Wicked problems call for collaborative learning

By Frans Lenglet | 596 words

Wicked problems

A ‘wicked problem’ is not amenable to ready-made answers or solutions, because it emerges from mutually reinforcing and contradictory feedback loops and locked-in mechanisms and processes. The sustainable development agenda is made up of wicked problems, since they stem from and reinforce dynamic constellations of environmental, social, economic and political challenges.

Different social, cultural, economic, and political groupings attach differing and even opposing importance to the wicked problem’s elements, processes and possible solutions. Therefore, it takes time and effort to identify the problem and arrive at a mutually intelligible understanding.

Expert solutions to wicked problems are almost doomed to fail: without the benefit of an all-round stakeholder perspective they risk simply shifting the dynamic into a new problematical constellation.

Collaboratively dealing with a wicked problem is thus likely to produce longer lasting, fairer, more just and more equitable solutions; not simply more effective or more efficient ones. Moreover, the process of co-creating sustainable solutions explicitly includes groups, organisations and communities that are usually excluded from institutionalised processes of consultation, deliberation and decision-making.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning is an approach that enables a multitude of stakeholders to comprehend and deal with wicked problems. It

  • Is a form of social and experiential It is likely to disrupt the status quo. It is immediately linked to the socio-political dynamics on the ground.
  • Is oriented towards action, which emerges from and during the learning process. It is likely to feed back into further or enlarged collaborative learning processes.
  • Assumes that knowledge and understanding emerge and become actionable in and through the actual interaction, competition, struggle and collaboration of groups of people who are actively, reflexively and reactively shaping, maintaining and adapting their relationships and institutional arrangements.

Making it work

In order for collaborative learning to be successful, some of the following conditions need to be met:

  • All participating stakeholders are ready and willing to engage in a conversation about an issue, problem or problematique that is of common concern, to explore what it is and what it means, and how it can be addressed.
  • It is valued by the participants, who expect their investment in the process – in terms of time, money, efforts, political capital etc. – to produce beneficial experiences and outcomes, especially in the longer term; and who recognize the legitimacy of the convenor and facilitator.
  • It is structured in such a way that it offers a safe space over time, both physically and socially: participants can express themselves without attribution or retribution, and learn to do so in a non-adversarial and non-confrontational manner.
  • It encourages participants to actively learn about, listen, explore and understand the diversity of their opinions, interests and concerns, as well as to explore widely outside their own familiar territory and frameworks.
  • The facilitator is expert at conducting this particular kind of process, including empowering the active participation of people who are not accustomed to being heard.

Collaborative learning is an approach embodied in several different methods, with the above common characteristics. Some are derived from experience with Local Agenda 21, others from related methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology. They can be used to collectively address any selected ‘common’ or ‘commons’ problem constellation.

Further resources

Sustainability Citizens. Collaborative and Disruptive Social Learning

Two successful social learning approaches are described, encouraging citizens to engage in the public debate about issues of common concern, in rural and urban contexts – Wals & Lenglet article.

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Inquiry Based Approach (IBA)
The IBA has been designed to meet process and
outcome objectives related to multi-stakeholder
collaboration, learning and concerted action.
More >>>

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