engineered solutions toward more bottom-up negotiated actions in a process akin to 'muddling through'. We expect that this will not sit easily with most scientist and resource managers. Moreover, it will require new ways of engagement across scientific disciplines and civil sectors. We do not pretend it will be easy.

Locals walk across rice field in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Locals walk across rice field in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

An important conceptual hurdle is to recognize that strategies applied to wicked problems are not objectively right or wrong, they are simply more or less acceptable to different stakeholders. Straightforward concepts of success and failure become ambiguous in a multiple-stakeholder context in which someone's gain is someone else's loss. We therefore need an open-minded view of outcomes.

We also need to resist the lure of "optimal" solutions based on quantitative analyses of system properties. Tools and analyses developed by experts with the intention of delivering optimal solutions can help us to understand processes, feedbacks, and interactions across scales and can be fundamental to adaptive learning. Optimization itself, however, is an illusion unless applied to very specific and clearly defined objectives. Many different interest groups will usually preclude the emergence of a single 'best' solution. This underscores the landscape approach as a recurrent, flexible, and ongoing process of negotiation, decision-making, and reevaluation, informed by science but shaped by human values and aspirations.

This approach has limitations, particularly when viewed from the perspective of conventional land management. It is not, for example, amenable to simple performance assessments. Components of the landscape can be assessed, and tradeoffs can be measured, but securing information about the overall success of a negotiated strategy, which is itself under frequent revision and change, is a challenge.

Representing a consensus view, these principles have been accepted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) during the 15th Meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice. We expect that these principles will have traction in guiding landscape approaches to environmental management for some time to come. Although some principles may not apply to some situations, and the full set may not be sufficient, we advocate their use to address the critical emerging need to increase agricultural production and conserve environmental values. Above all, people lie at the heart of the landscape approach, and the 10 principles reflect this. They shift the center of gravity of decision making to local people, and from the "what" and "where" to the "how" and "why" of managing the agriculture–environment nexus.

CITATION: Sayer, J., Sunderland, T., Ghazoul, J., Pfund, J.-L., Sheil, D., Meijaard, E., Venter, M., Boedhihartono, A.G., Day, M., Garcia, C., van Ooster, C. and Buck, L.E. (2013) Ten principles for a landscape approach to reconciling agriculture, conservation, and other competing land uses. PNAS, 110, 8349-8356.

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Commentary by: Jaboury Ghazoul, ETH Zurich (June 23, 2013).

Solving 'wicked problems': ten principles for improved environmental management.