Working through wicked problems: Coronavirus and implications for the future

Working through wicked problems: Coronavirus and implications for the future

“Wicked problems” are the most complex challenges our societies face. The term, first coined in the 1960s by the design theorist Horst W.J. Rittel,[1] describes a “class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”[2] In short, these problems are hard, if not impossible, to solve, as no straightforward “cure all” solution exists. Yet, we have to solve wicked problems because they pose the gravest threats to our societies, health, and wellbeing.

In our blog series, we have reflected on many topics: from the implications of the coronavirus on environmental justice and constitutional rights, to the lessons that can be learned from this experience as it relates to the roles of science and climate change. We have also discussed the impacts of the virus on livelihoods and poverty around the world. What all these blogs have in common, in some way or another, is that they embedded the COVID-19 situation in larger wicked problems, leading to doubley-wicked (i.e. super wicked [3]) problems, as the coronavirus pandemic is itself a wicked problem. It is a threat unlike any other that we have faced before, at least not in our lifetimes. The pandemic’s scale is global, and its cause is globalized. However, our responses have not been global in nature, at least not in a cohesive way.

You might be thinking, not another coronavirus blog! Let’s be clear – the takeaway of this blog is not about the coronavirus. Rather, I would like to use this as an opportunity to reflect on what makes wicked problems so difficult to solve. Below, I outline some characteristics of wicked problems and illustrate their complexities using the coronavirus pandemic as a framing.

This is an important exercise as a more lucid understanding of these problems will inevitably improve our responses when we next confront one, or when we finally turn our attention back to tackling our ‘old’ wicked problems. Because at the end of the day, the elements that make these different problems so wicked are actually quite similar.[4]

Making sense of undefinable problems

Wicked problems are complicated to describe. Every problem is unique. Like a tornado, they are dynamic, unpredictable, and constantly changing. Of course, the threat of COVID-19 to public health is a clear problem. The disease is the “eye” of the tornado and at the center. People are getting sick and dying; over 5.5 million people have gotten sick – a number equal to the entire population of Finland – and 340,000 have died.[5] Families and communities have been greatly affected; the immense loss of each person who has passed and the experiences of their loved ones is immeasurable and cannot be reduced to a statistic. 

At the same time, however, the scope of the problem of the pandemic goes beyond health and affects many aspects of our societies, similar to how a tornado causes damage to its surrounding area. World economies have come to a virtual standstill,[6] unemployment rates in formal and informal sectors have skyrocketed,[7] and people across the globe are starving as a result.[8] Everything – social interactions, government recommendations, knowledge of the disease – changed from one day to the next. In some cases, this happened without warning, clarity, or consistency due to poor leadership,[9] resulting in chaos as occurred when President Trump announced that travel from Europe to the United States would be suspended[10] and India went into sudden lockdown, launching one of the largest internal migrations the country has seen in decades as daily wage laborers, left with no prospects, try to make their way home from the cities to their villages.[11]

Moving away from siloed solutions 

Wicked problems are not one-off problems that arise out of nowhere. They are systemic, building and compounding over time. The coronavirus is not the first contagious disease of its kind to threaten the globe in the 21st century (e.g. Ebola, H1N1, SARS), though it has been one of the most devastating. However, the problem of the pandemic goes much deeper than an unknown strain of a virus. Issues related to the destruction of natural habitats, insecure economic situations, and persistent inequality have both contributed to and exacerbated the current pandemic. 

There are no correct answers to wicked problems. Policymakers trying to solve these problems often face conflicting priorities. What works in one location might not be the best answer for another as demonstrated by the adverse effects of social distancing in countries like Afghanistan. This is likely because of differences in institutional structures, economies, or cultures that must be acknowledged. A coordinated, global response does not necessitate that the response is uniform everywhere.

Furthermore, wicked problems are interconnected and have cross-cutting impacts on each other. On the one hand, they exacerbate preexisting challenges. The coronavirus pandemic has showed us how fragile our institutions are, broadening the inequalities between rich and poor as it disproportionately affects vulnerable and marginalized groups around the world. On the other hand, improving the situation of one wicked problem can help us to avoid the risk of future unknown catastrophes. 

Despite there being no single solution to any wicked problem, it is clear that we need a total systems change and societal transformation. Without a comprehensive mitigation strategy, the domino effects and feedback loops of wicked problems will perpetuate.[12] To achieve this transformation, the underlying drivers of these problems must be seriously addressed with a committed and globally cooperative approach. Despite their limitations, there remains an essential role for organizations like the World Health Organization[13] and other multilateral institutions in facilitating these efforts.[14]

Driving urgent and crucial action

Our societies will survive this coronavirus pandemic. There will be pieces to pick up and damage to repair. We will have to take care of each other, but we will get through it. With other wicked problems, however, there may be no “getting through it” because of the scale of potential damage. One of the best ways to tackle a wicked problem is to approach it early and directly, before it escalates into something worse. We are now presented with an opportunity to learn from these lessons and do better. For example, addressing climate change and working towards sustainability goals will help us prevent future global devastation. It is not too late. In the years to come, let’s not find ourselves asking, “why didn’t we act?” 

As for me, I am hopeful and optimistic. Change is hard, but not impossible. The coronavirus pandemic also showed us that.[15]

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[1] Rittel, H. and Webber, M. (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam.

[2] Churchman, C. W. (1967). Wicked problems. Management Science, 14(4), B141-142.

[3] Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. and Auld, G. (2012). Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sci, 45, 123–152.

[4] Conklin, J. (2006). Dialogue mapping: building shared understanding of wicked problems. Chichester, England: Wiley Publishing. 

[5] Gutierrez, P. (May 25, 2020). Coronavirus world map: which countries have the most cases and deaths? The Guardian. 

[6] Bradsher, K. (April 28, 2020). China’s Factories Are Back. Its Consumers Aren’t. The New York Times. 

[7] Alessi, C. and Hazelton, A. (May 20, 2020). 'Millions facing starvation' - Global political and business leaders on the economic impact of COVID-19. World Economic Forum. 

[8] The Guardian. (April 26, 2020). The Guardian view on coronavirus and hunger: the bigger killer?  The Guardian. 

[9] Taylor, P. (March 25, 2020). Coronavirus brings out best (and worst) in world leaders. Politico. 

[10] Miller, G., Dawsey, J., and Davis, A.C. (May 23, 2020). One final viral infusion: Trump’s move to block travel from Europe triggered chaos and a surge of passengers from the outbreak’s center. The Washington Post. 

[11] Jain, R. (May 25, 2020). India among 10 worst-hit COVID-19 nations as cases jump; air travel reopens. Reuters. 

[12] OECD. (2017). Working with Change Systems approaches to public sector challenges. OECD.

[13] Huang, P. (April 28, 2020). Explainer: What Does The World Health Organization Do? NPR. 

[14] Baunach, L. and Merling, L. (April 15, 2020). Why a strong multilateral response is key to tackling COVID-19. Open Democracy. 

[15] McKibben, B. (May 14, 2020). When Social Distancing Ends, Will We Rethink the World We Want?  Yale Environment 360.