We’re failing to solve the world’s ‘wicked problems.’ Here’s a better approach

By Stephan Manning and Juliane Reinecke.

We live in a world burdened by large-scale problems that refuse to go away: the refugee crisis; terrorism; rising sea levels; frequent floods, droughts and wildfires; not to mention persistent inequality and violation of basic human rights across the world.

What do these problems have in common? They resist any simple solution. In policy research they are called “wicked. This is because cause-effect relations are complex and solutions unclear; many of these problems are urgent, yet there is no central authority to solve them; their magnitude is often hard to estimate; and those trying to solve them may even contribute to causing them.

The EU refugee crisis, the topic of a recent U.N. summit, is a good example: Driven by regional conflicts and poverty, and assisted by trafficking networks, people from Africa and the Middle East continue to take enormous risks to enter EU territory by land or sea. For several years now, thousands of refugees have died on this journey each year and no solution is in sight. EU member countries continue to blame their neighbors for either taking in too many refugees or for refusing to help, while there is little shared interest and limited capacity for actually addressing the sources of the problem.

What’s the best way to effectively address these types of wicked problems?

Grand solutions don’t work

Facing the current refugee situation, U.N. member states got together two weeks ago to sign a declaration for a more coordinated response to the refugee crisis. Yet, critics have pointed out that the goals are too vague and the document is not legally binding. Such meetings have happened several times in the course of the EU refugee crisis – with very little outcome. In reality, “grand solutions” for large-scale problems either do not exist, or they are too vague or controversial to be of much value.

The Paris climate agreement is another example of an attempted grand solution to a large-scale problem – climate change. The goal was to get all nations to agree on limiting temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. To reach consensus, all participants further agreed to assist developing countries technologically and financially to ease the transition to renewable energies. The agreement was signed by all participating nations – 175 in all.

But critics regard the agreement as too ambiguous and unclear about implementation to be effective. Also, it leaves the door open for continuous exploitation of fossil fuels.

Are small wins an alternative?

Indeed, many have argued that finding a single solution to climate change or the refugee crisis is too difficult because it is almost impossible to get multiple parties with diverging interests to reach a consensus. We believe more nimble approaches are needed.

A number of development experts have argued that “small wins” might be a promising alternative to tackle large-scale problems. Small wins focus on smaller-scale independent projects with attainable and measurable objectives. For example, many firms independently develop solutions to increase energy efficiency or to avoid waste. Likewise, several EU countries have looked into better ways of processing asylum applications and easing the integration of refugees.

Such small wins may not solve the entire problem – in these cases, climate change or refugee crisis – but they have tangible positive outcomes in line with longer-term goals. Also, the more countries and parties deal with the same problem, the greater the number of innovative experiments.

The only problem is: How can such small wins add up to a larger-scale sustainable solution?

Learning from sustainable coffee

We argue in a recently published article in Research Policy that there is a promising way of linking small wins to larger development objectives – the “modular” approach. We studied this by looking specifically at the development and adoption of so-called sustainability standards in the global coffee industry.

Such standards train farmers to apply methods and policies that protect the environment, increase productivity, improve labor conditions and secure incomes for themselves and their communities. Transnational standard-setters, such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, have played an important role in this process.

Standards adoption is voluntary, but a combination of consumer and peer pressure and market incentives has led to rather rapid diffusion. Within a decade, the global coffee industry has become a pioneer in developing sustainable supply chain practices that address the twin challenges of endangered livelihoods and environmental degradation. Today, over 40 percent of the global coffee volume is certified or verified sustainable.

We show in our study that one key to the success of sustainability standards in coffee has been their modular architecture. Each standard consists of multiple well-defined and measurable modules, such as soil conservation and elimination of child labor. Modules have their own independent objectives. Yet, they are also interconnected and build on each other.

For example, two basic modules across standards are elimination of banned pesticides and occupational health and safety. Each makes a tangible contribution to the environment and well-being of farmers.

But they also reinforce each other’s effect: For example, omission of pesticides has a positive impact on farmers’ health. Furthermore, doing without pesticides serves as a foundation for advanced practices, such as organic farming, which may increase the brand and market value of coffee beans. This helps private farms and cooperatives generate more revenue and make further investments into their workforce and production capabilities.

Managing problems step by step

In the case of coffee sustainability standards, the modular approach emerged over time and was not designed up front. But the modular principle can help develop solutions to various wicked problems, including climate change and the refugee crisis. This is because it tackles problems step by step, eases consensus among multiple stakeholders and promotes knowledge exchange and replicable solutions.

For example, as part of climate adaptation, today many coastal communities are trying to develop idiosyncratic solutions to respond to rising sea levels. Yet, while local experimentation is important, both costs and risks of failure of location-specific solutions are very high.

By contrast, a modular approach would prompt local communities to implement over time combinations of tangible and tested building blocks towards greater resilience. For example, Florida has been a testing ground for resilience modules, such as installing water pumps and raising the grade of entire streets. Online services, such as Coastal Resilience, disseminate such modular solutions and provide platforms for exchange of knowledge and best practice.

