Time to re-think our approach to tough problems

July 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

Samuel Wilson

Our approach to some of our most complex problems has been ineffective. We seem incapable of judging some complex problems as serious enough to warrant preventative or remedial action (e.g., widening economic inequality; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009).

Yet other complex problems persevere for years before they are recognised as problems (e.g., human-induced climate change; Spratt & Sutton, 2008). In consequence, complex problems become entrenched and the costs of inaction mount.

Too often, our approach to complex problems – wicked (Rittel & Webber, 1973) and super wicked problems (Levin, Cashore, Bernstein, & Auld, 2012) – is at odds with how they ideally should be addressed.

To illustrate, an ideal approach is scientifically sophisticated, reflected in adaptive responses to changing facts about the world, and ethically sophisticated, reflected in policies that strike a wholesome balance between private and public interests and immediate and longer-term needs. In practice, we tend to privilege our immediate, private interests and overly discount the interests of those who are socially, temporally, and spatially distant from us.

There is, in consequence, a pervasive sense that something is profoundly wrong with the way we with live today (Judt, 2010). Even in the affluent West there is growing disquiet. Although this sentiment is most marked in continental Europe, it is experienced, albeit less acutely, in Anglo-American countries too.

This unease is reflected in calls for an end to a business as usual and politics as usual approach to our problems (Garnaut, 2013; Sachs, 2011; Spratt & Sutton, 2008). It is now quite clear that these approaches, which elevate private over public interests and immediate over long-term needs, is making an enemy of our future.

It is time for a radical rethink about how we approach wicked and super wicked problems.

In particular, we must choose between two approaches: a business as usual orpolitics as usual approach, which preserves the status quo, and a public interest orcommon good approach, which necessitates that we change our minds, policies, and behaviour when evidence supports change (Garnaut, 2013).

Unhappily, the odds favour the business as usual approach, which seems most consistent with our deeply engrained preferences for the satisfaction of private over public interests, immediate over longer-term needs, and quick fixes over systemic solutions.

The choice between the business as usual and public interest approach is made more complicated by the apparent dilemma contained within it: do we enact policies that privilege the interests of present generations – constraining the interests and options of future generations – or do we enact policies that serve the interests and preserve the options available to future generations, which necessarily constrains the interests and options of present generations?

To make the apparent dilemma clearer, this choice seems to ask us to make a choice about who incurs the costs of action and inaction. Whereas the costs are largely shifted to our future selves and future generations in the business as usual approach, they are borne primarily by our present selves and present generations in the public interest approach. This dilemma is arguably experienced most acutely in democracies, which is prone to “presentism” – a bias in law making that favours present generations over future generations (Thompson, 2010).

Of course, the choices that face us – serious choices about things that matter – are never simple choices between distinct categories: private interests versus public interests; immediate versus long-term needs; present generations versus future generations.

However, we often act as if this was the case, until reality intervenes to remind us that these discrete categories are, in fact, figments of our imagination. The events that occasion these insights, which often visit harm upon us, force us to recognise that connections inhere between those actors and entities once regarded as categorically distinct.

We need new approaches to leadership and problem solving that are alive our hidden connections and to the complexities that we find most intractable. It’s time for a radical rethink about how we solve our toughest problems.

Further reading

Garnaut, R. (28 May 2013). Ending the great Australian complacency of the early twenty first century. Victoria University 2013 Vice-Chancellor’s Lecture. Melbourne, Australia. Available at: http://research.vu.edu.au/wp/2013/06/ending-the-great-australian-complacency/

Judt, T. (2010). Ill fares the land. London: Penguin Books.

Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S., & Auld, G. (2012). Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: Constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Science, 45, 123-152.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

Sachs, K. (2011). The price of civilization: Economics and ethics after the fall.London: The Bodley Head.

Spratt, D., & Sutton, P. (2008). Climate code red: The case for emergency action. Melbourne: Scribe.

Thompson, D. F. (2010). Representing future generations: Political presentism and democratic trusteeship. Critical Review of International and Political Philosophy, 13(1), 17-37.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. London: Allen Lane.

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