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?

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Facing the Rising Seas: Can we Learn from Climate Mitigation?

David L. LevyUMass Boston.

It’s approaching three years since hurricane Sandy killed over 230 people in 8 countries, and wreaked havoc on the New York-New Jersey region – and put climate adaptation firmly on the national agenda. Sandy, which disrupted at least 450,000 businesses in New York and New Jersey, illustrated how cascading impacts not only damage property but also disrupt businesses for extended periods of time, due to the interaction of power and communication outages, infrastructure damage, and supply chain disruptions. These complex interactions were not adequately understood or anticipated. The reinsurance company Munich Re has estimated insured losses at $25 billion and total losses of at least $50 billion in the US from Sandy. Looking to the future, the 2011 Mass Climate Adaptation report notes that: “Sea level rise of 0.65 meters (26 inches) in Boston by 2050 could damage assets worth an estimated $463 billion”. Cities and states have begun to devote significant resources to planning for sea level rise, more frequent and intense storms, and more intense heat and drought. In one design-for-climate-change scenario, Boston would be transformed into an American Venice.

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Science vs. Business?

By David Levy, UMass Boston.* 

The fossil fuel industry’s campoil refineryaign to deny climate change and oppose the regulation of greenhouse gases is a well-researched and publicized story. Much less is known, however, about the role of corporate scientists in shaping the internal perspectives on climate change in these companies, and the impact on corporate response strategies. Recent revelations by InsideClimate News show that from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, Exxon funded its own scientists to engage in a serious research program, which pointed to conclusions that broadly matched those of the broader climate science community. Indeed, during the 1980s, Exxon put plans on hold to develop the massive Natuna gas field off the coast of Indonesia, because of concerns that nearly two-thirds of the gas was carbon dioxide, and there was no economically viable way to capture and dispose of it.

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Is the Volkswagen Scandal Surprising? How Profitability Pressures Drive Corporate Misconduct

By Stephan Manning.

The Volkswagen diesel scandal has been dominating recent news headlines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is accusing the German automaker of using a ‘defeat device’ that manipulates results of health-threatening nitrogen oxides emissions tests by switching the engine to a low-emissions mode when detecting a test. Following the accusations two weeks ago, VW’s stock price has dropped by 40%; Martin Winterkorn has lost his job as CEO; VW will be removed from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index; and the German multinational is facing a lasting damage to its long-built reputation. On top of that, the automaker will need to refit up to 11 Million diesel cars and vans running with the ‘defeat device’ worldwide, incurring costs of $7.3 Billion or more. Current investigations focus on various top executives responsible for letting the fraud happen, including research and development (R&D) managers Ulrich Hackenberg and Wolfgang Hatz. But is the scandal just the result of the ‘criminal energy’ of individuals, or is it a more systemic problem? Do rising pressures in a competitive global economy – meeting customer needs and shareholder expectations, driving down costs, adhering to norms and standards – perhaps promote individual cheating and corporate misconduct?

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Beyond the Status Quo: How Corporate Sustainability Can Become a Reality

By Nardia Haigh.

Many would agree that corporate sustainability has become a buzzword, without actually changing corporate practices all that much. Recent news supports that: BP was found grossly negligent in the Deepwater Horizon disaster; the U.S. tobacco industry continues to rely on pre-teens working in the fields; and Pacific Gas & Electric is under legal scrutiny for allegedly causing a gas explosion due to suspected safety violations. So why aren’t all those sustainability strategies and programs, including new ‘sustainable’ products, the appointment of Chief Sustainability Officers, and the submission of regular sustainability reports, enabling corporations to become more sustainable? And what does it take to change that?

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Blogging Highlights: Melting Ice and Arctic Activism

This week, we would like to recommend a series of related debates on climate change, melting ice, opportunistic responses by oil companies, and Greenpeace activism.

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