I was sorting through some old emails today, and I came across a discussion from a few months ago between me and other researchers. One of them had suggested it would make an excellent blog post, but none of us ever wrote one. So here I am. I am sharing my personal thoughts on the matter, not theirs.
The discussion was prompted by a lecture given by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the Royal Society for the Arts. You can listen to it on the ABC’s* Big Ideas podcast or online here. You can also read an article he wrote on these issues here.
The basic premise of the lecture is that three sources of social power – individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity – need to be present for society to function. He also mentions fatalism as a fourth force, but this is largely set aside in the lecture. All three are fairly self-explanatory: hierarchical power comes from those who have (or think they have) authority to tell us what to do, solidarity originates from the groups to which we belong and share values, and individualistic power has its origins in our desire to survive and succeed. As he succinctly puts it: I’ll do what I’m told (hierarchy), I’ll do what everyone else is doing (solidarity), and I’ll do what I want to do (individualism).
In thinking about how to tackle “wicked problems”, Taylor suggests that we approach them from a design perspective, rather than a policy perspective, using these forces as a lens through which we view potential solutions. In other words, we can leverage on these forces in designing solutions to the complex problems that trouble society.
A quick note for context: The term “wicked problems” refers to complex policy problems that cannot be defined completely and for which most solutions are less than optimal (Rittel and Webber 1973). Many environmental problems fall under this umbrella.
These forces often operate all at once and generate friction when they meet. Taylor uses the example of climate change, which I think is an excellent one. People often firmly commit to one of three paths: individual ingenuity and technology will solve the problem, world leaders sign off on treaties to bring the world community in line, or we need to all chip in and collectively change the way we live. Fatalism, of course, is the view that it’s all made up; or if it’s not, we’re all screwed. The topic of my PhD, biodiversity, could also be similarly parsed into these four categories: individual management and conservation of the remaining patches of habitat will save us, we must join together and connect these patches across landscapes, or the government should command from on high that no actions that threaten the remaining biodiversity will be tolerated. A more fatalistic view would say that extinction has always occurred and is inevitable, thus we should stop trying to prop up some of these species just because they are cute and cuddly.
Quite rightly, I think, Taylor argues that we need all three to solve wicked problems, but that in today’s society they have become unbalanced. I will leave you to listen to the whole lecture if you please, rather than rehashing it all here, but it did prompt a few thoughts about how this intersects with my own research and thinking about institutions. First I’ll clarify what I mean when I say “institution”. Institutions are the rules, norms, and strategies that shape the behaviour of individuals and organisations. They can be formal, like policies, but they are often informal, like the practice of heckling the opposition in parliament. They can be abstract, like marriage or economic markets, or more concrete, like policies on paper. Think of the way you run your household. Those sets of household rules and norms (unspoken and spoken) are institutional arrangements. Institutions organise our lives and make things predictable. But in doing so they are also embedded with those four forces that Taylor discusses in his lecture.
Starting with this view, Taylor’s approach offers an interesting way to think about designing institutions. I am a firm believer in the idea that we need to tailor solutions in the problem we are trying to address. That said, calling it “the problem” is incomplete, as problems are understood from multiple perspectives. Individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity are but one way to shed light on these different perspectives. They aren’t the categories that I will be using, but they are indeed very useful ways to think about the problem. Both those who cause environmental problems and those with the capacity and/or authority to solve them often view the issue quite differently. The former may adopt an individualistic view, and the latter a hierarchical view. I suppose Taylor’s view is not an earth shattering take on the matter. In fact, it’s quite intuitive. Still, it can be a useful or enlightening way to prompt policy makers to think about solutions that align with each of these categories, rather than handing down a solution from on high (which sometimes seems the easiest option). The idea is that we get to the heart of the problem, rather than pushing down with force.
Taylor advocates for a design approach to solving wicked problems, so the real quandary for me in all of this are the embedded assumptions in the word “design”. Though my research falls under the umbrella of institutional design, I have not yet fully come to terms with what it means to design institutions. In part its a tacit implication of a god-like designer, but more so it is because the term can be a bit misleading at first glance. Although we can design policies, and identify leverage points that can change behaviour, there are limits to our ability to “design” solutions. Societies are of course complex systems, and once a solution enters into this system it can evolve into something quite different than intended. There is a range of perspectives on the limits of design. I personally fall into the camp that says any attempt will be incomplete, but that the best you can probably do is indirectly design solutions to complex problems by finding the important leverage points. Though design is to some extent possible, the idea is just that institutions do not emerge fully formed from a design process, but rather they take on a life of their own and evolve.
I think Taylor partly addresses the limits to design when he discusses at one point how his approach to solving complex problems gets to the heart of the problem but that it is incremental, rather than in search of a “once and for all solution” which is what politicians might want. He noted that all of the different solutions are going to interact and that we need to be flexible as we make changes and adjust as we go, like moulding a clay pot.
If you listen to the lecture, I highly recommend listening all the way through the questions from the audience. These were quite revealing. It seemed several people were rather unsatisfied because they couldn’t see how his ideas would work in practice. There was a very enlightening part of the question period that illustrates this (and the notion of that institutions evolve in ways we might not have intended) very well. At one point, someone lamented the decline of traditional institutions, and suggested that liberal values are eroding those institutions that are seen as inequitable or unpalatable to modern sensibilities (e.g. church, marriage). This has become a familiar refrain in modern media.
Though it frustrates me that people adopt such a static view of social institutions, I do understand the origins of the fear. We have a very difficult time seeing innovations in the institutions we know so well because these institutions help shape our thoughts.
When familiar institutions are under threat, we also panic for a number of other reasons, besides not knowing what comes next.Though institutions like marriage evolve over time, many of these changes are slow enough that they don’t feel threatening. When a faster change emerges, there is often a sense that we are approaching unknown territory. It can feel as though these familiar institutions will dissolve completely, and we will be left in an institutional void. What will replace the old institutions? People often seem to fear the worst, i.e. that they will be replaced by nefarious institutions that threaten civil society. Perhaps this is because we haven’t known life without these traditional institutions, and we think they are the only ones that can bind society together. Or perhaps we just cannot imagine what could replace them because our innovation is stifled by the familiar. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, I suppose.
For the record, I think a lot of the panic about erosion of our institutions is overblown. I personally don’t think institutions like marriage or the church are under threat of extinction, but they are going to evolve and change, just like most things in life. Even if we do allow liberal values to change them, however, they likely won’t be unrecognisable or completely new. Returning to environmental problems, the green economy will not be a completely unrecognisable economy to us. Many of the same patterns of behaviour will still be there, even if the inputs and outputs change.
In the world of institutions, nothing is every completely new or completely traditional**. We will always have a design frame shaped by our past and our present. Institutions can be designed, but it’s difficult for us to undertake the activity of design without viewing it through a frame that has been shaped by past and current institutions.
Hypothetically, it is possible that we could decide to completely dismantle all environmental institutions to solve complex problems like climate change and biodiversity loss and decline, but it is unlikely that we will do so. And if Taylor is correct, then design is not only shaped by current and past arrangements, but it also shaped by those four forces, implicitly even if not explicitly. I may still struggle with the attachment of the word “design” to solutions for wicked problems, but I do like that he has brought sources of power to the fore, and highlighted their role not only in complex problems but also in their resolution.
* For Americans, that’s Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the ABC in America. It’s like PBS.
** This comes from the concept of bricolage. For an excellent discussion of bricolage, I highly recommend this book by Frances Cleaver:
CLEAVER, F. 2012. Development through bricolage: Rethinking institutions for natural resource management, London: Routledge.