Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Retreat day 2

Covered a lot of stuff today. The first part of the morning was devoted to questions covering different aspects of research, from the process and strategy of publishing to some tiny attempts to get us all to think in a multidisciplinary fashion. It was all fairly boilerplate stuff that I've heard or been through since I've been at Portland State and affiliated with the IGERT. It was straight...no real issues.

The second part of the day was devoted to a discussion of the challenges of actually working on complex/wicked problems in a multi or transdisciplinary approach. This ended up being a much more wide ranging and theoretically interesting part of the day. The first part of the exercise was going over again what wicked/complex problems are. We are a room full of people that have either worked as planners, ecologists, teachers, or environmentally-oriented scientists so we were all aware of what wicked problems are and some basic characteristics of them.

Where the conversation became interesting is in discussing solutions to wicked problems. My deconstructionist-oriented folks will already take issue with the language of assuming that there are actually solutions to wicked problems. This was something that was never really touched upon the entire day- the assumption that there actually is a solution or a suite of solutions. Correct me if need be, but part of my understanding of complexity theory or socioecological resilience thinking is that we recognize these systems to be complex and adaptive and constantly changing. The idea that there is a single solution or suite of explicit solutions rests upon a static understanding of the issue as opposed to saying these are ways we can adapt to particular situations or offer a series of approaches to address the most extreme problems associated with a particular complex problem. A minor theoretical wrinkle, but one I noted fully recognizing that I may be misreading what little bit of resilience theory I've read or misunderstanding what my colleagues meant by "solution".

What was more interesting was a continuation and partial resolution of a classic problem in planning- proper scale at which to intervene. As a bunch of ostensibly progressive planners, when asked how to approach solutions to these wicked problems we all faithfully talked about seeking out and listening to stakeholders and trying to be as inclusive as possible while one of our colleagues, playing devil's advocate, called for a more traditional, "authoritative" approach to problem solving. Of course, the answer lies somewhere in between. What we were seeing was a battle over appropriate scale. Purcell has a great piece on the local trap and not attributing any particular kind of normative value or preference for a particular scale, the local, regional, or greater.

But what jumped out to me, and this is why I will start advocating that we read more planning theory as a program, is that we seem to have a less nuanced, potentially arrogant view on the potential of planning and planners or scientists to solve these problems and their ability to convince people of the proper path. These are natural assumptions given the way we are often trained as practitioners but we know that they have often failed or have lead to some disastrous results. I've found the writing of James Scott in Seeing Like A State to be illuminating in pinpointing the weaknesses and gaps that our technical and scientific forays often miss or deliberately pave over. There was this constant turnaround during the discussion to collecting data and setting up models without a recognition that such collection could miss vital aspects of the lived experience of an area. This holds for social interventions as well as ecological/scientific. The collection of data is largely an exercise of exclusivity. It has to be. But what we find to be important, useful etc rests upon our own feelings, politics, and technology. In this sense, we need to be more careful in assuming that we can accurately portray a particular region, community, ecosystem, but there was not a strong warning on this. Something to consider and remember.

Finally, there was a constant reference to consensus and dialogue and problem solving through consensus that rubbed me the wrong way. Purcell has another piece on the weaknesses of communicative planning  as a way to challenge neoliberal development schemes and instead argues that it can actually legitimate and obscure existing power imbalances. Having been witness to and read many case studies of planning issues and projects, I'm inclined to agree that this idea of consensus needs a lot of working over. Our relationships with others and certainly those between competing social groups is much more agonistic than communicative and consensus oriented planners would have us to believe and we also need to be more honest by the fact that more often than not those with the most power end up getting the vast majority of what they wanted, regardless. Our insistence on not recognizing this and continuing to push this idea of consensus as a means of problem solving I think leads us down already well worn paths.

Anyways, enough of that for now. I may have something more later. If not, I'll be here tomorrow. Keep it surly, y'all.


Tom ritchey said...

Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

“Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

You can see a description at:



Tom Ritchey

Sarah said...

Sounds productive!

DB said...

I am always troubled by critique of consensus, because it seems like it can only tend towards elitism. If we are not relying on consensus (or straight-up voting) do we rely on the planner or some other authority to decide what is "best" for the community? A benevolent dictatorship of the planner? Certainly that doesn't sound very "progressive." But what is the other option? Forgive me if this is covered in the Purcell you linked to, I have not gotten to it yet because I am a lazy bum. If that is the case feel free to consider me a lazy bum who just wants to write some half-assed paragraphs about his feelings about consensus.
I suppose there could be a system where "the community" 's voice is heard and outsiders or "bad influences" are not included, but clearly this requires some arbiter of which groups have a legitimate stake in the decision.

This is something that has always worried me about a lot of RJ's twitter postings... it seems problematic to me to both lambast elitism, technocracy, etc and yet believe that communities do not know what is in their own best interest in certain cases. Obviously anyone who has interacted with a group of human beings knows that we certainly don't always know what is best for us... but this seems to leave us with quite a pickle on our hands if we also don't like leaving these decisions up to elites/specialists/technocrats/etc.


rj said...