“Wicked Problems” Part 1: In relation to policy as part of the systems thinking (issues)

The most pressing environmental problems of our time often defy straightforward solutions and can be considered “wicked problems”.

Contributor: Charles Conteh  

This blog is the first of a two-part series on “Wicked Problems”. 

What do we mean by wicked problems? These are knotty issues that defy straightforward solutions; problems that rebel against our conventional suite of simple “answers” or “solutions.”  For instance, some of the pressing environmental issues of our time, such as climate change, water pollution, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity, can all be considered wicked problems. They are problems that require everyone, from diverse backgrounds, working together to find solutions.  

Such problems do not fit into conventional policy toolboxes. They do not align easily with the political system of our countries, where ministries, departments, and agencies are tasked with a specific mandate and do not always talk to each other. Also, given the widespread and transboundary nature of most environmental problems, they defy the capacity of any one country to solve them alone.  

All these characteristics of “wicked” environmental problems call attention to the fact that the natural world is a complex system. But then, this begs the question: what are systems? Systems in environmental policy are complex but interrelated domains consisting of varying life forms interacting together, such as crops and the weeds competing in an agricultural field. In public policy, our appreciation of complex systems has gained prominence, inspiring a group of scholars who are re-thinking conventional approaches to how governments regulate human interactions with the biosphere. 

We should point out that wicked problems do not necessarily mean “evil” problems. Rather, they are tremendously complex and have many moving parts. By their very nature, wicked problems make a mockery of our modern mechanistic worldview and our attempts to use simple, linear thinking to force complex social problems into straitjacket solutions. Wicked problems highlight that reality is “messy.” In public policy, a wicked problem is difficult but not impossible to solve. Wicked problems challenge us to be responsive to changing values and changing interactions between humanity and the planet.  

Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog