A new enlightenment

The rise and rise of collective learning

ANYONE WHO HAS worked in science for the past fifty years, as I have, has experienced many changes in the way a scientist looks at the world. The growing interest in wicked problems leads to the question: are the moves to tackle such problems a fresh way of understanding how the world works, or just another passing fancy? And this leads to more questions: do we really have wicked problems in the first place – that is, problems so diabolical that they cannot be resolved by anything that we already know how to do? Are the risks to our future – climate change and nuclear warfare, for instance – any worse for today's citizens than they seemed to those who prayed for escape from the Black Death and the lethal crossbow?

In the seventeenth century the so-called Enlightenment promised to change the way we lived in the world, and largely delivered on that promise. The resultant hygiene revolution controlled epidemics of cholera and smallpox, which in turn allowed people to live together safely in large cities. A technological revolution harnessed steam, fossil fuels and nuclear fission, providing the energy sources for twenty-first-century global flows of people, finance and information.

Entering science in the 1960s, I found my initial university training caught up in the triumphal stage of the Enlightenment era. We were taught that every topic should be approached through an objective, dualistic model of inquiry that considered that all problems had solutions which could be evaluated as true or false. Through applying this model we were assured that we could eventually know everything. A search for certainty and the banishment of ignorance was the litany of the time.

Studying the new field of ecology I had problems with the Enlightenment model from the start. Researching the ecosystems of the Queensland subtropical rainforest I found the interactions between living things and their physical environments to be dynamic and complex, often unpredictable. When humans were included in the system, issues were not readily resolved in the black/white thinking of the science of the time.

Even Darwin's great contribution of evolution was being interpreted as a tidy ladder of continuing improvement, much to the fury of the distinguished evolutionary biologist Stephen J Gould. He and others kept pointing out that we were guessing from random pieces of evidence, ignoring the many blind alleys and links that have not survived. There is a sequence, yes, but we only have faint signals of what that is. And we certainly don't know what might have been. At that time taxonomy, the classification of living things, was based on physical appearance.

In the 1970s, while I was still dutifully using the limited taxonomy, the discovery of the double helix of DNA changed all that. Living things were reclassified by their relationships to each other. Understanding of the mechanisms of inheritance changed from a set of mathematical probabilities to a dynamic, responsive system. A surge of imaginative and idealistic ideas about the unity of the universe, equitable global economic systems and co-operative cultures marked the decade. Belief in a predictable, mechanical world began to fade.


IT WAS IN the 1960s and '70s that the long-term effects of industrial by-products were first identified: the atmospheric ozone hole, DDT's silent spring, the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth. The increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was first measured in the early 1970s. Despite a boiling dispute on the significance, or even the accuracy, of these findings, the idea of the technological triumphs as a source of, rather than the solution to, complex problems entered social thinking.

It was at this time that Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber put forward the idea that long-term intractable problems were diabolical problems created by society itself. They contrasted wicked problems with tame problems, which could be solved by the logical methods of the Enlightenment. A wicked problem can have no clear-cut definition, since it calls for open inquiry. In tackling a wicked problem society itself will change, so there can be no final solution. Solutions cannot be true or false, right or wrong, but are the best that can be done at the time. Such problems are not regarded as morally wicked, but as diabolical in their difficulty. However, the authors declared that they found treating wicked problems as if they were tame problems morally indefensible.

It was a great relief to find an emerging acceptance that the universe is far more complex than true/false arguments can explain. Working now on the modern city as a socio-environmental system, I found that it was acceptable to acknowledge that sometimes two opposing statements are true – at the same time. Light is both wave and particles. The movement of the subject experiencing time can change how fast time goes by. We can now understand space-time. By the mere fact of observing a scientific experiment we are changing its outcome. Uncertainty becomes a fact of life. All these ideas, first produced by a group of brilliant physicists some forty-odd years ago, have finally begun to seep into the mainstream.

