Wicked problems: how to solve the unsolvable

In an interview, Quentin Grafton suggested that much of his work as an economist has to do with addressing wicked problems. Learning about what he sees as the key elements to approach wicked problems was insightful. This article explores more closely what constitutes a wicked problem and what needs to be done to start to address these ‘insurmountable’ challenges.

What is a wicked problem and how does it relate to water management?

A wicked problem is considered to be a social or cultural problem that is difficult, or impossible, to solve for these reasons: “incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

Wicked problems generally end up in the hands of policymakers, or are completely avoided because they are considered unsolvable. At the same time, these are the problems that impact everyone in the world, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are in place as a global agenda to address the most difficult wicked problems facing our planet and our humanity.

Addressing wicked problems

Often times, it can be all but impossible to determine if the problem is solved, owing to the interconnected nature of these major issues. Solutions should be considered to improve the problem rather than all-out solve it, as clear, practical solutions are usually not apparent, but progress on solving the problem needs to begin now.

To address wicked problems, decision-makers must make multiple interventions over a longer period of time, explains Quentin Grafton, professor of economics, at the Australian National University.

“The key point is that it’s got to be an integrated, adaptable approach and it’s got to really involve people,” he says. “It sounds trite to say this but it’s true. You can’t have a resolution of wicked problems without having people engaged in a consultative way.”

Grafton says progress toward solving wicked problems has to happen now, to avoid incurring big costs in the future, even if results are a tenuous target.

“I don’t think there’s any choice; it’s not like we can think about it for the next two decades. I think we have to do something now and we can’t wait. We actually have to engage and we learn by doing and hopefully, we’ll make the right call. We won’t always get it right but we’ll learn from it and then hopefully get some outcomes for people, real people on the ground. But there’s no magic bullet. There’s no panacea.” Prefoessor Quentin Grafton, Professor of Economics. Australian National University

An example: cleaning the Ganga

The Ganga is an important source of water, and also one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in May of 2014, is attempting to solve this wicked problem through his project Namami Gange, or obeisance to the Ganges.

Modi is taking numerous steps, addressing the interconnected problems that are creating and adding to pollution, including capturing sewage where it enters the river, constructing sewage treatment plants in the communities that the Ganga flows through, and shutting down industrial units near the river. The government is also creating a public awareness campaign via social media, SMS, emails, and word of mouth.

While Modi’s plan may not solve the pollution problem entirely — because it is a wicked problem, and thus, not readily solvable — this multifaceted approach is impacting the present state of the water as well as creating the potential for a better future.

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