Wicked World

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  • AuthorAnu Manickam, Karel van Berkel
  • PublisherNoordhoff Business
  • Published9/19/2019
  • Pages142

System innovation for complex issues

I only found a Dutch version of this book, “Wicked World—Systeeminnovatie voor complexe vraagstukken,” but the ideas are interesting enough to share.

Simple solutions versus complex issues

The first thing that a person must realize is that he usually chooses a simple life. We prefer to avoid complex matters. And if we have to, we prefer to cut down on manageable problems. All in our search for the simplest possible solutions.

That’s not how it works for complex issues. For the so-called “wicked problems” in a “wicked world”. Normally, things don’t go as planned there. Systems and complexity theories provide insight into processes that take place between complex dynamical systems. To this end, the problems must be tackled with a systems approach.

The authors provide a coherent model for this.

Three worldviews

To give shape to this model, the first chapter (Wicked world) discusses three worldviews.

Manageable world

The first is that of the manageable world. The world has become manageable because we learned to plan, build prototypes, calculate everything, and experiment with trial and error. We linearized the problems, and mastered difficult issues.

The Bubble World

The second world is the bubble world. This world is more unpredictable. Difficult questions are coming our way. Are we still safe in terms of terrorism, economically, and cyber? People want to avoid such issues because they find them complex, and that behavior worsens as their urgency and severity increase. People use social media to seek support. In such a world, people are susceptible to populism, polarization, manipulation, and disinformation. One danger that arises is political framing, a form of simplification of reality so that it appeals to a group. It is a frame as a project if it identifies problems, points out the cause, and provides a simple solution. A frame-like drama is about the players, not the content: there are villains, heroes, and victims. A bubble world confirms the group’s worldview and its opinions. That comes across as safe. For this reason, among other things, like-minded people seek each other out in the appropriate bubbles.

The Complex World

The third world is a complex world. There are difficult (tame) problems that can be solved unambiguously in parts, such as a heart transplant. Other issues are complex. Those are the wicked problems. This

  • can be defined in several ways,
  • are not divisible into smaller problems,
  • are problems with multiple stakeholders and multiple interests,
  • are problems for which many different solutions are devised,
  • are problems where each solution triggers the next problem,
  • develop unpredictably.

In addition, there are now also super wicked problems. These have four additional features:

  • Time is running out.
  • The causative agents also provide the solution.
  • There is no power center powerful enough to deal with it.
  • Irrational arguments are used to avoid doing anything about it.

An example of this is global warming.

Quadruple context

The context in which leaders have to make decisions is fourfold:

  • Simple Problems -> Best Practices. E.g. stopping at a red light.
  • Difficult problems -> good practices. E.g. open heart surgery.
  • Complex problems -> no right answers, step by step. E.g. the climate.
  • Chaotic context -> quick reactions. E.g. a fire.

The most difficult thing is that these four contexts are intertwined in the work of leaders.

‘A system is a network of relationships between elements that functions as a separate whole, with its own boundaries and its own identity.’

Problems between systems arise in interactions.

In complexity approaches, things arise through interactions that unintentionally and unplanned lead to something new: evolution rather than planning and design.

Complex adaptive systems theory (CAS) (John Holland, 1992) describes how systems change and reorganize themselves internally in response to environmental problems. The main features of the CAS theory are:

  • Relationships, interaction and coherence exist between elements in a system and between systems.
  • Agents are semi-autonomous elements in a system that interact, adapt, learn, and evolve.
  • Evolution: looking for strategies that fit the changed system landscape.
  • Co-evolution: all the systems involved evolve with it.
  • Not a single central control mechanism: self-organization is created.
  • Minor variations can give rise to large changes/differences in outcomes.
  • Local micro-interactions can provoke macro traits, patterns, and a new order that no one intended in advance.
  • CAS is at its best when there is sufficient chaos in addition to order.

How do you tackle wicked world problems?

Some of the recommendations are:

  • In addition to the problem, map out the context.
  • Adapt to the ever-changing unique environment.
  • Expect unpredictability, escalations, and uncontrollability.
  • Work together in an interdisciplinary way.
  • Explore different visions, approaches, solutions.
  • Involve stakeholders.
  • Understand the paradigms and rules of communication of the stakeholders.
  • Look for common values and interests.
  • Map out complex relationships and draw them out.
  • Look for levers (small interventions with a big effect).
  • Look for possible side effects of an approach.
  • Experiment through trial and error. Keep changing as you learn.

This will be further elaborated in the rest of the book.