On Wickedness, Getting Stranded on a Desert Island, and a Giant Vortex of Trash

Problems, Problems, Problems

Let’s start with a fact. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch measures 1.6 million square kilometres and contains over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

This swirling vortex of human waste products is more than three times the size of Spain, weighs more than 79,000 tonnes and injures or kills 100,000 marine animals per year. Is the GPGP a problem? It sure feels like it.

Building a Scale Model Problem

Problems bridge the world that exists and the one we desire. We know our desired end state—pristine oceans and thriving marine life, but this tornado of aquatic trash is what’s here today. The problem is the crossing.

Problems have causes. Of the 9.1 billion tonnes of plastic produced since 1950, 5.5 billion tonnes remain in our oceans and land. Some has accumulated in the GDPG— in the form of fishing gear, manufacturing waste, and cargo waste and has built up because of improper waste disposal, litter, and illegal dumping. These are the root causes of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

A problem is a gap that exists between our current state and desired state. Our values, biases, and perspective influence what part of the problem we focus on—known as a problem frame. Our problem frame influences how we define our desired state. The act of crossing between these states is known as a solution. Our solution must have specific characteristics to fulfil our desired state, known as solution criteria. For instance, solving the Great Pacific Garbage Patch must clean up the debris, but also not cause irreparable harm to local marine life. Between our problem and our solution is a definition of our specific problem, known as a problem statement.

A problem statement contains a vision, issue, and method. For example,

We want an ocean that is free of human sourced debris, and full of flourishing marine life. Today we have a vortex in the Pacific Ocean with 79,000 tonnes of plastic, which is harming 100,000 marine animals per year, and which grows larger each year. To address this, we will invest resources into finding non-harmful ways to gather and dispose of the debris, or by limiting its production.

With this model, we can identify, define and address straightforward problems.

On the Complexity of Spaghetti and Airplanes

Imagine you’re walking along a beautiful, sunlit beach. Just off the shore, you notice a floating, crumpled plastic cup. You stoop to pick it up and put it into a nearby trash can. That plastic cup is the same problem as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—just at a vastly smaller scale. Problems can exist at different orders of magnitude. As problems gain scope they become more complicated—which means they have more moving parts.

Picture a Boeing 747, and its millions of moving parts working together harmoniously. A knowledgeable engineer could explain how changing one part would influence another. The Boeing 747 is a complicated system—understandable, but vast.

Now imagine a small bowl of spaghetti. Each noodle endlessly intertwined and layered—the majority hidden from sight. To see the system as a whole would mean moving other strands and altering the entire system. It’s all very messy. This is a complex system. Spaghetti defies understanding as interacting with any part of the system alters the whole system.

Aeroplanes and spaghetti represent the different ways variables can interact to form varying levels of complexity. Since solutions must address this complexity—problems can be classified by it.

Know Your Problem

The Cynefin Framework classifies the types of problem we could face—which is the first step in solving complex problems. The types are,

  • Obvious: stable, with clear cause and effect.
  • Complicated: a range of right answers. Cause and effect require analysis.
  • Complex: no right answers. Cause and effect only apparent in retrospect.
  • Chaotic: action required for sensemaking.

Complicated problems can be resource-intensive to solve—but our capacity to solve them is never in question. We can repair the Boeing 747—it just might be expensive. Whereas complex problems can defy solutions—like politics, natural systems, and economic concerns all intersect in the tidying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Chaotic problems—such as developing a city from scratch, go beyond complexity. You must attempt to solve them to make sense of their complexity.

Opportunity Costs, Social Systems and Choice

Let’s say we invested every resource on Earth into cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Trillions of dollars spent on ocean trawlers, reducing plastic manufacturing, and better waste management. Would it be cleaned?

Absolutely. The GPGP is a challenging, but solvable problem. Yet it’s still swirling out there. If we invested every resource into cleaning it—what would we not be investing in? Perhaps running hospitals or growing food.