Similarly, EU countries are increasingly moving from idiosyncratic to modular solutions of refugee management and integration. For example, the German trade union organization IG Metall is currently developing connected modules of language and professional training for refugees that allow for faster integration into higher-skilled labor markets. These modules are designed to be transferable across industry sectors, and they serve as important foundations for more job-specific training.

Overall, modular solutions can reduce the complexity of climate adaptation and refugee integration. In developing and disseminating such solutions, intermediary organizations are very important – development agencies, standard-setters, consulting groups, NGOs, industrial relations partners.

Of course, modular approaches cannot eradicate today’s large-scale problems entirely. But they are more practical than grand solutions and more scalable than small wins. And they do not require reinventing the wheel. As a result, wicked problems may not look so wicked after all.

 

Picture 1: ‘Grand solutions’ that emanate from centralized political organizations have proven ineffective in making substantial progress on so-called wicked problems. United Nations, CC BY-NC-ND

Picture 2: In only about one decade, sustainable coffee standards, which encompass environmental sustainability and worker health, have become broadly adopted. Why? Nestle, CC BY-NC-ND

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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3 thoughts on “We’re failing to solve the world’s ‘wicked problems.’ Here’s a better approach

  1. India’s short-term immediate strategy should be as follows :—-

    Mr. Narayanmurthy of INFOSYS said recently “We can not do business in a foreign land antagonising the same Govt’s wishes –something like that if I correctly recollect.
    He is absolutely right with full knowledge and wisdom.
    The real answer is making a good strategy so that IT Company should not fall under the mercy or, trap of any sevre chage in forein govt. policies like that of H1B Visa in USA.
    And in my depositions below I have given you the answer.
    India should provide jobs in India for sons and daughters of the soil of India. This automatically brings national pride for India. Any job in a foreign country will always bring a kind of second class treatment in terms of hounour and respect for Indian and Indian.
    Indian should design and implement virtual reality based IT Companies for IT Professionals in India ( in all cities and towns of India so to say) who can perform jobs sitting in his/her Indian home while working for Companies situated in different time zones, different countries. This way, an Indian IT Professional can be an Employee of 4 different companies from 4 different continents drawing moderately rich salaries and the whole concept is very much thinkable and feasible too.
    I will like to give it a name and in my wisdom ,I will like to name it as “Satellite IT Hub ” where you can perform your job functions of IT Enabled services to your Employers situated in different continents through “Video Conferencing”.
    Let me explain you a little more on this.
    Your IT Company’s name is XYZ Satellite IT Services Company Pvt. Ltd situated at 29,Sarita Vihar New Delhi. Your company has a “Video Conferencing and Remote Location Enabled hybrid Computer (Again India requires to design a Hybrid Computer by which from a remote location like that of 29,Sarita Vihar New Delhi —you(IT Expert) can enter an Employer’s Computer to do your day’s work for that Company situated at 39,woodward avenue Pennsylvanis say for example only).
    This way physically you are available in New Delhi ,India but mentally you are available in Penn state,USA and drawing salary in US Dollar but spending in Indian Rupees which is extremely good for Indian Government and bood the Indian tempo of consumerism of indian goods and services in india for indians while working for foreigners without giving benifits of consumerism to foreign countries also heavily support Indian patriotism @100 % and this fully supports the WIN-WIN Patriotic policy of selling services at a higher cost to foreign countries without being hurt physically and mentally while obeying the falacy “ACT LOCAL THINK GLOBAL”.

    India’s long-term strategy with full fore-sightedness should be as follows:—-

    Student from India can manage a Bachelor’s degree for US Dollar 2000.

    Student from USA, United Kingdom spend 30,000 to 40,000 US Dollar to get a Bachelor’s degree . India’s performance PISA (Program for International Student Assessment ) in 2009 was a failure miserably ,just one place before the last country ,I believe Kazakasthan.

    India now never participates in PISA on the pretext that English Language is an issue.

    India hardly has an University/Institute or, two which rank in global ranking of 250 Universities. Recently I saw a report that Indian Institute of Technology,Kharagpur could not fill up 30 % of their teaching staff . Now guess,India’s premier institute which happens to bad H1B Visa does not run on full capacity of educational stuff. This is not acceptable by any educational standard so to say. Whereas, all the educational institutes in UK,USA run on full staff with full qualifications to maintain standard. India has the world’s largest pool of universities/colleges but educational standard remains under question.

    So, to harmonize educational standards between developing country like India and developed countries like UK,USA , another level of PISA Test is needed (PISA is done at school level about 15 years of age which we can name it as PISA ONE ) PISA TWO should be for University level after graduation. Anyway this is my suggestion only since the students from USA,UK feel with full discripancies money-wise as well as educational standard-wise.Students from developing countries like India accept any job at a lesser price whereas students from USA,UK can not accept job at a lesser price and here lies a big disadvantage for them.
    In this regard India and the developing countries should adopt PISA. and maintain educational standard as prescribed by PISA designed by OECD Countries where members of developing countries are supposed to participate with full co-operation with USA,UK.

