Creating a pragmatic complexity culture

by Cristina Zurbriggen

A Spanish version of this post, La creación de una cultura pragmática de la complejidad, is available.

How can government, the private sector and communities effectively work together to achieve social change towards sustainable development?

I describe key processes that allowed Uruguay to achieve one of the most advanced soil protection regimes for arable land in the world. It involved creating a “pragmatic complexity” culture, which is an inclusive, deliberative culture that recognizes the complex nature of the problem and embraces the potential for reasonableness.

Pragmatic complexity culture goes beyond the positivist vision (rationality, reductionism, predictability, determinism) and reflects ‘in’ and ‘on’ practice. It is open-ended inquiry that conceives research as a collaborative process of problem solving based on deliberation, experimentation, learning and context specificity, in which actors are led to question and jointly reframe their values and understanding. It builds on a range of ideas including Dewey (1927) and Schön (1983).

Uruguay’s soil use and management plans

Soil use and management plans consist, briefly, of establishing rotations to restore or increase fertility, organic matter and carbon in soils and to minimize erosion through conservation practices, considering soil aptitude. The presentation of plans is made via online procedures using free software and satellite control and monitoring. Therefore, the computer system and the use of satellite images serve to analyze the basic information of the plans submitted. This procedure also allows the government to use satellite imagery to oversee the implementation of such plans. In particular, it can identify locations at a higher risk for erosion and allows contact with the producers responsible to learn why they have not implemented their crop rotation plans (Hill et al., 2016).

How Uruguay’s soil use and management plans were created

The Ministry of Agriculture worked with a network of national institutions, such as the National Institute of Agricultural Research, the Agronomy Faculty of the University of the Republic, Uruguay Soil Science Society and information technology companies. They used a collaborative process to develop a problem definition and assess what was possible in the real-world context.

A pilot program was implemented for 3 years with a small group of volunteer farmers, who were owners and land tenants of croplands. There were also numerous parallel activities, including more than 100 workshops with farmers to discuss the new tools, as well as numerous training courses in soil certification for agronomists provided by the Faculty of Agronomy. In 2013, the pilot program was scaled up and soil use and management plans became a requirement for any farmer cultivating more than 50 hectares of land.

Key processes included:

  • Collaborative deliberation on how to tackle the problem in the socio-political context. The involvement of scientific and other actors went beyond one-directional information or consultation on a predefined agenda. A shared understanding was produced of the overall epistemic and normative orientation of the research.
  • Asking what was possible in the present using what was learnt in the past in order to be productive into the future. This triangulation (past-present-future) in policy making helped emphasize the creativity of action, in addition to focusing on the value of experimentation and the democratic governance of public policy.
  • Developing agreements between the academic and public sectors to further research and develop areas of expertise, such as digital mapping, models of carbon and nitrogen, and good agricultural practices guides.
  • Social experimentation in a concrete context, in particular learning by doing and openness to creative discoveries. Under uncertain and complex conditions, any finding was provisional and revisited in action.
  • Reflexive participatory processes that:
    • mobilized public support enhancing public trust in scientific expertise and intervention
    • allowed better management of value differences and conflicts
    • facilitated convergence on preferable solutions rather than searching for elusive ‘perfect’ solutions
    • built a normative vision to guide social change.

    This was summarized by a Ministry of Agriculture Program Director as follows: ‘Progress is not only creating normative rules (laws, regulations) but also including cognitive or interpretative regulations related to how people become aware of the issue of soil erosion and their views about the problems that guide their behavior and actions.

What has happened subsequently?

There is now a pilot program of Sustainable Milk Production Plans in the Santa Lucia basin. This includes a focus on water pollution, including a management plan for chemical and organic fertilizers, as a measure to control the level of phosphorus in the soil and water.

In addition, there is preliminary work on a national certification program of “no erosion agriculture”.


Success is demonstrated not only in creating a complex method of working based on dialogue and modeling, but also in developing a “pragmatic complexity” culture. Creating an inclusive, deliberative culture that recognizes the complex nature of the problem and embraces the potential for reasonableness allowed technologies and practices that enhance productivity and resilience in Uruguay to be identified and implemented.

Do you have similar cases to share?


Dewey, J. (1927). The Public and its Problems. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012 (Reprinted from The Collected Works of John Dewey: The Later Works, Volume 2: 1925-1927, 1984, Southern Illinois University Press).

Hill, M., Kennedy, K. and Orejas, R. (2016). Plotting productivity: Soil use management plans in Uruguay. Conference on Land and Poverty, The World Bank: Washington D.C., United States of America, March 14-18, 2016.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books: New York, United States of America.

Biography: Cristina Zurbriggen PhD is a professor at the Universidad de la Republica Uruguay. Previously she led an interdisciplinary team in the Uruguay public service on knowledge management and trade development. She continues to be involved in evaluation of government programs, including on agricultural issues. Her research has addressed governance and policy networks, co-creation in public policies, Innovation Labs, and sustainable agriculture (meat traceability, soil erosion, water sustainability). She uses co-creation methodology and other systems methods to investigate the future of complex public issues, often working directly with government by applying innovative methods. She is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is the first of a new series developed in preparation for the second meeting in January 2017 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).


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