Elephant Problems: The Limitations of Expertise & the Possibilities of Multistakeholderism

A guest essay with political economist and design practitioner Nicole Anand

In this special edition of Yellow Canary Land 🐤, political economist and design practitioner Nicole Anand and I write about multistakeholderism. If you enjoy this post, you can buy me a coffee. I’ll be sharing the proceeds with Nicole. 


Today’s macro problems are accelerated, amorphous and ambiguous, reaching scale of unknown measure. There is no more obvious example than the ongoing global COVID-19 crisis, where experts in epidemiology, communications, civil rights, supply chain logistics and immunology are all needed to make sense of a fast-moving event with a number of complex contributing factors and range of unknowns. But it is just one example of the nature of global challenges that require interdisciplinary thinking under complex conditions. From climate change to digital information environments to global migration patterns, these issues all interlock and influence each other from the macro scale — policy, law, and weather patterns — to the micro — family lives, trust in media, and psychological well-being. 

There is an ancient parable from the Indian subcontinent of three blind men who approach an elephant. One grasps the tail, one grasps the trunk and another grasps its side. They each describe the elephant to each other, convinced that they have the truth of what this animal is. They argue about their varying descriptions and think each other is lying. The reality, as we know, is more complex — each is telling the truth from their perspective, and it’s the sum total of their experience that helps explain what an elephant is.

Most of the complex challenges facing our society today are what we call elephant problems. They are so large that no one person or even discipline can truly understand them. When presented with different perspectives from unfamiliar disciplines, people double down on their viewpoints and become defensive. Over time, polarization ensues. The elephant problem’s natural cousin is the wicked problem, a problem that is so complex that it resists straightforward solutions. But we prefer the term elephant problems because it emphasizes the idea that holistic knowledge is possible, so long as there is effective interdisciplinarity and perspective sharing.

To effectively address elephant problems and prevent them from festering, social impact actors working in government, civil society, and social enterprise need to trace the systems—from micro to macro—in which they are situated, and act accordingly with a multistakeholder approach. Instead, they often get stuck chipping away at micro problems that they alone can solve, without critically connecting them to their macro counterparts that requires collaboration. Digging into why this is the case reveals many reasons for it—one explanation is the ‘expertise’ that drives it and how expertise can create narrow viewpoints on complex issues.

The Limitations of Expertise

‘Expertise’ is a special skill or knowledge that is constructed by power. Knowledge and practice become ‘expertise’ when empowered networks of actors and institutions deem it valuable.  In her article on Design Thinking, Lily Irani, a professor at the University of California San Diego argues that the elevation of knowledge to ‘expertise’ comes from privileged positions, and acknowledging it as such is important. “Hierarchies of labor,” she argues, “are a product of global political economies ─ trade agreements, investments in education, and accumulations of skill and performance that promise the production of value.”

As design strategist Gustvao Pimenta has argued, expertise can be a major blocker to thinking and acting systemically. As it is constructed, it creates dominant skills and exclusive spaces. Expertise disincentivizes mixing with multiple knowledges, because this is thought to dilute the purest form of specialization. 

This has direct consequences on where money and influence concentrate, who gains power, and how we frame and address societal problems. Often, it privileges familiar skills, institutions and mindsets, which then flourish in isolation. It forces convergent practice, or at least necessitates interaction with the dominant expertise.

The flow of resources toward select or ‘high-value’ expertise drives disciplinary bubbles and siloed sectors, stifling cross-pollination of ideas, tactics and strategies. In this way, expertise-centric work enables a dangerous form of tunnel vision. Technologist Patrick Meier explains how privileging technology expertise concentrates power in a specific approach to problem-solving, which risks losing sight of central macro challenges. 

Instead of emphasizing expertise, the future of complex problem-solving requires fostering multistakeholderism that brings together and respects plural knowledges and practices. 