Opportunity costs are the next best thing we could have done had we not made our first choice. Do we invest in research into renewable energies, or into protecting endangered species? Even if taxes were infinite, institutions were perfectly efficient, and we made the optimal choice every time—we can’t pursue every promising opportunity to make the world better. Each promises a better end state—jostling for scarce time and attention.

The net result is a social system in which we collectively persuade, fund and pursue different, isolated complex problems—also known as wicked problems or social messes.

These interrelated problems influence each other and permeate into domains from business strategy to addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals—and exhibit the characteristics of wickedness.

The Wickedness of Wicked Problems

Wickedness is the complexity, interrelatedness to other problems, and competing interests present in a problem. Wicked problems defy one specific definition—but exhibit some consistent characteristics that allow us to define and address them. The six characteristics of wickedness are,

  1. There is no isolated ‘problem’—just messy intersections of social, economic, and political factors and value conflicts.
  2. There is no ‘right’ solution. Each solution has unintended consequences and uncertain outcomes.
  3. There is no precedent. Each problem is unique and can be understood differently by different people.
  4. Problem solvers can’t get full and direct participation of those affected by solutions—limiting the potential for co-creation.
  5. Not addressing the problem is viable—leading to considerable resistance to change. However, time is often running out.
  6. We’re all partly responsible—yet no institution or individual can or will take ownership. Leading to a diffusion of responsibility.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch exhibits all the characteristics of wickedness.

It has many intersecting factors—different nations waste practices, economic needs, and perspectives on the value of marine life. There are numerous viable intervention points—litter less, clean it up, and make less plastic. There’s no ‘last time’ we cleaned up a 1.6 million square kilometre trash vortex.

Those addressing the GPGP can’t possibly engage with all the stakeholders involved in the ocean. Nations and institutions have more pressing priorities aside from cleaning oceanic waste—if they even see ocean waste as a problem worth solving. Finally, we’re all using and contributing to the system of plastic manufacturing and disposal—yet what nation, organization or individual can or should take full responsibility?

A New Methodology For Complex Problem-Solving

Wicked problems exist at each level of the human factors pyramid and touch all of us — through poverty, sustainability, equality, and health. They are challenging to solve because of incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and perspectives involved, the broad economic scope, and the problems interconnectedness.

The Human Factors Pyramid: Classifies the complexity of human interactions.

Yet we must solve them to create a future where energy is clean and cheap, peace is pervasive, we live in harmony with our natural systems, extreme poverty is eradicated, and global health isn’t at risk of a pandemic.

Organizations of all kinds—from startups to established corporates, not-for-profits to intergovernmental organizations have both a pressing need and an ethical obligation to pursue addressing the externalities their organizations create and thus address the wickedness that exists in every action our various organizations take.

I propose a new process for addressing this inherent wickedness that draws from the systemic design, strategic foresight, human factors, design thinking, innovation strategy, and social entrepreneurship methodologies—which I call Wicked Design.

The process moves iteratively through five stages; Search, Map, Locate, Create, and Scale and recognizes a few things.

  1. Solutions can’t happen without the involvement of those affected.
  2. Solutions aren’t viable unless they can address the scope and complexity of the problem.
  3. Effective communication is essential for building engagement.
  4. The best solutions are never ‘right’ but do move us incrementally closer to a better end state—known as clumsy solutions.
  5. Creating artefacts that empower others to join us on the journey is crucial.
  6. We must cultivate effective collaboration between problem solvers.

Solve Complex Problems by Getting Stranded

Imagine yourself on a deserted island. You know nothing about your whereabouts, the available resources, or who may be around to help you. All you have is a desire—escape. What’s the first thing you would do?

Search: Look around. You wouldn’t want to disturb anything—so you’d explore cautiously. You find trees, mysterious fruits, small animals, and the tracks of much larger ones. There’s an ecosystem here that you don’t yet understand. You find something safe to eat and drink, and gradually gain some measure of confidence. You find others on the island who are stranded.

Map: You feel you understand the nooks and crannies of this island. You’ve come to find it quite beautiful. You make a map to articulate this. It lets you compare your understanding of the island with the others who are stranded. Now you ‘get’ the island enough to figure out your escape.

