Conservation in a wicked world

It’s tough because it’s complex

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 and, 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 which is often irreversible, and no clearly defined boundaries to the system. These characteristics contribute to what have been come to be called ‘wicked problems’. Wicked problems generally lack clear solutions because each problem is linked to other problems, and the nature and characterization 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 we in the conservation game draw any insights from these other areas? That’s the question we posed with colleagues Erik Meijaard (UQld) and Doug Sheil (Center for International Forestry Research), and we believe there’s much we can learn (Game et al., 2013). In our paper we identified challenges for conventional conservation practice; specifically, the difficulty of adaptive management where success is ambiguous, and the tension between best practice and creativity. We also considered how modern military conflicts embody comparable challenges to achieving conservation targets, and offer suggestions for how conservation practices might change to better navigate complex systems and wicked problems (these are summarised in Table 1).
So here are a few of the things we identified in our engagement with complexity (read the paper for our full discussion). To begin with there is no ‘right’ solution to wicked problems in complex systems, only trade­offs that appear more or less favorable 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, even in programs that profess to be adaptive, are rare.

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 behavior in conservation is how the purchase of land for conservation can accelerate subsequent development and the fragmentation of the surrounding areas.

And then there is the tension between ‘best practice’ and creativity. Conservation often emphasizes best practice with many conservation organizations supporting standardized 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 emphasize a willingness to disrupt existing behaviors 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 decentralized 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.

Table 1: Lessons for conservation science from the world of complex science

Table 1: Lessons for conservation science from the world of complex science

More info: Eve McDonald-Madden
Game ET, E Meijaard, D Sheil & E McDonald-Madden (2013). Conservation in a wicked complex world; challenges and solutions. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12050

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