Wicked Opportunities

Essay by William D. Eggers & Anna Muoio: “Wicked problems”—ranging from malaria to dwindling water supplies—are being reframed as “wicked opportunities” and tackled by networks of nongovernmental organizations, social entrepreneurs, governments, and big businesses.

As a killer disease, malaria is the world’s third biggest, after only HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. In 2013, an estimated 584,000 people died of it—90 percent of these deaths in Africa, mostly among children under five years of age.1 And because 3.2 billion people—almost half the world’s population—live in regions where malaria spreads easily, it is very hard to fight.2 Scores of organizations are embroiled in the complex search for solutions, sometimes pursuing conflicting priorities, always competing for scarce resources. Despite the daunting challenges, here’s how Bill Gates, who has already spent more than $2 billion of Gates Foundation money on the problem, characterizes the situation: “This is one of the greatest opportunities the global health world has ever had.”3

Opportunity? It’s a surprising word even for an optimistic mega-philanthropist to describe a scourge that people have been trying to eliminate, unsuccessfully, for hundreds of years. It’s also, however, a fair statement about what is possible in the 21st century. We’re seeing a trend by which many kinds of “wicked problems”—complex, dynamic, and seemingly intractable social challenges—are being reframed and attacked with renewed vigor through solution ecosystems. Unprecedented networks of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social entrepreneurs, health professionals, governments, and international development institutions—and yes, businesses—are coalescing around them, and recasting them as wicked opportunities….(More)”