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Sunday, 21 October 2012

50. Civic Solutions for Wicked Problems

The concept of wicked problems is both important and tricky.  Important because it refers to those intractable social and economic issues that most policy makers and practitioners are grappling with; issues like youth unemployment, childhood obesity or substance misuse.  Tricky because the concept of wicked problems is itself ‘wicked’ and subject to differences in definition and interpretation.

This post sets out some thoughts about wicked problems and how they might lead to particular types of responses that I'm calling civic solutions.

Matching Problems and Solutions

A few weeks ago Megan Mathias from Kafka Brigade UK gave a presentation to our community planning conference on ‘Solving the Wicked Problems’.  The purpose was to help inform the thinking for our city’s new Single Integrated Plan (that’s Welsh version of the community strategy). It was this presentation that got me thinking (always a good sign!). 

Megan’s central point, I think, was that we need to be clear about what type of problems we are seeking to solve as this will inform in a major way our responses to those problems.   Megan drew in particular on Keith Grint’s typology of problems and responses (see Keith Grint’s presentation here). 
Grint argues that:
  • For ‘critical’ problems such as a major police incident, for example, we need a command response – one that is immediate, top down and decisive
  • Tame problems such as conducting heart surgery, launching a new product or relocating a business are complex but can be addressed ‘scientifically’ and hence can be solved through  a management response
  • Wicked problems, such as knife crime, for example, cannot be solved through ‘management’.  In fact they may not be completed solved at all, rather they may only be mitigated.  The response required here is one of political collaboration – in other words leadership.

Wicked Problems

Grint offers the following characteristics of wicked problems:
  • Either novel or recalcitrant
  • Complex rather than complicated (cannot be solved in isolation)
  • Sit outside single hierarchy and across systems – ‘solution’ creates another problem
  • They often have no stopping rule – thus no definition of success
  • May be intransigent problems that we have to learn to live with
  • Symptoms of deep divisions – contradictory certitudes
  • Have no right or wrong solutions but better or worse developments
  • Securing the ‘right’ answer is not as important as securing collective consent.
  • Feasibility not optimality; coping rather than solving
  • Uncertainty & Ambiguity inevitable – cannot be deleted through correct analysis
If you are unfamiliar with the idea of wicked problems then the Wikipedia page (should that be wickedapedia *ahem*) is a good a place to start as any.  Definitions tend to vary but they usually come in lists of characteristics - see this paper by Head and Alford (pdf) for more on this. 

For me wicked problems are best understood as symptoms of wider social and economic structures.  There is perhaps a danger that wicked problems might be thought of almost as having an existence independent from the ‘real’ world- like malevolent ghosts that have arrived from some mysterious other world. 

It is important to remember that wicked problems are of course symptoms of deeper social and economic problems.  To use a medical metaphor; they are like chronic conditions, some of which can be managed to the point that the individual leads an almost completely normal life as long as they can maintain the management regime required.  Other chronic conditions cannot be managed as easily and the individual has to accept that the symptoms will continue to be challenging.
There is also something a little fatalistic in saying ‘wicked problems’ can never be completely solved.  I’d rather say, like a doctor might, that these are conditions that can be managed until the cure is found.  Take the example of child labour in 19th century Britain for example.  At the start of that century it must have looked like an intractable wicked problem.  Clearly it is no longer seen that way.  Not in the UK in any case. 

It is also important to understand wicked problems as issues that affect us all to a greater or lesser extent;  whether directly as ‘victims’ or indirectly through the impact on the wider economy for example. 

In the same way I would argue that everyone shares responsibility for wicked problems.  I mean this both in the sense that we are all responsible for these issues in the first place to some extent, whether by action or inaction, but also that we are all responsible for the solution.  Grint puts it well in this report on Total Place (pdf) when he says that a wicked problem:
...requires a long term collaborative engagement by the whole community. The trick here, then, is to ask the right question. Not, ‘how do we stop knife crime?’ but how do we get the community more involved in self-policing?

Civic Solutions

Which brings me onto to this idea of civic solutions by which I mean:  Emergent strategies to tackle wicked problems that involve the whole community including public services and the voluntary and business sectors.

This is an approach that contrasts with traditional top down approaches.  As Helen Sullivan argues:
An alternative model, talked about a great deal in the literature, but rarely applied, looks at ‘whole of government’ from the bottom rather than the top, emphasizing the merit of taking decisions and being responsible for them as close to service users and citizens as possible, and of connecting to others through flexible networks rather than reconstituted hierarchies. This poses a fundamental challenge to strategic thinkers who can conceive of strategy only in top-down, centrally determined ways, as it requires thinking about strategy as emergent, generated by interactions between the different actors involved wherever they are in the system.
That’s the general idea – the next step is to map out what these civic solutions might look like in practice and, more specifically, what they might mean for whole place partnerships and their single integrated plans.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

“Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

You can see a description at:



Tom Ritchey

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