Skip Navigation

Developing Sustainable Solutions to Oklahoma’s ‘Wicked’ Challenges

Skip Side Navigation
July 21, 2020

Developing Sustainable Solutions to Oklahoma’s ‘Wicked’ Challenges

NORMAN, OKLA. – Oklahoma researchers are innovating a new approach to develop and test science-based solutions for complex problems at the intersection of land use, water availability and infrastructure through a $20 million National Science Foundation grant to support this interdisciplinary research through Oklahoma EPSCoR.

Carol Silva and Hank Jenkins-Smith, co-directors of OU’s National Institute for Risk and Resilience are the science leads for the project. They described the central idea of the project as identifying many of the most pressing challenges facing Oklahoma over the next couple of decades, and to build the science teams and the social science framework to address those problems. During the five-year award, a team of 34 researchers from seven Oklahoma universities and institutes will work together to explore sustainable solutions to solve “wicked problems,” which they define as complex problems where there is not widespread agreement on what the problem really is, or if a problem even exists.

carol silva and hank jenkins-smith

A Collaborative Approach

There are five primary science teams working on this project, each comprised of researchers from across the state. Each science team is responsible for identifying a group of peer scientists who will evaluate the teams’ work.

Silva and Jenkins-Smith lead the social framework team which is working to establish a process for integrating the perspectives of the science teams with a panel of approximately 100 state opinion leaders, as well as a random sample of statewide households in order to identify promising solutions in the overlapping areas being investigated by the science teams. An annual “academy” will bring scientists, opinion leaders, and representatives of the public together to discuss the research progress and provide an opportunity to collaborate on innovative solutions to Oklahoma’s most pressing land use, water availability, and infrastructure problems.

“We view this as an iterative process in which the science teams are presenting what they’re learning to decision makers and the public. At the same time the scientists are going to learn about ways to work with these groups and take into account their ideas, preferences, and concerns,” Jenkins-Smith said.

One of the research teams will focus on how Oklahoma’s seasonal and subseasonal weather patterns are likely to shift over time and what those implications might be. Another will address terrestrial water and carbon dynamics as they relate to climate change and land management. A third will investigate water reuse and sustainability. The fourth team will study the infrastructure implications for these topics.

Jenkins-Smith said there are two downstream implications to changing weather patterns. One has to do with the availability of water, “Oklahoma is going to have to deal with a world in which an increasing fraction of available water is going to be of marginal quality, meaning substandard water for some uses, and highly variable – through overabundance during pluvial (flooding) events and drought.”

“These seasonal and subseasonal weather pattern shifts are going to dramatically impact agricultural use,” Jenkins-Smith said. “It’s going to affect the degree to which plant matter grows and our susceptibility to wildfire dangers, which may be a growing issue for us over time. Included in both the marginal quality water and the carbon surface area management are such things as the produced water from oil and gas developed with hydrologic fracking. We get a lot of produced water during this process, and we need to figure out appropriate treatments that could make produced water more useful in more contexts.”

The other implication from changing weather patterns is the topic of land surface area management, as well as storing and managing carbon.

These issues also intersect with our infrastructure. Jenkins-Smith added. “We have an infrastructure system that is both directly and indirectly affected by seasonal and subseasonal weather patterns, changing patterns of land use management, impacts of wildfires, or drought-caused subsurface instabilities when aquifers decline.”

While these problems intersect all of these domains, they are also subject to diverse concerns and perceptions.

Jenkins-Smith offers the example of climate change. “Climate change is perceived very differently by different subsections of the population. We get a pattern of growing problems of great complexity overlapping into multiple areas for which potential solutions are bogged down by polarization within our population and political system. This project aims to break that cycle by taking advantage of the overlapping array of problems to find solutions that can be both innovative and acceptable by very different populations, making it possible to come to agreements over these shared challenges.”

One way in which this project might produce a sustainable solution would be in leveraging the state’s expertise in the oil and gas industry.

Integrating Social Science to Solve Wicked Problems

Silva and Jenkins-Smith suggest that the project framework, which integrates social science and stakeholders outside of academia throughout the process, offers a novel approach to tackling these wicked problems.

Silva adds that she hopes this framework could translate to other areas of research. “I think there are implications for taking a framework like this and finding multifaceted solutions to problems like pandemics. How do you create solutions for polarized recommendations like wearing masks when they have become a political statement whether you wear a mask or don’t, or to collectively come up with solutions for community policing, social justice, or race issues in our cities and towns? We’re really hopeful that this framework could be useful beyond technical and engineering domains.”

For now, this project began July 1 with the 34 researchers, an expanded science peer-review group, opinion leaders and the public participants coming together to develop the project’s 5-year strategic plan to tackle these wicked problems for the betterment of Oklahoma.