How to battle a wicked problem

Scientists and policymakers must work together, step-by-step, to make a dent in our world’s biggest and most complex challenges.

I am a geek. (Some prefer the term “nerd,” but I’ll stick with geek.) I have always been a geek.

At 6, I wanted to be a mathematician. Not a princess or an astronaut — a mathematician.

As a geek, an engineer, a technologist, I love difficult problems. When you’re building a new computer architecture or developing an algorithm, the reward is making tangible advances toward a solution, marking quantifiable steps toward an unambiguous benchmark of progress.

But today, we face many problems that don’t fit that mold. They are difficult to define. The metrics of success are unclear.

They are complex in a way that, at first glance, prohibits finding a solution at all. Meet “wicked problems.”

Cybersecurity is one example. Proactively anticipating and planning for emerging epidemics is another. Understanding the impact of climate change and development of mitigation and adaptation strategies is yet another.

To get a sense for the prickly and interconnected nature of these problems, consider our last example, climate change.

“Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers,” reads the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.

And, really, that’s not even half the problem.

"Our current infrastructure is increasingly challenged by transformations in energy supply, markets, and patterns of end use; issues of aging and capacity; impacts of climate change; and cyber and physical threats. Any vulnerability in this infrastructure may be exacerbated by the increasing interdependencies of energy systems with water, telecommunications, transportation, and emergency response systems,” reads President Obama’s introduction to the 2015 Quadrennial Energy Review.

These don’t sound like nicely defined engineering problems. They are messy, interconnected, and require addressing and considering many conflicting objectives.

These are the “wicked problems.”

Defined by ten properties laid out in a 1973 paper, wicked problems differ from their tame cousins in several key ways:

  • They can’t be definitively pinned down and defined, making even agreeing on what constitutes the boundaries of the problem hard to discern
  • The problems themselves can be considered symptoms of another problem, further hazing our ability to approach them clearly
  • Solutions to wicked problems aren’t best understood as true (effective) or false (ineffective), but as good (moving society forward) or bad (doing more harm than good)

You can see why our authors, while incredibly forward-looking, were themselves somewhat discouraged by this line of wicked thinking.

“The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy,” begins the first sentence of the paper’s abstract, “is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems.”

If those who named the issue thought the task at hand to be “bound to fail,” perhaps you’d be inclined to walk away, too.

But we love difficult problems. Us geeks (and nerds), we can’t walk away.

So what do we do?

We have to work together, uniting sometimes disparate groups of experts to tackle small parts of a wicked problem. Together, we carve out pieces we can make measurable progress on.

For example, computational scientists working with political scientists to understand the root causes of political instability. It is about economists working with chemical engineers to understand feasibility of carbon dioxide sequestration approaches. It’s about trade researchers working with agricultural experts to connect food riots in Egypt to a drought in China.

(At ASU, we are actually working on that last one through a project aimed at understanding the impact of climate on trade networks. Can we anticipate other such events?)

Next, we have to embrace complexity.

There’s a concept from the foundational thinking of wicked problems that argues that “the planner has no right to be wrong.”

What does that mean? Unlike when applying traditional scientific method, you can’t implement a full solution, test it out, and then try again.

For example, you can’t test out the full interdependencies in the food, energy, water nexus. Following one hypothesis all the way to its conclusion could be disastrous in a species-ending way.

The planner, or the tester, has no right to be wrong.

While this seems daunting at first blush, I actually think this aspect of wicked problems is fabulous. This means progress, if we are to make any, must occur step-by-step.

In embracing complexity, we admit that we can’t tackle the problem with one elegant move.

Scientists and engineers must engage on wicked problems with policy makers, humanitarians and experts from other disciplines to develop tools for decision making that transform science and engineering into action and policy.

We can’t solve the whole puzzle, in other words, but we can put together a few pieces at a time.

At ASU Global Security Initiative, we have embraced the wicked problem. I hope you will too.

Nadya Bliss is director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University. Follow Dr. Bliss on Twitter @nadyabliss and the Global Security Initiative @asu_gsi.

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Complexity, a partnership between The Christian Science Monitor and the Santa Fe Institute, generously supported by Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative, seeks to illuminate the rules governing dynamic systems, from electrons to ecosystems to economies and beyond. An intensely multidisciplinary approach, complexity science draws from mathematics, physics, biology, information theory, the social sciences, and even the humanities to seek out the common processes that pervade seemingly disparate phenomena, always with an eye toward solving humanity's most intractable problems. To get this coverage in your inbox, sign up for our weekly newsletter here.

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