  2. Student from India can manage a Bachelor’s degree for US Dollar 2000.

    Student from USA, United Kingdom spend 30,000 to 40,000 US Dollar to get a Bachelor’s degree . India’s performance PISA (Program for International Student Assessment ) in 2009 was a failure miserably ,just one place before the last country ,I believe Kazakasthan.
    India now never participates in PISA on the pretext that English Language is an issue.
    India hardly has an University/Institute or, two which rank in global ranking of 250 Universities. Recently I saw a report that Indian Institute of Technology,Kharagpur could not fill up 30 % of their teaching staff . Now guess,India’s premier institute which happens to bad H1B Visa does not run on full capacity of educational stuff. This is not acceptable by any educational standard so to say. Whereas, all the educational institutes in UK,USA run on full staff with full qualifications to maintain standard. India has the world’s largest pool of universities/colleges but educational standard remains under question.
    So, to harmonize educational standards between developing country like India and developed countries like UK,USA , another level of PISA Test is needed (PISA is done at school level about 15 years of age which we can name it as PISA ONE ) PISA TWO should be for University level after graduation. Anyway this is my suggestion only since the students from USA,UK feel with full discripancies money-wise as well as educational standard-wise.Students from developing countries like India accept any job at a lesser price whereas students from USA,UK can not accept job at a lesser price and here lies a big disadvantage for them.
    In this regard India and the developing countries should adopt PISA. and maintain educational standard as prescribed by PISA designed by OECD Countries where members of developing countries are supposed to participate with full co-operation with USA,UK.

  3. India’s long-term strategy with full fore-sightedness should be as follows:—-

    Student from India can manage a Bachelor’s degree for US Dollar 2000.

    Student from USA, United Kingdom spend 30,000 to 40,000 US Dollar to get a Bachelor’s degree . India’s performance PISA (Program for International Student Assessment ) in 2009 was a failure miserably ,just one place before the last country ,I believe Kazakasthan.

    India now never participates in PISA on the pretext that English Language is an issue.

    India hardly has an University/Institute or, two which rank in global ranking of 250 Universities. Recently I saw a report that Indian Institute of Technology,Kharagpur could not fill up 30 % of their teaching staff . Now guess,India’s premier institute which happens to bad H1B Visa does not run on full capacity of educational stuff. This is not acceptable by any educational standard so to say. Whereas, all the educational institutes in UK,USA run on full staff with full qualifications to maintain standard. India has the world’s largest pool of universities/colleges but educational standard remains under question.

    So, to harmonize educational standards between developing country like India and developed countries like UK,USA , another level of PISA Test is needed (PISA is done at school level about 15 years of age which we can name it as PISA ONE ) PISA TWO should be for University level after graduation. Anyway this is my suggestion only since the students from USA,UK feel with full discripancies money-wise as well as educational standard-wise.Students from developing countries like India accept any job at a lesser price whereas students from USA,UK can not accept job at a lesser price and here lies a big disadvantage for them.
    In this regard India and the developing countries should adopt PISA. and maintain educational standard as prescribed by PISA designed by OECD Countries where members of developing countries are supposed to participate with full co-operation with USA,UK.

    India’s long-term
    strategy with full fore-sightedness should be as follows:—-

    Already somewhere
    in the debates circling “H1B VISA” while gauging India’s educational
    standing, India’s performance in “PISA-Test” surfaced.

    Astonishingly in
    2009,in PISA Test, India’s rank was one before the rock-bottom country probably
    Kazakathan.

    And India is not
    perticipating in OECD Countries PISA Test thereafter which is done every after
    3 years I believe.

    NASSCOM should
    convince GOI(Govt. Of India) about the real benifits of PISA .

    Since protectionism
    is springing up in many countries in Europe,Brexit,Contemporary USA,a time may
    come when USA/BREXIT,EU,Australia,New Zealand may demand PISA Score from
    applicants from India .

    And that will
    become a barrier to send IT Experts abroad from India.

    QuoteThe Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science Unquote .
    Already somewhere in the debates circling “H1B VISA” while gauging India’s educational standing, India’s performance in “PISA-Test” surfaced.
    Astonishingly in 2009,in PISA Test, India’s rank was one before the rock-bottom country probably Kazakathan.
    And India is not perticipating in OECD Countries PISA Test thereafter which is done every after 3 years I believe.
    NASSCOM should convince GOI(Govt. Of India) about the real benifits of PISA .
    Since protectionism is springing up in many countries in Europe,Brexit,Contemporary USA,a time may come when USA/BREXIT,EU,Australia,New Zealand may demand PISA Score from applicants from India .
    And that will become a barrier to send IT Experts abroad from India.
    I heartily think/believe that at present in India, there is not a single PISA Compliant school .
    NASSCOM for the deep/real interest of their own IT Community shold fund PISA Complient school through CSR(Corporate Social Responsibility)
    On the other hand NASSCOM should give enough notices in all major indian newspaper/dailies,TV/Print media educating Indian Guardians aspiring for good school education.
    First question firsrt—-Is the School PISA Compliant, In its meaning it says whether the school is included in pre-PISA Test school surveys and can the Guardian see the survey results as a stakeholder of theeir son/daughter’s education.
    This is a must-awareness campaign even GOI-NASSCOM should do if they prefer to do so.

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