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‘Wicked problems’ and how to solve them

In this Guest Blog, PLOS ONE Academic Editor, Sieglinde Snapp, discusses the challenges faced in sustainability research to solve complex, so-called “Wicked Problems”, and how conferences such as Tropentag are bringing together researchers from multiple disciplines to implement participatory action research.

PLOS ONE Academic Editor Patrick van Damme opening proceedings at Tropentag 2018.

Global development addresses the grand challenges of our day: how to sustainably feed, clothe, support livelihoods and provide energy and water for humanity, while conserving and regenerating the natural resource base. These challenges show the classic characteristics of so-called wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Wicked problems are conceptually complex and transdisciplinary, involve a wide range of stakeholders, are often high in value conflict (where stakeholders’ beliefs are- or appear to be- incompatible), and are associated with high uncertainty. Tackling wicked problems requires us to move beyond traditional component research, in which a step-by-step approach is taken to solving more clearly-defined, conceptually straightforward problems. Hypothesis-driven component research methodologies cannot be effectively marshalled against the many-headed wicked problems endemic to sustainability. To overcome the inherent limitations of component research, participatory action research is needed to address wicked problems effectively. Action research involves the engagement of a multiplicity of stakeholders and the deployment of multidisciplinary methods in a people-oriented, systemic approach to effecting measurable and meaningful change.


A key feature of action research is that it represents a co-learning process that supports iterative fine-tuning of interventions. This cycle of improvement leads to ever more effective practices to address local needs and results in both the generation of new knowledge and enhanced capacity for adaptive management. The core steps in the systematic process of action research can be summarized as Plan, Act, Observe and Reflect, shown in the figure below. This process complements and expands the traditional component research approach of hypothesis testing to encompass effective engagement with stakeholders and to consider emergent patterns as part of an iterative co-synthesis cycle.


Conceptual diagram illustrating a participatory action research iterative cycle of researcher and stakeholder collaborative, engaged learning.


Action research in sustainability science faces a number of challenges. Often, appropriate tools are not available for the effective acquisition and analysis of data. This means that, unfortunately, evidence derived from action research is still highly fragmented, and both theory and practice need to be developed and integrated. Methodological innovations and creativity are critical to maximise the potential of action research, and are now needed more urgently than ever if the world is to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The need to build on the action research evidence base is increasingly recognized, and there is growing appreciation of adaptation approaches that seek to engage with stakeholders, enhance capacity, support co-investigation, reflection and synthesis of new knowledge.


In recognition of the challenges in implementing action research in sustainability science, the Tropentag conference aims to bring together a wide range of fields and methods related to sustainable development and agriculture, and is fundamentally interdisciplinary and oriented towards action research. For researchers in these fields, Tropentag is a vital venue for the sharing and discussion of new methods and evidence in action research. Highlights of this year’s conference included a number of examples of action research and multidisciplinary approaches to addressing real world challenges. There are a growing number of scholars, educators and farmer groups actively involved in long-term collaborations and networks in different parts of the world. These include West Africa, where participatory action development of videos supports integrated management of parasitic weeds and agronomic challenges to production of pearl millet, and farmer-engaged variety development of sorghum crop varieties. Meanwhile, in Malawi, local seed systems, agroecology, crop diversification and improved family nutrition are making substantial gains through participatory action research. Some of these action research initiatives can be explored more at Global Change Science.


Novel approaches were also used at the conference itself in support of communication, knowledge-sharing, and research approaches. One workshop, for example, used a ‘World Café’ participatory engagement process to support conversations about joint learning among farmers and researchers for agricultural system diversification, in the context of dryland-farming and sustainably improving nutrition and income reliability.


The value of meetings like Tropentag as fora for the exchange of fresh ideas and evidence in sustainability action research is huge. The research collaborations, policy consultations, data-sharing initiatives, and personal dialogues that emerge from such events, drawing together the cumulative knowledge and experiences of a plethora of stakeholders, are all vital in driving progress towards a more sustainable, equitable future.


About the Author

 Dr. Sieglinde Snapp is a Professor of Soils and Cropping Systems Ecology in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences and Associate Director of the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations. Sieg Snapp’s research interests include agricultural systems, sustainable crop management, integrated nutrient management, and soil health. A key focus in her lab is harnessing biology through cover crops, and diversity to enhance carbon sequestration, nitrogen fixation, and phosphorus cycling. She investigates ecologically sound design of agriculture through multidisciplinary approaches, long-term field experimentation, participatory action research and systems modeling. She joined the PLOS ONE editorial board after attending a workshop on open science run by the journal at Tropentag 2018, an annual interdisciplinary conference in tropical and subtropical agriculture, natural resource management, and rural development.



Reading list

Bezner Kerr, R., Berti, P.R. ,Shumba, L. 2011. Effects of a participatory agriculture and nutrition education project on child growth in northern Malawi. Public health nutrition, 14: 1466-1472.

Freire, P. 1982. Creating alternative research methods: learning to do it by doing it. In B. Hall et al. (Eds.) Creating Knowledge: A Monopoly? (pp.29-37). Society for Participatory Action Research in Asia, New Delhi.

Rittel, H.W.J., Webber, W.M. 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4: 155-169.

Snapp, S.S. 2002. Quantifying farmer evaluation of technologies: The mother and baby trial design. pp.9-18. In: M.R. Bellon and J. Reeves (Eds.) Quantitative Analysis of Data from Participatory Methods in Plant Breeding. CIMMYT, PRGA and IRRI, Mexico.

Thiollent, M. ,Colette, M.M. 2017. Action Research and Participatory Research in Brazil. In L. Rowell et al. (Eds.) The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research (pp. 161-176). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

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