Ocean Health As a Wicked Problem
John Thomas

John Thomas Former Sr. Program Associate

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February 12, 2014

Ocean Health As a Wicked Problem

But there is an emerging consensus that our oceans are in poor and declining health, with implications almost too big to fathom for the billions of people who rely on fish for food and the hundreds of millions directly and indirectly employed in ocean-related industries. This declining health is due to our over-exploitation of these critical resources through overfishing, coastal development, shipping and mining, pollution, and myriad other threats.

We’re approaching ecological and likely social tipping points beyond which there is little to no recovery possible.

All together, these challenges amount to a classic wicked problem—a problem that involves an incredible diversity of people and sectors, with multiple (often competing) views of the problem and potential remedies, and few—if any—simple or elegant solutions. Wicked problems are messy, complex, confusing, and contentious, and—by definition—span economic, ecological, social, and political systems. Addressing them requires that we take a “bias towards action” and dive head-on into the muck and the mire, embrace complexity and ambiguity, re-frame and model to draw out areas of uncertainty or gaps in knowledge, and identify and negotiate between competing views and objectives across sectors and disciplines.

One step in this direction emerged recently from the Global Partnership for Oceans, a partnership as ambitious and wide-ranging as its name suggests. In their guidance to the GPO, Indispensable Ocean: Aligning Ocean Health and Human Well-being, a Blue Ribbon Panel of experts from industry, government, academia, and conservation make a strong case for re-framing ocean health as a “wicked problem”—one requiring integration across sectors:

“A paradigm shift is needed in how we use and conserve ocean resources to address current inadequacies… Some solutions have been found to halt and even reverse the decline in ocean resources, but they tend to focus on only a single sector or component of the socio-ecological system… To stem the ocean’s declining health, new and proven innovative solutions need to be scaled up, integrated, and improved to match the vastness and complexity of the ocean, the range of stakeholders, and the ocean’s multiple uses.”

Adapting proven solutions to new contexts, and identifying new innovations needed to catalyze global change at a systems level are critically important undertakings to address the crisis facing our world’s oceans and the people who depend on them.

But addressing our ocean’s health doesn’t begin or end with solutions generated under our existing definition of the problem by existing actors because declining ocean health isn’t just a wicked problem, it’s what political scientists call a “super wicked problem”—one where time is running out, where decision makers lack agency, where incentives are in place that push us into a short-termist downward spiral, and where all actors in the system are ourselves part of the problem.

In ocean health, we’re approaching ecological and likely social tipping points beyond which there is little to no recovery possible, where no one country or body is able to exert influence over a global commons, where market incentives are in place that encourage us to pull fish out of the sea as fast as possible, and where consumers of fish, almost every one of us around the globe, is generating the demand driving this negative cycle in the first place.

As these problems are bigger than any one individual or institution, building coalitions and global partnerships are a good place to start. But no one actor or set of actors has a monopoly on the right approach, intervention, or world view in all places; these problems are too complex and rapidly evolving to be tamed by no less than the very best of every sector with a stake in our ocean’s health.

Our common dependence on ocean resources can be a compelling motivator to mobilize us all towards action.

To meet that high bar, new voices and perspectives need to be brought to the table, including those often left out, namely community groups, cooperatives, and collectives who face the reality of our changing oceans every day; experts in economics and finance who can help us think about how to restructure capital flows and reshape incentives, and “heretical thinkers” who can push boundaries and encourage us to recombine old and new ideas into catalytic and possibly transformative interventions to help us realize sustainable and equitable use of our ocean resources.

At the Rockefeller Foundation, we are putting this approach into action by piloting a new collaborative model to systemic transformation in partnership with innovation hotbed Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions and ChangeLabs, a project of the Design School looking to pioneer thinking about how to achieve large scale, sustainable transformation. We are placing a big bet that bringing the best expertise from a diversity of viewpoints—food security, mobile banking, seafood industry, community development, impact investing, marine science, to name a few—from a variety of geographies can help us break through to new soloutions.

Mobilizing these actors may seem like a daunting, uncomfortable, and perhaps Sisyphean goal. Yet changes in our ocean’s health will affect everyone living on this giant blue marble. And as we’ve realized through our Innovation Lab, our common dependence on ocean resources can be a compelling motivator to mobilize us all towards action.

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