Social learning to tackle the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change

by Gernot Laganda

Ever come across a truly ‘wicked problem’? The term comes from social planning theory, describing a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for a number of reasons: Incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. So essentially, it is hard to say where the problem stops and starts, or to formulate it in such a way that all stakeholders would agree on its definition. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each stakeholder.

The CGIAR programme for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has a lot of experience dealing with wicked problems. The favourite topic of the 70-odd researchers who are meeting in Bodega Bay/USA this week is the ‘super-wicked’ interface between agricultural production, food security and climate change. Ask anyone in the room if a specific problem in one of these spheres is a symptom of another problem in another sphere, and they would all nod their heads and probably roll their eyes at the complexity of it all. Irrespective of the fields of research these top scientists are engaged in - There is universal understanding that the variety of problems at the interface between agricultural production, food security and climate change is truly inter-connected and linked with lots of other problems. Pulling them apart is almost impossible.

One of the questions these leading scientists are asking  is whether the old model of research, in which knowledge is generated through research projects, written up in papers, reviewed by fellow researchers and then disseminated through conferences, is still fit for purpose. The alternative model that is emerging is the theory of social learning: A way of participatory ‘action research’ in which researchers co-learn and co-experience with local communities, public and private sector entities, development partners and financial institutions. The key question is not so much who is paying for the research and who is writing it up, but who is generating and using knowledge. Rather than a linear process leading from research to dissemination, social learning is a continuous and iteractive cycle of action and reflection which eventually results in institutional and behavioural change. Sounds complicated? Check out the animated video on partnerships for behavioural change, which tries to explain why a partnership-based approach to learning is often more effective than a linear process based on sector-based research.

In the context of IFAD’s work on climate change, the approach of action research and social learning is especially relevant. Programmes such as the Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP) empower local institutions to understand and tackle growing risks in a rapidly changing environment. Social learning is key for these institutions deal with uncertainty, change and surprises, and we won’t be able to understand the impact of IFAD investments if we approach our monitoring job with a static view of the world. Our measurement systems need to become more dynamic, reflecting on processes as well as outcomes. Who is gaining knowledge from IFAD-supported projects? Which partnerships are emerging in which this knowledge is being communicated? Do we see evidence of behavioural change? Applying a perspective of social learning might be just the right ‘wicked’ solution to these questions.

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