What does it mean to muddle forward and to do so intelligently? This post is another that draws on and responds to Allenby and Sarewitz’s excellent book The Techno-Human Condition. In it I consider a central idea that they advance that, when we face a wicked problem or are grappling with a situation of “wicked complexity” (their term), “muddling through” is the best we can do. I relate this to ideas advanced by other scholars like Thomas Homer-Dixon. Allenby and Sarewitz assert that:
“[W]hen problems are wicked, no belief system, however rooted in analysis of facts it may be, can provide a universally accepted answer… [and] muddling through is not a second-best process to be dropped when appropriate optimization techniques are developed: it is the best we can do” (Allenby and Sarewitz, p. 110)
“We [mistakenly] try to “Gosplan” climate change, biodiversity, and the ancient cultures of the Middle East. Our problem is that we want to turn everything into a problem that can be solved, when those problems are in fact conditions” (p. 161)
What does ‘muddling through’ in a very general sense entail? They suggest that “[p]rogress, when it occurs, comes through trial and error, through learning what works in particular situations, through incremental change that incorporates such learning, and through the difficult process of political compromise that allows people to take a next step” (p. 93). Thus, it entails experimentation and learning from error (trial and error), contextual learning (i.e. what works in particular situations) that recognises the time-bound and place-bound aspects of problem solutions, incremental approaches to action and decision-making (incremental change), often by achieving political compromises.
In a more complex world, which Allenby and Sarewitz argue “increasingly defies understanding and management”, they also question “our Enlightenment predilections [which] give rise to ever more shrill demands for rationality, quantification, factual analyses, and evidence-based whatever” (p.161). Provocative stuff!
Some possible principles for muddling forward more intelligently
A related key proposition is that “some muddling is more effective, and more informative, than other muddling” (pp. 129-130). In the final main chapter they outline 11 key principles for better coping with wicked complexity and ‘muddling forward’ in a more intelligent fashion:
- Eschew the quest for “solutions”: Unpredictable future trajectories and challenges, dramatically increasing rates of data generation and learning, and ever-present divergences in values demand a continuous ability to adjust flexibly to new conditions”;
- Build “option spaces” (both technological options and social options) by proactively developing options before they are needed. Building social option spaces means encouraging institutions and social systems “to think about alternatives, so they can adapt quickly and agilely to new and unpredicted conditions” if necessary (p.162);
- Pluralism is smarter than expertise;
- Play with scenarios;
- Lower the amplitude and increase the frequency of decisions: make many small decisions whilst tracking the evolution of complex systems, rather than a few big ones;
- Always question predictions;
- Evaluate major shifts in technological systems before, rather than after, implementation of policies and initiatives designed to encourage them: they warn that “people and economies tend to fall in love with particular technologies” and only question their broader systemic consequences after they’ve become embedded and become difficult to change;
- Continual learning;
- Do not confuse economic efficiency with social efficiency;
- Intervene early and often: “the best time to start talking about alternative technological trajectories and perspectives is when ignorance is great and the horizon is fuzzy”; and
- Accept and nourish productive conflict.
Additional related concepts and ideas developed in the book include:
Anticipatory self-negation: Self-negation is a process whereby skepticism and the ongoing search for truth means (so the argument goes) that the cultural system created by the Enlightenment “usually carries the seeds of its own negation as a uniquely “true” or “valid” culture” (p. 173) – examples provided include Galileo undermining Church doctrines, related evolutions of truth (e.g. Einstein supplanting Newton), and the critics of various excesses in modernity (e.g. Marx, etc). Interestingly, they argue this process of self-negation must shift from a reactive, corrective role to anticipatory roles, which is something that sustainability assessments and practices can, perhaps, contribute to. Anticipatory self-negation may also make some sense when considering emerging and future technological trajectories – anticipatory self-negation could mean choosing not to go down particular technological routes.
Developing and maintaining ‘philosophic flexibility’: Allenby and Sarewitz argue that any coherent and intelligible worldview (or ideology) is necessarily partial, and further contend that all worldviews are increasingly inadequate and incomplete. Linked within this they argue today’s anthropogenic world demands greater “philosophic flexibility” in order “to respond to complex systems unrolling in unpredictable and uncertain majesty”. This made me think about the problematic “tendency to see the next technological revolution through the lens of the last” (Williams 2006, p.339) and the rigid worldviews of many folk in the environmental movement. Moreover, “in a complex world, the intelligible and the rational may often conflict; Level III rationality — a capacity to link cognition to desired outcomes in the world via action — can only emerge from a commitment to confronting and working with (we would say “managing,” but it isn’t clear that we can actually do that in any strong sense with such complex and powerful systems) that which is incomprehensible” (pp. 118-119).
“Explore with humility” rather than “attack with rigidity” (p. 105): This is linked with the proposed practice of “building intellectual option spaces so as to provide room for thought experiments” which “though undoubtedly incorrect in specifics, nonetheless offer practice in thinking about potential futures and about what our institutional and policy responses might be”. A related imperative is to build agility in the face of uncertainty e.g. via scenario methods.
Conducting real-time technology assessment (also see Guston & Sarewitz 2002): critically attending to new technological/innovation trajectories from the outset. (For an interesting current example, see calls for greater public debate on the ethics and politics of human genetic engineering). Allenby and Sarewitz highlight our inability to strongly govern technological advances.
