Something wicked this way comes (repost)

Note: This post was originally published on the Nobel Week Dialogue blog in December 2013. I’m re-posting it here as an archive copy. It discusses the options for addressing particularly complex problems – such as the global energy challenge, which was the theme of last year’s Nobel Week Dialogue event. 

If you’re anything like me, pondering how we find workable solutions to complex issues can often result in feeling deflated, or worse, defeated. Big challenges such as tackling climate change or designing healthcare policies for new pandemics require policy makers to juggle seemingly impossible combinations of multiple factors. What’s the current state of our scientific knowledge and where should research focus in order to build on that? What technologies do we need to develop to benefit from that knowledge and translate it into useful tools? How do we make and debate policy decisions using the current best evidence? And how do we communicate with non-experts so they understand the changes that may be required while still recognizing the questions that still need resolving? It’s a challenging number of things to address all at once.

At the UK Conference for Science Journalism in 2012 I learned from keynote speaker, Jay Rosen, that there’s a term for these particularly difficult challenges: wicked problems. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber originally coined the phrase in 1973 when discussing the difficulties of social policy planning. They came up with a list of ten characteristics that define a wicked problem, which are well described here (an abridged version follows).

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation.
  2. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false…approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
  4. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem…Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.
  5. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem.
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem.
  7. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  8. Offering a “solution” to a wicked problem frequently is a “one shot” design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions

Some of the factors that make wicked problems so difficult to address include: i) gaps or contradictions in our understanding; ii) the sheer number of different people affected by the problem and the diversity of opinions that they might bring to the discussion; iii) the cost of implementing a possible solution; and iv) the fact that the problem may not exist in isolation, but relates to other problems.

So is the future of energy a wicked problem? As we’ve seen from earlier posts on this blog, there’s certainly plenty there that resonates with the definitions above. There’s the link between energy use and climate change, a problem with wickedness of its own. There’s the question of what to do in the short term versus the long term, and then challenges of the costs and public perceptions of individual possible solutions, such as nuclear power. There are also questions of how we can improve current technologies.

Do we have any clues as to how we might start addressing the “wickedness”? A 2000 paper by Nancy Roberts proposed that there are three different strategies for discussing wicked problems: authoritative, competitive and collaborative. A solely authoritative approach seems to deny the possibility of fresh perspectives. A competitive approach may push on the accelerator to find solutions, but it can push away opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations and turn solution-finding into a sales and marketing exercise. Given the complexities of the questions that need resolution as well as increasing public access to information and online channels with which to discuss it, is a collaborative solution is the only realistic option?

It’s worth stressing that, while it may be idealistic, collaboration is hard – and as Roberts states: “Getting the ‘whole system in the room’ has its challenges…Figuring out what the system is, who the stakeholders are and how to select them, how many can be accommodated under one roof, what the agenda will be, and how to facilitate interactions all have been mentioned elsewhere as major issues to consider.”

Furthermore, this kind of collaborative thinking may require new communication skills that we’re not used to applying: “Skills of collaboration are limited, too, especially among people who work in a traditional bureaucracy with a strong hierarchy that limits participation and team-based approaches to problem solving and decision making. Collaboration requires practice; it is a learned skill. If members do not have these skills, they need to acquire them and that takes additional time and resources.”

Perhaps high profile events such as the Nobel Week Dialogue are a good way of airing current thinking in a public manner and inviting further conversations. But it will still require further effort to turn those conversations into collaborative solutions.


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