We’re failing to solve the world’s ‘wicked problems.’ Here’s a better approach

 and  at the Conversation: “We live in a world burdened by large-scale problems that refuse to go away: the refugee crisis; terrorism; rising sea levels; frequent floods, droughts and wildfires; not to mention persistent inequality and violation of basic human rights across the world.

What do these problems have in common? They resist any simple solution. In policy research they are called “wicked.” This is because cause-effect relations are complex and solutions unclear; many of these problems are urgent, yet there is no central authority to solve them; their magnitude is often hard to estimate; and those trying to solve them may even contribute to causing them.

The EU refugee crisis, the topic of a recent U.N. summit, is a good example: Driven by regional conflicts and poverty, and assisted by trafficking networks, people from Africa and the Middle East continue to take enormous risks to enter EU territory by land or sea. For several years now, thousands of refugees have died on this journey each year andno solution is in sight. EU member countries continue to blame their neighbors for either taking in too many refugees or for refusing to help, while there is little shared interest and limited capacity for actually addressing the sources of the problem.

What’s the best way to effectively address these types of wicked problems?…

Facing the current refugee situation, U.N. member states got together two weeks ago to sign a declaration for a more coordinated response to the refugee crisis. Yet, critics have pointed out that the goals are too vague and the document is not legally binding. Such meetings have happened several times in the course of the EU refugee crisis – with very little outcome. In reality, “grand solutions” for large-scale problems either do not exist, or they are too vague or controversial to be of much value.


…A number of development experts have argued that “small wins” might be a promising alternative to tackle large-scale problems. Small wins focus on smaller-scale independent projects with attainable and measurable objectives. For example, many firms independently develop solutions to increase energy efficiency or to avoid waste. Likewise, several EU countries have looked into better ways of processing asylum applications and easing the integration of refugees.

Such small wins may not solve the entire problem – in these cases, climate change or refugee crisis – but they have tangible positive outcomes in line with longer-term goals. Also, the more countries and parties deal with the same problem, the greater the number of innovative experiments.

The only problem is: How can such small wins add up to a larger-scale sustainable solution?….

Similarly, EU countries are increasingly moving from idiosyncratic to modular solutions of refugee management and integration. For example, the German trade union organization IG Metall is currently developing connected modules of language and professional training for refugeesthat allow for faster integration into higher-skilled labor markets. These modules are designed to be transferable across industry sectors, and they serve as important foundations for more job-specific training.

Overall, modular solutions can reduce the complexity of climate adaptation and refugee integration. In developing and disseminating such solutions, intermediary organizations are very important – development agencies, standard-setters, consulting groups, NGOs, industrial relations partners….(More)”