Rural economic development, wicked problems and complex adaptive systems: (Don't let that title keep you from reading).

Author:Slaper, Timothy F.
 
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At a recent meeting, attendees discussed what I would call the grim future prospects of many rural counties in Indiana and what Kerry Thompson, the executive director of IU's Center for Rural Engagement, called the need for a "pathway to hope." While speaking specifically about the opioid crisis in rural Indiana in terms of the need for a pathway to hope, she described the multi-dimensional and multi-layered interdependent characteristics, forces and needs to build that pathway to hope: economic growth, available jobs, good educational resources, access to healthy food and water, access to health services, transportation, etc. One cannot speak of all the dimensions in one breath.

What she described is a wicked problem. Not wicked in an evil sense, but wicked in a big, hairy, complicated sense. A problem that doesn't have a start, end or well-defined middle.

Thinking about any and all the wicked challenges associated with rural economic development is the motivation for this article. Whether the opioid crisis, or fostering job growth, or stemming job hemorrhaging, or slowing out-migration, or making rural places better connected globally via broadband, or preparing rural students for the workforce of the future, these challenges are all interconnected--and wicked.

The usual progression in describing the definition and nature of wicked problems is to start with complex adaptive systems as a research domain, analytical framework and theory. But we are going to start with wicked problems and save the arguably more off-putting discussion on a theory of regional economic development toward the end.

Wicked problems defined

Tom Ritchey (2013)--and most of the following is pulled from his paper--well-advisedly begins describing wicked problems by first examining the traits of a "tame" problem:

* It has a well-defined and stable problem statement.

* It has a definite stopping point and solution. We know when we are done.

* The solution can be objectively evaluated as being right or wrong.

* The problem belongs to a class or category of similar problems with similar solutions.

* The solutions can be tried, tested and either kept or abandoned.

Wicked problems are just the opposite. They are ill-defined, ambiguous, and often aligned with moral, political and professional self-interests. Stakeholders subjectively define the problem from their point of view and self-interest. As a result, it is difficult (if not impossible) to find consensus about what the root problem is, let alone how to solve it. To make matters even worse, "wicked problems won't keep still: They are sets of complex, interacting issues evolving in a dynamic social context" (p. 2). Wicked problems keep changing--and often they change as a result of an intervention to treat an earlier problem.

Jeff Conklin (2001) offers a cautionary tale, namely that organizations typically either try to study the problem or tame the problem. "While studying a novel and complex problem is natural and important, it is an approach that will run out of gas quickly if the problem is wicked. Pure study amounts to procrastination, because little can be learned about a wicked problem by objective data gathering and analysis. Wicked problems demand an opportunity-driven approach; they require making decisions, doing experiments, launching pilot programs, testing prototypes, and so on" (p. 10).

It is as if Conklin had just read Who Moved My Cheese. The first step to finding new cheese is to take a step to find new cheese, not think about and study how to find new cheese.

Conklin also cautions against trying to tame a wicked problem because "while appealing in the short run, [it] fails in the long run. The wicked problem simply reasserts itself, perhaps in a different guise, as if nothing had been done. Or, worse, sometimes the tame solution exacerbates the problem" (p. 12).

Ritchey (2013) articulates a concern that "wicked problem" (WP) has become a buzzword and, as a result, has lost much of its definitional punch.

So, what is the problem that the term "wicked problem" addresses? The common sense approach to WPs is fairly straight forward: WPs are about people--the most "complex adaptive systems" that we know of. They are subjective problems. Everything that has to do with people and society is ultimately subjective. Above all, WPs are about people as...

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