In my last post I set up a schema for understanding situation complexity. In this post we look a little further into qualities it takes to deal with level three complexity – the more interesting stuff.

First, collaboration is essential to ameliorating complex problems for several reasons. To engage with a topic like climate change requires far more expertise than any single group or organization could leverage independently. Because of the human dimensions, it also means that the stakeholders involved likely have contested views and beliefs, which must be navigated carefully. This kind of collaboration can often be achieved through ‘boundary objects’ or ‘boundary organizations’, a topic I’ll revisit in a future post.

Collaboration isn’t possible, however, without addressing a second key issue: credibility. For much of its history, science has proceeded with the goal of producing ‘objective’ knowledge and simply assuming everyone would accept it. Yet, for many groups, there may be many reasons why science isn’t automatically credible. Consider, for instance, Aboriginal & First Nations experiences with the scientific enterprise, where a history of oppression & exclusion can lead to significant (and legitimate!) distrust of scientists and outside decision makers. In this case, I’d join scholars like Naomi Scheman and Heidi Grasswick in arguing that it’s a core responsibility for scientists to address these issues as a key part of their scientific practice.

Addressing crises of credibility often requires a third action: involving new groups in the scientific and decision making processes as relevant experts. In many historical cases, key stakeholders such as farmers, fishers, patients have been ignored during scientific deliberations that directly concern their welfare. This leads not only to a long term loss of credibility, but also the possibility of missing insights, perspectives, and local knowledge that are essential to creating innovative solutions. Striking a balance between who ought to be included as a relevant expert and which stakeholders ought to be involved differently is a particularly challenging question that is subject to much current research.

In short, a very particular set of challenges – complex, level three problems – represent a group of issues that are remarkably difficult to solve quickly. Yet, it’s possible to make headway through collaboration, earning credibility, and engaging new experts. Complex problems like climate change, immigration, resource management, or healthcare may be challenging, but they’re certainly not impossible.

In future posts, Eric will be writing more about credibility, expertise, and collaboration in a complex world – stay tuned.

Eric Kennedy is a PhD student at the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University and has a Bachelor of Knowledge Integration from the University of Waterloo. Eric’s research focuses on using trust, expertise, and collaboration to solve complex sociotechnical problems. Follow him on Twitter @ericbkennedy and visit him online at

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