Why Wicked Problems Need a Complexity Lens


Andrea responds: Wicked problems are like complexity. They have interdependent agents that interact in unpredictable ways and produce a pattern or emergent trend. They are non-linear, their “cause” and “effect” can be simultaneous (does eating too much cause you to be obese? OR does being obese cause you to eat too much?). The solutions can therefore have unintended consequences (does forcing kids to exercise make you more stressed? and more likely to eat? less likely to exercise?).
Each linear solution is wrapped up in contradicting forces and opposing perspectives that keep the current status in place. Some of the solutions to a Wicked Problem can emerge from seeing it through a complexity lens, and using lessons learned from complex adaptive systems.
I first ran into the term “wicked problems” at an Art of Hosting seminar in Pembroke in 2009. The Art of Hosting brought together professionals who wanted to tackle Wicked Problems in the world by hosting conversations that matter.
The people at Art of Hosting and other groups using whole system semi-structured conversations believe that there is no simple solution to a Wicked Problem. They hope that getting as much of the system – and as many stakeholders as possible – in one space, and asking “Wicked Questions” may provide the beginnings of a solution. Wicked Problems can involve many stakeholders with competing and complementing information, values and perspectives. The solution involves unlocking as much new and diverse information as possible in order to find new and generative patterns in the system.
This is not to say there is no solution to Wicked Problems. For example, childhood obesity has begun to drop in the last couple of years.
Viewing the Wicked Problem as a whole system issue, and inviting as many stakeholders as possible to the table, can bring greater clarity to system mapping, and enhance the possibility of enabling potential solutions to emerge.

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