Locate: Others share the same goal, and with your map, you’re able to develop a shared understanding. You think through your options. Build a boat? Construct a HELP sign? Send a message in a bottle? Some options are more promising than others. You haven’t seen any planes overhead, or boats on the horizon. You elect to build a boat. A few other inhabitants share your vision and choose to help.

Create: Your first raft floats away. Loose lashings come apart on your next try. Your third floats, barely, but sinks when you board. Your vessels get sturdier and more seaworthy. Other inhabitants become interested and join your quest. Day by day you get closer. Then, you get there. The boat can sail around the island, and venture into the deeper waters without coming apart. But these were just test boats—now comes the real deal.

Scale: A boat that can take all the islands inhabitants away. You work on making a bigger, more reliable boat—applying all you’ve learned over the past few months. You gather resources for the journey—food, water, and spare parts. You tell stories of the beauty of home—to inspire and motivate your companions. One final sunrise—and you set sail. Each sailor has a different role. You must respond to changing ocean conditions, navigate uncertain waters, and deal with flagging motivation. You persevere, and—land!

This story was written to make the process for complex problem-solving more tangible. Wicked Design is about responsiveness. When you encounter a messy problem—you don’t know anything about it.

  • You may not have collaborators with you.
  • Others often don’t believe in your capacity to solve the problem.
  • Mistakes are magnified—as you don’t understand the system enough to predict the impact your decisions will have.

It requires patience, understanding, and communication to not build a boat that sinks—or to keep your crew motivated on the long journey home. Wicked Design systemizes the stories, human-centeredness, and iteration inherent in addressing wickedness.

The Principles of Wicked Design

The truth is—there’s no right way to address a complex problem. There are only clumsy steps collectively taken towards a shared vision of a better world.

What Wicked Design does is give you a roadmap to gauge whether you’re on the right track, and some tools to help structure your work. In Drawdown Hawken’s lists over one hundred viable ways to address the energy crisis. There is never one solution—however; there are a few principles that can help you address wickedness.

Wicked Design and The Future of Care

I recently collaborated on a project to understand the future of personalized healthcare. Following the process of Wicked Design—we came to deeply understand how valuable our health and body autonomy is, and how crucial it is that we work to sustain equity and choice when it comes to healthcare.

We wrote scenarios for a potential future in 2045, and a designed future that brought one of those scenarios to life—in the form of a ‘health checkpoint’ that screened visitors to Canada to ensure they met our health score requirements.

We further analyzed a consumer genomics company to create an innovation strategy—to practically apply the insights we gained from our futures work.

Our tools primarily came from strategic foresight and innovation strategy—supplemented by systems thinking tools, like Business Model Mapping.

This project is an example of Wicked Design. We set an intent for our project, researched signals, and understood our stakeholders. We synthesized our findings into trends and used tools like causal layered analysis and backcasting to frame potential futures. We distilled those frames into four distinct scenarios—to locate opportunities and risks for organizations operating today.

We created a designed future—built to describe the different paths the future of personalized healthcare could take. Finally, we scaled our work by crafting a dossier that communicates our findings so others may learn and continue the journey.

Spread the Word and Take Action

As Hans Rosling notes in, “Factfulness,” the five most pressing global concerns are the risks of a global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change, and extreme poverty.

These problems are wicked—and it’s the consequences of the decisions nations, organizations and we make that create them. We must address these problems to create a shared future worth living, and we must do it now.

Wicked Design was created to grapple with the challenges we’re facing—from creating shallow solutions to failing to address our problems underlying complexity. Such as when consumer goods companies try addressing extreme poverty by providing inexpensive consumer items.

Dealing with wickedness is on the edge of impossible. It requires each of us to honestly address the complexity of our problems—to create shared value rather than giving in to greed or short-term thinking. Collective learning is our knack preserving information and passing it onto others. I hope this article has helped demonstrate that. Thank you for reading!

Categories: DesignSystems


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