A photograph of a mapping exercise during a Newcastle Learning and Action Alliance workshop (2014)

June 26, 2017, by Urban Flood Resilience

Learning and Action Alliances (LAA) as solutions to wicked, complex problems

In one of the previous blog posts, Emily Lawson introduced the concept of Learning and Action Alliances (LAA’s) as a solution to the ‘wicked’ problem of urban water management. The premise here is that a ‘wicked’ problem cannot be tackled from within the confines of science alone or through the mechanisms of top-down governance. This is because ‘wicked’ problems are those ‘that have multiple and conflicting criteria for defining solutions, solutions that create problems for others, and no rules for determining when problems can be said to be solved’ (Weber and Ritter, 1973). In fact, according to Weber and Ritter, all social, political and governmental problems are wicked problems, which are ‘never solved […] at best they are only re-solved, over and over again’ (Weber and Ritter, 1973).

Wicked problems and complexity

In this blog, I start from the notion that Ritter and Weber are pertinent in their analysis, but I want to provide a mechanism for better understanding the reasons for wicked problems: complexity. Most people use the term ‘complex’ to define something that is essentially complicated, usually by reference to the multitude of elements constituting it. In this sense, a system (as a preferred analytical unit), is complicated if it can be described in terms of its individual constituents (Cilliers, 1998: viii). A computer, car or plane fit this description, meaning that the system is represented by the sum of its constituting elements, regardless of how great the number of elements is. On the other hand, Cilliers aptly describes a complex system as one in which ‘the interaction among constituents of the system, and the interaction between the system and its environment, are of such nature that the system as a whole cannot be fully understood simply by analysing its components‘ (Cilliers, 1998: viii). Complexity therefore is given not just by sheer number of elements but by a qualitative change in the nature of the system that is only observable at higher levels of complexity.

A complex system can exert causal influence on its components in a way that is ‘consistent with, but different from, the causal influences that these components exert upon each other‘ (Newman, 1996: 248). This property of complex systems is called emergence. It forces us to avoid both reductionism and holism: a complex system cannot be analysed only by reference to components or the system as a whole, but rather both elements and system are in a constant relation to each other. Consistent with emergence is the notion of nonlinearity. This is expressed as changes in effects that can be disproportional to the changes in the causal elements (Byrne and Callaghan, 2009: 18). This makes sense in the context of emergence: elements interacting with one another can have proportional cause/effect ratios up to a critical point (or threshold), where that ratio becomes disproportionate and gives rise to a qualitatively different effect.

Complexity, policy making and LAAs

Complexity helps explain why many top-down policy interventions fail: they are subject to non-linearity and emergence. The policy content, in interaction with other elements within the social field, can generate disproportionate outputs and engender the emergence of qualitatively new phenomena. This is how we can understand Weber and Ritter’s claim that governmental problems are only re-solved, over and over again, since their effects almost always extend beyond what is intended. This provides a conceptual anchor to understand why LAA’s are pertinent tools for easing the wicked, complex problems of governance. They do not seek to mastermind a solution, but to ‘feel their way’ towards a resolution or consensus, as part of a collaborative effort.  The collaborative effort refers to working with the actors that are affected by the issues that are being tackled, rather than make a decision for them. Of course, unintended consequences are still likely, but LAA’s work with complexity rather than against it, since they look to deal with such effects as they emerge. In addition, it provides a model of informal organisation that can complement formal and institutional arrangements and more importantly, create outcomes that are tailored to the needs of the stakeholders affected by the issues tackled.



Byrne, D. and Callaghan, G. (2014) Complexity theory and the Social Sciences, Routledge, Abingdon.

Cilliers, P. (1998) Complexity and postmodernism, London, Routledge.

Newman, D. (1996) Emergence and Strange Attractors, Philosophy of Science, 63: 245-61.

Ritter, H. and Webber, M. (1973) Planning problems are wicked problems, Policy Science, 4: 155-69.


Blog post by Tudor Vilcan (Open University).

Read more about Learning and Action Alliances on our project website.

Posted in Urban Flood Resilience research