Rural leadership – taming the wicked problems

Rural Leadership – taming the wicked problems: Growing the toolbox to foster society’s trust through strategic solutions for all
By Ben Hancock

Ben Hancock – Scholar Presentation (June 2020)

Executive Summary

Societal and regulatory issues facing the agriculture have been escalating, and unrelenting – the demands on production and cost of food, society’s perceptions of agriculture, and the regulatory burden. These complex, contrary, large and evolving issues are truly wicked problems.

Agriculture needs to be involved in the issues and to be leading development of the solutions – not reacting – in part, to maintain and build public trust. Agriculture has the expertise but needs to be in the position to be masters of their own destiny. The overarching objective of this study was to position the agriculture industry as leaders in solving wicked problems that face the industry, effectively and efficiently.

This sets the scene that requires an understanding some of the potential drivers of the perceived rift between agriculture and wider society and regulators. Understanding the gap and agriculture’s position in the context of wider society creates a starting point and identifies an avenue to explore how to put farmers at the forefront of developing solutions.

The connectivity between rural and urban communities has widened. A shift to more urbanised populations has been occurring for generations and diminished direct relationships between the two communities. The weaker connection reduces the ability of the urban population to contextualise issues facing agriculture, and for the rural communities to relate them to the urban population.

In developing a durable relationship in which both parties have regard for the other’s interest – institutionalised trust – there are three elements that provide a foundation. Agriculture has a large influence on two – economic legitimacy and interactional trust. Agriculture has less control on the third – socio-political legitimacy – yet many wicked problems develop from this area. I sought out approaches that agriculture could incorporate to gain more control in building socio-political legitimacy.

The initial approach of seeking to “get ahead” by being first to pick up on any problems was unsuited for the agriculture sector. Four methods were explored; venture capital investment strategy, web analytics and data tools, scenario testing, and expert and stakeholder panels.

Applying these practices to identifying future issues was generally still reactionary and contained a relatively high element of risk. Any returns for success would be difficult to identify and reward from success difficult to gain or quantify – the position of agriculture is not markedly improved relative to other elements of society. There are uses from the practices explored and they are suitable for other objectives, but none clearly suited the objective of getting in front of the issues.

An alternative approach was to understand the values held by other parties affected or involved with agriculture to find alignment that addresses wicked problems, and identifies potential points of conflict. In a series of meetings, I was introduced to the field of bioethics. The three bioethics tools I presented were; the ethical matrix, the ethical Delphi, and reflective equilibrium.

While there are elements of overlap with these three tools, each had variations of objective, process, outcomes and use. At a high level:

  • The ethical matrix creates an inventory for the range of views and values held by affected parties in context of the issue through deliberation;
  • The ethical Delphi is more appropriate to arrive at a reasoned consensus amongst experts in a field by directed reiterations, and
  • Reflective equilibrium, which is another reiterative process, seeks to reach a moral judgement by taking an intuitive and experienced perspective on an issue, testing it against existing knowledge of the field, putting that in the context of relevant moral principles, and then relating it back to intuition and experience – repeating the process until a stable position is achieved.

These were an introduction to the field to highlight the bioethics tools use for agriculture to understand the range of views and perspectives on issues the relate to agriculture. Research, knowledge and experience of experts are incorporated in these processes but, importantly, it is framed in a manner relevant to wider society.

Wicked problems are difficult to define, without clear solutions and often driven by other issues. Bioethics tools provide an approach to understand the potential drivers and arrive at optimal outcomes for all affected parties.

Recognising where there is alignment in values and objectives amongst groups identifies opportunities for the agricultural industry to bring society along in solving issues facing the industry. Detecting divergence in values held by affected parties identifies the potential points of conflict. Understanding the values that are behind the range of views presents an opportunity to effectively communicate and resolve perceived discord.

Detecting issues before other affected parties was identified to not be the best approach to build trust towards agriculture. If success could be gained in identifying an issue, the response is still reactionary and there is still an element of being adversarial towards other parties – not leading.

Encouraging systems-thinking in stakeholders and interest groups affected or involved in the issues facing agriculture is key to developing effective solutions and create opportunity for synergies in policies and practices.

Adoption of bioethics tools aids the agriculture industry to recognise and construct alignment with other segments of society. Nurturing an affiliation with agriculture in wider society becomes more manageable if the values underlying the spectrum of views is understood – making issues and concerns of agriculture relevant to other segments of society.

Building relationships experts in the field of bioethics will be necessary to best use these tools in addressing the wicked problems. It is an immense field of diverse tools and rural leaders would be more effective with the guidance of specialists with an in-depth knowledge of tools and processes.

Read the full report:
 Rural Leadership – taming the wicked problems: Growing the toolbox to foster society’s trust through strategic solutions for all. -Ben Hancock, 2019


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