These changes in how we think about thinking carried social learning into another era, the so-called postmodern society. Our work as scientists is still built on the achievements of the Enlightenment and modern science, modern in the sense of the clear-cut causalities of Newton's mechanics. It became possible, however, to acknowledge that uncertainty is an inherent part of any search for reality, and that awareness of ignorance is an essential part of knowledge. We accepted boundaries to our capacity to grasp 'absolute truth'. This way of thinking allowed us to go beyond a dualistic worldview in which we can only deal with phenomena in yes/no or true/false categories – to a world in which we could embrace uncertainty, welcome paradoxes and accept ignorance as the source of new ideas.

As the 1980s began, this mood of questioning of the inheritance of the Enlightenment allowed me to undertake a doctorate entitled Holism in the University: Promise or Performance? in which I concluded that while universities expressed the aim of addressing complex issues as a whole, in practice they remained strongly partitioned along disciplinary lines. Based on a study of human sciences' research and teaching worldwide, the thesis concluded that every significant socio-biological issue raised six different types of question: empirical, social, aesthetic, ethical, introspective and reflective. For an effective and lasting decision, answers to all the questions needed to be brought together within a holistic focus.

The university where I studied did not permit a question mark in thesis titles: uncertainty was not wanted. On hearing my topic the deputy vice-chancellor for research charged me with 'trying to demolish the university bit by bit'. In other words, the disciplinary walls were considered essential for the university to function. On a more positive note, recognition of the validity of the thesis findings led to invitations to design a science degree in public health, and to join the national research bodies of the CSIRO and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

The task of bringing collective thinking to science-based organisations proved far from easy. The thinking of the postmodern era was travelling in three different and apparently incompatible directions, each of which continues to this day. One is the belief that the scientific methods of existing disciplines can be relied on to eventually deliver solutions to even the most complex issues of the time (as in the work of the CSIRO). Another accepts that the answer to any problem is neither yes nor no but maybe, acknowledging that the implementation of scientific findings is subject to political will and social priorities (as in the NHMRC).

By the 1990s a third direction sought solutions to wicked problems through valuing diversity and difference rather than seeking to eliminate them. Encouraged by colleagues around the world, I came to deal with socio-environmental changes as collective interactions, rather than as a set of independent events. Research projects, government policies and university courses began to explore the connections between the biophysical interpretations of the natural and the human worlds (empirical questions) and interpretations from ethics, social justice, law, culture, arts, philosophy and religion (social, aesthetic and ethical questions). Added to these understandings were explorations into the minds of the individuals doing the thinking (introspective questions) and learning from the whole of an experience (reflective questions).

Movement in this collective direction largely operated apart from mainstream thinking, and often proved a bad career move. On the other hand, the collective approach seeking to answer the full set of questions had some significant wins. James Lovelock's work on Gaia treated the earth as a self-balancing organism combining many systems, leading to productive avenues for atmospheric research. Lynn Margulis's work changed the idea of a living cell as an indivisible unit to describing its components as interdependent collaborating wholes, opening the way for cures for little-understood diseases such as AIDS and some cancers.

The quick defeat of the world-threatening Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was achieved through a spontaneous global collaboration among key individuals, local communities, specialists ranging from epidemiology to clinical practice, and the relevant global and local organisations. All were joined in pursuit of a holistic goal, and driven by the dread of a repeat of the Great War's influenza. Collective thinking was alive and well.


BY THIS TIME I was able to develop a research program in partnership with communities whose goal was whole-of-community change. More than 300 communities – place-based communities, communities of practice, and communities of interests – joined in collaborative action research over periods from one day to one year. Consistently, in seeking to address whole-of-community change, the same six types of question arose: empirical, social, aesthetic, ethical, introspective and reflective.