“Our point is not to encourage ill-informed decisions and discussions, but to encourage, welcome and embrace a capacity to reflect, at the early stages of technological decision-making, on the choices that face scientists, technologists and citizen, and, crucially, on why people make the choices they make in the face of profound ignorance” (p. 175).
Building resilience and adaptability into our culture: “one must be agile, flexible, and able to recalculate when new data come in and when unexpected things happen”.
Lindblom on social problem-solving and the Scientific Society
In Inquiry and Change Charles Lindblom makes many related arguments. He similarly argues that complex social problems don’t have a correct solution, and that what he terms “volitions” – roughly meaning positions taken (e.g. standing [longer-term] attitudinal volitions) or choices made (action volitions), e.g. an individual deciding whether to live in an inner-city apartment or a suburban house – must be constantly reconsidered. He argues that volitions are “always subject to challenge and reformulation”.
If volitions are always subject to challenge, then this is a driver of the need for philosophic flexibility. On this point Allenby and Schwartz discuss changing conceptions of desirability (such as of the desirability of technologies) and provide the example of nuclear power, stating that “climate change is forcing opponents of nuclear power to rethink their positions” (p.176).
Like Allenby and Schwartz’s key principle of ‘pluralism is smarter than expertise’, Lindblom advocates what he terms ‘multiplism’, pluralist problem-solving or policy-making and distributed processes of ‘partisan mutual adjustment’ (rather than a centralist, i.e. central decision-making / central coordination, approach to social problem solving). Key reasons include:
- The need for a broad vision, given that “there never is one problem; there are always many intertwined problems” (p. 251) which go beyond any one actors’ knowledge;
- Cognitive limitations;
- Partisanship (Lindblom argues “everyone is necessarily a partisan” p. 254); and
- Poor information flows in centrality, i.e. information often gets distorted or suppressed before it reaches the top of hierarchical structures, impairing decision-making.
Lindblom argues that, for complex social problems, the term problem-solving is a misnomer and he critiques the idea of a Scientific Society – that is, a scientifically-guided society which: puts science at centre stage in social problem solving (or ‘guided social change’); assumes that through sufficient analysis solutions to all social problems can be found; believes there are correct solutions, and so on. He also calls for formulation of alternative ideals/models (see Inquiry and Change for more detail).
Homer-Dixon on the “prospective mind”
In The Upside of Down Thomas Homer-Dixon’s argues that we need to cultivate “prospective minds” in order to better cope with surprise. Homer-Dixon’s supporting arguments are similar to ideas outlined above. A prospective mind: 1) is an attitude grounded in “the knowledge that constant change and surprise are now inevitable” and recognition of “how little we understand and how we control even less” (p.28); 2) involves efforts to anticipate harmful outcomes in the future and to forestall or prevent horrible outcomes; 3) aims to “make our societies – and each one of us – more resilient to external shock and more supple in response to rapid change”; and 4) demands recognition that we need to “open our minds to the possibilities of fundamental change in our lives” (p. 218).
Someone with a prospective mind isn’t surprised by surprise, is comfortable with high levels of uncertainty, and develops capacities to better deal with constant change (Homer-Dixon 2006). These attitudes and capacities are important for muddling – development of more prospective minds (as per the above definition) may also assist with muddling forward more intelligently.
Some immediate thoughts
Something that immediately strikes me are the similarities between many of the principles proposed by Allenby and Schwartz and the principles and ideas that inform so-called ‘foresighting’ activities (e.g. playing with scenarios, questioning predictions, developing ‘options spaces’, early technology assessment, and so on). Homer-Dixon’s concept of a prospective mind is also quite similar.
The principles may also provide process guidance, too, e.g. accepting and nourishing productive conflict.
The idea of developing and maintaining ‘philosophic flexibility’ is perhaps the most challenging one. Instead, what we seem to see, too often, in sustainability contexts is inflexibility and attacking with rigidity. For example, many interviews I did for my case study on the Future Fuels Forum revealed an inability and unwillingness to discuss certain topics (e.g. use of nuclear power) and a tendency to advocate and defend actors’ positions (e.g. on peak oil) rather than to “explore with humility”.
The broader notion of muddling through isn’t immediately attractive – it’s hard to imagine a leader doing a press conference and announcing that they plan to muddle through. Perhaps this is also a cultural thing. Allenby and Schwartz argue that the “Enlightenment lens” incorrectly views “incremental muddling as a strong indicator of failure and primitiveness and strives to overcome it, thus pushing action in the wrong direction” (p. 170). However, the work of many political scientists and other social scientists suggests three key things: 1) that this is the way that complex problems often are addressed; 2) that societies have “limited capacity to control the evolution of complex socio-technical systems they create” (p. 176); and 3) much social change is unintentional (e.g. no one sought an ageing population in Australia but that’s what occurring) and social problems can be ‘solved’ in an epiphenomenal fashion.
Allenby, B.R. & Sarewitz, D. 2011, The Techno-Human Condition, MIT Press.
Homer-Dixon, T. 2006, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, Australia.
Lindblom, C.E. 1990, Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society, Yale University Press.