Many major issues today – whether sustainable development, waste disposal, negotiations about resource use, rural conflict resolution, natural resource management, clean water supply, food distribution or others – have neither clear problem definitions nor readily available solutions.
Each issue affects innumerable competing interest groups, who may or may not even recognize each other, much less work together. Each calls for innovative solutions; yesterday’s approaches no longer seem to work. In agriculture for example, extension specialists have typically acted as ‘brokers’: go-betweens who transmitted information between members of a target group and specialists or researchers.
The focus has been primarily on one interface, that of the farmer/specialist – or patient/health worker, public/environmental agency, and so forth. Today, however, specialist/end-user interfaces are no more relevant than those among other stakeholders, such as national policymakers, traders, industrialists and retailers, local organizations, non-governmental organizations, action groups or municipal governments, or among the members within any of these categories. New technologies also do not seem to be the answer; even existing technologies may not be well used.
It looks as if we need ways to understand and facilitate simultaneous multipleinterface interactions. That is, we need new ways of working together – new concepts of social organization – far more than we need new technologies! How can images, knowledge and information be efficiently exchanged among a variety of parties? How can the widely diverse stakeholders involved join together in seeking solutions to complex social issues? And, once there is a decision to approach each other, how can different actors communicate, much less organize themselves to make the best use of the information available, learn new practices, and improve their capacity to innovate? And how can innovation processes be aligned with broader, even more complex societal objectives?