The Local Sustainability Project studies found that answering the key questions relied on bringing together the interests of the individual (introspective questions), the community (social questions), the relevant specialists (empirical questions), the influential organisations (ethical questions) and integrative thinkers (aesthetic questions). Examining the gamut of them all meant asking reflective questions. In practice each set of interests proved to have their own knowledge base, with its own goals and sources of evidence, and even their own languages. The knowledge generated by their shared understanding could be considered as a nested set, each building on the other; a distributed network, in which each helped the other; and a level playing field, in which each question and each interest was given equal weight. In the spirit of valuing difference, each contribution and each framework could be accepted as equally valid, and the embodied ideas as contributing to each other.

These interests were, however, more accustomed to competing with each other than collaborating. They operated within a tradition that values organisational knowledge above scientific findings, and both of these above community and individual experience. As well as starting from behind with expectations of conflict of interest, each knowledge base had learned to reject the others. Individual contributions were considered biased, a community's as anecdotal, specialists' as fragmented, organisations' as self-serving and a holistic, integrated perspective as impossible. The grain of truth in each rejection made it even more challenging to find a way for the sets of interests to listen to each other.

In further fragmentation, the objectivity sought by the Enlightenment had led to the separation of ideals and facts, ideas and action. As a counterweight to these artificial divisions, human beings are a social species whose actions reflect a synthesis of ideas and facts. Individuals are familiar with answering all the questions at once. Indeed, we implicitly do so every time we make an important decision. The Local Sustainability Project team found an antidote to the fragmentation in the principles of adult learning established by David Kolb and his associates. If Kolb was right, all adults follow the same stages in learning anything new. The Local Sustainability Project found that the Kolb stages readily translated into a sequence of ideals, facts, ideas and action, thus resolving another of the divisions inherited from the Enlightenment.

A mark of the strength of the disciplinary divisions is that the reports from this collective inquiry had to be published under the auspices of public health, environmental management and organisational change, respectively. There was no field and no publisher willing to handle a set of findings that crossed them all.


WHICH BRINGS US to the original question about the move to addressing wicked problems: is a shift to collective thinking as significant as were the shifts to scientific Enlightenment in the seventeenth century and the social-relativist postmodern era in the twentieth?

The answer to that question could well be yes. The collective learning cycle developed in the Local Sustainability Project is one tool among many. Although the opposing divisive forces are strong, there are many shifts in the way we construct, share and evaluate knowledge that open up the potential for the collective thinking needed to address wicked problems.

Already in this century tools for collective thinking can be found in every applied field, although under different labels. For architecture and urban planning, a pattern language allows all interests to be included in the designs. Large engineering projects are replacing competitive tendering with alliances. In software design, so-called agile programming has underpinned the development of relational search engines and social media. A whole professional field of knowledge management and knowledge-broking has arisen in organisations, both in government and industry.

The traditional tool for addressing global issues has been backroom meetings among specialised interests. The wide range of diverse structures now designed to deal with wicked problems includes multidisciplinary think tanks, open forums, national and international summits, dialogue centres and social media, to name but a few. These provide fertile ground for collective learning, a significant shift from the problem-solving of classical science, in which highly specialised experts work in separate fields.

The existence of such different approaches to problem-solving brings us back to the original formulation of a wicked problem – one generated within the society that created it. It follows that social learning and social change are essential components of any resolution. An objective perspective brings new insights with social change a by-product. A collective perspective brings new structures and possibilities with social change as the aim of the enterprise.

As a scientist working in the second decade of the second millennium of the western calendar, for me it remains an open question which of the three directions decision-making on difficult issues will eventually follow. It should be pretty clear by now that I have opted for the third. The widespread interest in wicked problems helps confirm that this direction has a future. Whether a future guided by collective learning is as far-reaching and longstanding as the scientific Enlightenment remains to be seen.



Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M. Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I. and Angel, S. A pattern language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977

Bohm, D. 1996. On Dialogue. London, Routledge

Brown VA., 1979 Holism and the University. Promise or Performance. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Zoology, Australian National University

Brown, V A., Grootjans, J., Ritchie, J., Townsend, M. and Verrinder, G. 2005. Sustainability and health: supporting global ecological integrity in public health. Allen and Unwin. Sydney and Earthscan, London

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