Wicked Problems Driving Evolution ?

Have you heard the expression “Wicked Problems”?  Better learn it because it is turning up everywhere. Don’t miss the powerful video at the end (viewed by over one million people) that points to something besides creativity that we need to solve these problems.

What seems like a positive trend to me is the acknowledgement of the huge problems we are facing on the planet today by calling them by a new name “Wicked Problems.  It looks like wicked problems are now driving creativity and evolution.

“A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four 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.” Sanford Social Innovation Review

“Due to the system qualities of these large problems, knowledge of science, economics, statistics, technology, medicine, politics, and more are necessary for effective change. This demands interdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, perseverance.”

These quotes were taken from a book by Jon Kolko called “Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving” Jon Kolko believes that it is designers who should start solving wicked problems and use their skill for a better world. To promote his ideas he wrote a free e-book. see more

Most of these problems started out as a good solution to other problems that we faced in our development.  What is interesting about this is how what appear to be good solutions may eventually create other problems which then become almost impossible to solve.

As I was writing this blog, I discovered, to my excitement, that a major Design project called “Powerhouse” was featured in Norway’s major newspaper Aftenposten’s A-Magazine (16 March 2012).  This project uses a collaborative approach with about 6 major players, including the famous architect company Snøhetta that built the Norwegian Opera house, Norsk Hydro an international aluminium company, an environmental organization ZERO and several large entrepreneur companies.

They are taking on the wicked problem of energy and environment by designing and building an office space in Trondheim, Norway. They have come a long way with revolutionary solutions. It will have not only a zero energy footprint but actually produce extra energy!  This ultra modern building (see photo for this blog) is scheduled to be finished in 2015.  The design, their goals and their story are fascinating.  See relevant articles in  Norwegian  and English.

Another new way that wicked problems are being met is by using “gaming”!  An article from World Politics Review highlighted how the next generation (often called millennials) is the hope of the future because they embrace gaming more than any previous generation.  The article points to studies about the positive effects of gaming. One example is a group of surgeons who after playing video games (for at least three hours a week) made 37 percent fewer errors on tests of advanced surgical skills than those who did not. The article also revealed that the Obama administration has actually set up a task force to look into “serious gaming” to be used to solve these kind of global problems. Well well!

I found this fascinating as I have always had a negative view of computer games, having heard that they are actually change young people’s brains!  This to me sounded dangerous.  Yet isn’t this evolution – we tend to resist and reject the new, only seeing the potential “dangers.” Turns out these games increase hand and eye coordination, rapidity of response, acuity of vision and other positive results.

Invitations for solving wicked problems by games are put out on the internet for anyone to try.  This is of course the new trend called “crowdsourcing”, where solutions build on each other.  I can only imagine the kick that comes when a group actually finds the solution to a real “Wicked Problem”.   This seems like an evolutionary stimulus as it ensures that enough minds are engaged with the survival of the species.

Here is an example of a real solution through gaming from last week!  Foldit Gamers Solve AIDS Puzzle That Baffled Scientists for a Decade.  “How amazing is this: U.S. gamers, playing a protein-folding game called Foldit, have helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade. The solution represents a significant step forward in the quest to cure retroviral diseases like AIDS. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, severely compromises the body’s cellular immunity, making sufferers dramatically less resistant to infection.”

There are two elements here that are interesting – the idea of play and of collective thinking.  I am reminded of a book I was fascinated with maybe 35 years ago called “Homo Ludens”.  It means “Man the Player”.  It was written in 1938 by a Dutch historian, cultural theorist and professor Johan Huizinga.

He taught a whole philosophy about the importance of play in culture and believed that when we play we are in a  particular state of consciousness that is different from other mental states. We are very focused, very present, very engaged and dedicated to the activity, whether together or alone.  When in deep play some part of the creative mind gets activated and can trigger a sense of Flow – where time disappears and everything seems obvious and simple.

Athletes talk about this – being in the zone.  And in creative problem solving we have been taught to “play around”, get relaxed, be crazy and use other playful techniques like envisioning the future – to activate creative thought.  This is certainly something that young people love to do.  Is this state what is being harnessed to solve wicked problems!

The collective aspect of the gaming is showing up in other areas also. As recently as February 14th, Google arranged an on-line conference called “Solve For <X>: Ideas That Could Change The World“.  “Over 50 brilliant minds came together to present and discuss ideas that could completely change the way we live our lives”.

The byline to this initiative is: A forum to encourage and amplify technology-based moonshot thinking and teamwork.  Extreme creativity and crowdsourcing coming together!  People are invited to present their ideas and encouraged to develop solutions.  Here are 17 ideas that came out of this initiative that could become solutions to some of the big problems facing the human civilization today.

This was all arranged on-line via Google+ , where individuals can follow talks and join in the conversation. It is meant to encourage people to look at wicked problems with a solution orientation!  This brilliant and thought provoking video is an example of how “moonshot thinking” looks at wicked problems – this one about food and agriculture:  Solve for X: David Berry on efficient nutrition production. 

Yet with all this amazing creativity happening, I want to go back to the beginning of this blog where we saw that wicked problems arise out of what we, at one time,  thought were solutions!  It occurs to me that we need to be able to solve our problems in a way that takes into consideration the potential consequences of our solutions. Are the solutions going to create the kind of values and culture we want to see in the future?  Have the complex nature of the problems been truly taken into consideration?  These are big questions.  Einstein said that you can’t solve problems at the same level of consciousness that they were created.

This is where Wisdom comes in! Not just smarts or creativity.  I connect this with the big push happening in the development of human consciousness.  More and more seminars, teachings, and support is appearing to help move our consciousness into the realm of Wisdom. Shift Network offers many programs in this area.

Wisdom comes when we are able to move beyond our ego perspective and operate out of what is best for the whole. This state, mindset or worldview, allows us to work collectively in a constructive way.  It is related to the flow state and brings with it a sense of joy and rightness.  This is part of our true nature and seems to be what is trying to happen to each of us today. We each have something to contribute when we access both our creativity and wisdom.

I will close this blog with a video which I think highlights the need for wisdom.  My curiosity urged me to spend the time to watch what seemed like a non-important theme.  And I am grateful that I did. Hope you do to!

Susan Cain in “The Power of Introverts” passionately presents a compelling picture of how our fast-track culture tends to miss the importance of alone-time and quiet reflection which is what I believe helps us to access our own inner Wisdom. Enjoy!

2 Responses to Wicked Problems Driving Evolution ?

  1. Tom R. March 19, 2012 at 1:19 am #

    Re: “wicked problems”, thought 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 Springer here:


    Tom R.
    Swedish Morphological Society

    • Mara Senese
      Mara Senese March 19, 2012 at 6:57 am #

      Thank you, Tom

      I appreciate hearing about new sources. Will check it out.

      Warm regards,

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