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Conservation in a Wicked World

By Eve McDonald-Madden and Eddie Game

Conventional approaches to conservation can learn from complex military decisions in Afghanistan.

Conservation is not rocket science. It’s far more complex. Rocket flight obeys well-understood laws, is predictable and varies in only four dimensions. Most rockets reach their targets but, when they don’t, the reasons why they didn’t are likely to be obvious.

Most conservation actions, in contrast, cannot be assured of reaching their target, and the reasons for the failure are often poorly understood. The uncertainties are largely due to the fact that most conservation problems are embedded in socio-ecological systems possessing all the characteristics of “complex systems”: numerous interacting elements lacking any central control, nonlinear interactions between elements, constant change that is often irreversible, and no clearly defined boundaries to the system.

These characteristics contribute to what have been come to be known as “wicked problems”. Wicked problems generally lack clear solutions because each problem is linked to other problems, and the nature and characterisation of each cannot be isolated.

Of course, it’s not just conservation that grapples with challenge of complexity. Complex systems (and the associated wicked problems) have been the focus of research in various fields, including mathematics, psychology, social science, military studies and business management.

Can those in the conservation game draw any insights from these areas? That’s the question we posed with Erik Meijaard of the University of Queensland and Doug Sheil of the Center for International Forestry Research.

Here are a few of the things we identified. To begin with there is no “right” solution to wicked problems in complex systems, only trade-offs that appear more or less favourable depending on your perspective.

The need to work in complex systems makes adaptive management highly appealing but ultimately incredibly difficult. Adaptive management has become a standard concept among conservation agencies, with decisions about interventions being based on the current state of the system and feedback about the performance and impact of any previous and ongoing interventions.

And yet adaptive management can be problematic. First, measuring performance in complex systems is tricky. Unless a conservation solution is an unmitigated disaster, the need for, or value of, other approaches might remain unnoticed or unconvincing. In our experience, changes in strategy are rare, even in programs that profess to be adaptive.

Another way in which complex systems undermine adaptive management is related to their wickedness. In a wicked problem, implementing any given solution will change the nature of the problem, which in turn influences the performance of the solution and so on. An example of such behaviour in conservation is how the purchase of land for conservation can accelerate the subsequent development and fragmentation of surrounding areas.

Then there is the tension between “best practice” and creativity. Conservation often emphasises best practice, with many conservation organisations supporting standardised planning methods (and then strongly encouraging partners to adopt similar approaches). Apart from the fact that claims of best practice are typically unsupported by comparative evidence (and are perhaps better considered as “conventional” practice), their application to complex conservation problems often results in “finding a good solution to the wrong problem”.

Rather than adhering to nominal best practice, studies into successful management and leadership in complex situations consistently emphasise a willingness to disrupt existing behaviours and to be open and responsive to competing and creative options. We believe that a relatively unacknowledged tension exists between creativity and best practice in conservation. Fostering creativity requires leadership that is open to diverse inputs, and encourages discussion, dissent and diversity.

Military campaigns confront the challenges of operating in a complex world all the time. After operating in Afghanistan for over a decade, the United States and its allies have come to realise that success in the field is not won through greater resources and tight top-down, centralised decision-making. With experience and reflection they have opted for distributed leadership and a decentralised approach to strategic analysis, along with an acknowledgement of the need to listen to diverse voices during decision-making. The shared characteristics between military and conservation challenges and approaches provide potential lessons, suggestions and opportunities for conservation tactics and practice.

Acknowledging the systems we work in as complex and plagued with wicked problems allows us to learn from other fields facing similar challenges. Opportunities for progress lie in how we define and share objectives, how we use scenarios, and in our willingness to distribute leadership and engage diverse views to promote creativity. Borrowing concepts from other fields will not solve all our problems, but it will broaden our range of options.

Eve McDonald-Madden and Eddie Game are members of the Environmental Decisions Group. Eve is based at the University of Queensland and Eddie with The Nature Conservancy.