The Possibilities of Multistakeholderism

Multistakeholderism has the potential to tackle problems that arise through expertise-centric problem-solving. At its broadest, it is a bringing together of different stakeholders to make decisions. When done well, multistakeholderism creates space and incentives for different stakeholders to speak, share and deliberate

At its weakest, it is a gathering of the “usual suspects” or actors who historically have had a voice, or it is merely flavors of a single broad expertise with gestures at collaboration. At its strongest—with the potential to transform a governance system and address systemic issues of inequity and injustice—multistakeholderism is an ongoing and emergent process that mobilizes actors from vastly different fields of practice, including from across government, civil society and industry, and between ranges of expertise including hard sciences, social sciences, and lived experiences. 

Multistakeholderism is not fail-proof. It is not immune to the ever growing ‘x washing’ phenomena—as exhibited in open washing or green washing when stakeholders leverage social good messaging without backing it up with effective programming. There are plenty of examples of poorly designed and implemented multistakeholder and public participation processes, including prescriptive and rigid multi-stakeholder mandates, and purposeless participation. In her article on designing for participation in public processes, anthropologist Shannon Mattern supports this argument by pointing to theatrical techniques used to feign inclusion. Moving past theater and into meaningful action requires significant effort, but the problems we face require it.

While many people working on complex public problems agree that a multistakeholder problem-solving process is important, it is not yet the norm. People-powered movements in labor, art, and the environment continue to spark robust collaboration between community leaders, policymakers, civil society leaders, businesses and lawyers. Movements like Open Government have encouraged a closer relationship between government and civil society. However, the social impact landscape is still largely comprised of stakeholders that do ‘comfortable allying’—that is, alliances with like-minded teams, organizations and networks that tend to view problems and address them in similar ways. The result is what MobLab’s Michael Silberman points to as the failure of NGOs to catalyse collective action from diverse communities.

Doing Multistakeholderism

In one version of the elephant parable, a sighted man comes along and describes the elephant to the three blind men. But through a modern lens, even he does not understand the elephant fully. A veterinarian could tell us about the elephant’s dietary preferences, an evolutionary biologist could tell us about its genetic ancestry, and a caretaker could tell us about its personality and likes and dislikes.

To fully understand and overcome elephant problems, effective multistakeholderism will require new systems and processes that incentivize genuine teaming up across sectors and recognizing different forms of knowing. It means going beyond interdisciplinary conversation within teams, on panels, and across working groups. Well-resourced sectors and experts will need to share power; for example, technologists, technology researchers, and technology organizations will need to create with policymakers, public administrators, social scientists and designers in ways that they have not in the past. It requires an openness of minds, a humility that values different kinds of skills and knowledge, and a keen motivation to link up with the general public, the public sector, industry, and across the social sector to solve public problems.

Doing multistakeholderism—not talking or writing about it, or critiquing existing efforts—is a challenge. Here are a few ways to act on this challenge:

  1. Embrace being a novice and form uncomfortable relationships. It can be incredibly empowering to be an expert in something. People want to learn from the expert and get advice from them. Experts feel confident in their work and excel in it. Organizations depend on expertise to sell services or raise funds. At the same time, reaching goals of systems change requires identifying limitations and learning how to expand talent, or work with others to complement it. Pursuing the latter often results in comfortable allying that doesn’t expand mindsets or challenge practice. 

    It’s the uncomfortable relationships that can positively shake up existing beliefs, and most importantly connect up the dots to lasting and transformational change. Uncomfortable relationships require working with people and organizations with different goals or values or social norms. Engaging as a novice—with expectations of learning something new—can be a humbling experience for someone used to having all the answers in their field, but it helps tremendously. Instead of looking to debunk or argue with different views, it is helpful to be genuinely curious—ask questions, listen, and try to understand points of complementarity. This does not mean, for example, that civil society must work with oppressive governments, but it does suggest there may be allies in government or the private sector to illuminate barriers to change—invisible from the civil society platform—that will inform a more robust approach to social change. 

