Robin Jourdan checks the possibility of solving wicked problems by democracy in her fourth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
We are living in an age of wicked problems. These are problems that generally have a social or cultural component that makes it difficult to solve. They’re more often complex, connected to other grand-scale issues, a substantial economic burden, and often incomplete knowledge. Wicked problems as a marketing concept didn’t come into being until the early 1970s.
Historic wicked problems would include polio, cholera, typhoid, cancer, poverty, and more. Often these problems created a sense of fear, vulnerability, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity. Out of control societies witnessed break-downs in politics, economics, and culture. What these problems had in common included a lack of knowledge over things like hygiene, sanitation, microbes. In other instances, what was lacking often was the political willpower to create the needed changes.
Democracies haven’t yet solved these problems due to many factors, some technical, some social, some political. For example, approached with caution and skepticism, often analysts tackle the wrong question in such a complex challenge set. In the West, think tanks and research laboratories are most often charged with finding an answer. Problems and solutions can be overly politicized and at the mercy of wrong motivations. Science and education can be discounted as elitism and fakery. This adds to the challenge. The same people who would doubt climate change science will stop eating broccoli when science says it’s contaminated.
Technocratic and autocratic strengths and weakness are the reliance on technological solutions. If based on short-term incentives, these technologies allow us to continue in our ignorant ways. Then we blame the technology when they fail. Thus, devices alone are incomplete solutions for global woes. Overreliance on this path alone may also widen the gap between solutions and willingness to implement them. Incremental thinking relying on today’s think tank structure will continue to face skepticism from the general public.
Short-term thinking spurred by economic priorities will compete for resources in these systems as well. Governance systems that can marshal enormous amounts of resources are likely to be positioned well for moving the needle on solutions as is seen by China's checkbook diplomacy and internal focus on climate change solutions. This assembling vast amounts of resources itself isn’t the lone tool, as squandering resources will increasingly be frowned upon.
A key lesson from success over these past wicked problems is the need to get to a long-term, root cause understanding. Systems thinking is a tool that can support and enable transitioning to that longer-term thinking. Root cause understanding and multi-nation cooperation often result in action. Such will no doubt be aided by technologies, perhaps yet to be discovered. This complements a most significant ingredient to past victory over specific wicked problems: diligence and resilience during the sometimes-long journey.
As the future is further transformed, the longevity economy will likely have specific influences as well. When people live longer, the higher the chance they will face the outcomes of decisions guided by short-term thinking. Having the ability to simulate results by way of systems thinking and problem-solving, but not acting logically regarding them would reveal illogical mindsets.
Democracies as a social construct rather than a governance system support the conditions to share what is learned on the march. This is not to suggest that the steps nor the efforts are easy or linear. Adequate investment and emotional diligence are needed are not traits ascribed to a single governance system. However, in a democracy, people can create a groundswell of interest, urgency, and memory to challenge political priorities accordingly.
© Robin Jourdan 2019