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Resilience Theory and Wicked Problems

Posted by on Tuesday, December 22, 2020 in Articles, Volume 73, Volume 73, Number 6.

Robin Kundis Craig | 73 Vand. L. Rev. 1733 (2020) |

This Article posits, first, that resilience theory offers important insights into our understanding of wicked problems and, second, that to understand the value of resilience theory to wicked problems, we should start by going back to the context of Rittel’s and Webber’s 1973 delineation of the ten characteristics of a “wicked problem.” Rittel and Webber were in fact among the vanguard of researchers beginning to articulate the realization that social and ecological systems—now social-ecological systems (“SESs”)—do not follow the predictable and mechanistic rules of Newtonian physics. As a result, SESs do not yield, at least not over the long term, to engineering-based “solutions” designed to satisfy contemporary priorities and desires. Instead, like resilience theorists, although lacking resilience theory’s vocabulary, Rittel and Webber acknowledged that change is the norm for both social and ecological systems and that the realities of complex adaptive social-ecological systems make “once and done” planning and management impossible.

In rereading Rittel and Webber almost fifty years later, however, it becomes useful to pull apart the blending of social capriciousness and ecological panarchy that together, for them, added up to “wickedness” in social problem solving. Social capriciousness—the fact that social priorities and desires can both evolve over time and flip in response to political events such as elections—has become the far more accepted component of “wickedness”; few anymore expect social “solutions” to persist indefinitely. However, that same acceptance of continual, often unpredictable, change has not yet translated to the ecological side of wicked problems—which is precisely why resilience theory can help twenty-first-century citizens to formulate more productive approaches to those problems.

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Robin Kundis Craig