  2. Channel skepticism toward collaborative and critical experimentation. Expertise-centric work often facilitates a cycle of critique that tends to go on-and-on without translation into action. Expertise gives rise to authorities on a subject-matter or technical practice, and these experts then become reviewers and critics, which leads to few practitioners prepared and willing to design and implement programs targeting the issues raised by critics. 

    Examples abound in, for example, the area of philanthropy which is saturated with expressions by civil society about their challenges when working with funders. At the same time, there are limited bold and concerted efforts—beyond individual grantees with their funders—that are reimagining philanthropy and reconfiguring funder-grantee relationships. Experiments in participatory grantmaking or different approaches to international NGO funding are still few and far between. 

    This does not mean that critique is to be avoided. Critique is a vital part of ensuring multiple perspectives are heard and understood before implementing an action or process, and the lack of critical thinking can yield a number of harms founded on good intentions. Operationalizing critiques of philanthropy, for example, requires multistakeholderism that goes beyond funders and civil society, and toward policymakers and leaders of labor movements who can together create new possibilities for structures and structural incentives that fundamentally change how civil society operates.

  3. Incorporate different ‘lenses’ into practice for ongoing engagement. There are strong examples of ongoing cross-sector work when there is a shared goal, but the exchange can be shallow, and terminate when the goal is met. 

    Housing is in crisis in the United States but sectors are working together to end it. Industry developers, politicians and civil servants, and community housing organizations have united to combat homelessness. However, higher-income neighborhoods and residents in them known at NIMBYs—those who hold a ‘not in my backyard’ viewpoint in regard to low-income housing development in their communities—are halting progress. Although it may be an uncomfortable relationship with NIMBYs, it is clear that understanding why they believe what they do is critical to moving forward. This necessitates an exchange that is not comfortably uniting around a goal, but an uncomfortable set of deep conversations that surfaces why sentiments are as they are, and how to create cross-sector compromises.

    Similarly, the rapid global spread of COVID-19 reveals underlying faultlines in society, from inconsistent access to healthcare to weak communications infrastructures to polarizing political viewpoints, that are being exacerbated by the virus and its second-order effects around the world. Other recent epidemics, like SARS and Ebola, have triggered rapid responses from a variety of sectors, only to see funding and political will diminish after they pass. The very complexity of the novel coronavirus requires a global, multistakeholder approach that must continue past this pandemic to ensure more effective prevention and early treatment of future public health crises.

Crises demand multistakeholderism, but elephant problems are around before a crisis and continue long after; they in fact undergird and exacerbate most acute events, and so it behooves us to establish multistakeholder frameworks and mechanisms well in advance. Understanding the limitations to expertise, and reconstructing how we assign value to it, is foundational to dismantling polarizing norms and enabling effective collaboration. As we reflect and continue to look forward, overcoming tendencies to think and act narrowly that expertise-centric practice encourages will be paramount to creating lasting systems change.


Nicole Anand is a political economist and practitioner of participatory design and research. Nicole is the co-founder of The Residency, an emergent global learning collective of Change Designers - a mix of civil servants, civil society and social designers/innovators.  She runs a consultancy, Collectivist, focused on governance and systems change, and is part-time faculty in the Transdisciplinary Design MFA program at Parsons School of Design, The New School. Previously, Nicole directed the strategy and learning of the international civil society organizations, The Engine Room and Reboot. She is a leader in the Open Government movement with experience in public sector innovation and international development including through work at the World Bank, Global Integrity and OneWorld Foundation India. 

Nicole speaks frequently on participatory design and governance, learning, civic technology, and public sector innovation. She is an experienced facilitator of multidisciplinary and cross-sector groups, and she writes on diversity, equity and inclusion, and systems change, learning and design.

If you enjoy this particular post, you can buy me a coffee. I’ll be sharing the proceeds with Nicole. 

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Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is a monthly look at the future of global media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come. Don’t expect a lot of emails, but do expect a lot of thought put into each one.

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