Wicked problem theory has fascinating implications when it comes to sustainability and climate change. Can its teachings lead corporate progress? Wicked problems of corporate sustainability are becoming widely understood as a way to tackle vexing, complex challenges, but not every business will be familiar with the terminology.
In planning and policy, a ‘wicked problem’ is defined as one that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. Design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term in 1973 to draw attention to the complexities and challenges of addressing planning and social policy problems.
In effect a ‘wicked problem’ cannot be fixed, because there is no single solution; ‘wicked’ denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.
If not already apparent, wicked problems are highly relevant to the climate debate. Is climate change difficult or even impossible to solve? Yes. Is it difficult to recognise? Yes, naysayers continue to deny its existence and scientists have for years battled to define its impacts.
Does climate change have incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements? Yes it does; our science on the pace of change is incomplete, contradictory arguments suggest the best approaches we must take and the climate itself changes daily.
Finally, climate change isn’t fixed, another wicked problem criterion. There is no single solution, and solving one aspect of climate change might easily reveal or create other issues because climate is interdependent and complex.
Evidently then, climate change is almost the definition of a wicked problem. It is also the top challenge for today’s corporate adaptation.
So, we know climate change is wicked. How does that help us?
Wicked Problems and the Art of the Imperfect
Consider a few more wicked problem characteristics. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem; climate always evolves. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem; perhaps industrialisation or capitalism in the case of climate change.
The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution; also true, for those who deny climate change, no resolution or action is even required.
Consider this; classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behaviour is likely to be a wicked problem.
Therefore, many standard examples of wicked problems come from the areas of public planning and policy. These include global climate change, natural hazards, healthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug trafficking, nuclear weapons, homelessness, and social injustice.
Climate change can also be called a ‘super wicked’ problem, because it hits these criteria too; there is a significant time deadline on finding the solution, there is no central authority dedicated to finding a solution, those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it (every corporate in existence) and certain policies irrationally impede future progress.
This might all seem bleak and hopeless. But it isn’t at all. Because the core of understanding wicked problems is to understand no perfect solution exists. That what we require is aspirational, evolving action that can adapt to changing circumstance and accepts there may be no final endgame.
When you apply this imperfect mindset to climate change and corporates, intriguing opportunities begin to reveal themselves.
The opportunity of imperfection
The key is this. Once corporate strategic planners realise they cannot implicitly solve or definitively manage climate change, the question becomes about best management practice and mitigation, adaptation and evolution.
These are far more powerful tools than endless definitive arguments seeking the best approach with a final solution. Why? You can deploy adaptive tools far more quickly. If there is no defining, perfect solution out there then there is also no one to shoot down against risible targets. What becomes important is getting something valuable done, not endlessly debating while no action is ever taken.
And that’s vital for corporates and climate change, because time to adapt to a climate-driven world is short and business is fast paced.
The upshot is this. Wicked problems teach us we can never find definitive solutions. We must give up on perfection. What’s more valuable is getting on with something positive and evolving that in pursuit of the best outcomes now. What could be more meaningful to a corporate seeking to adapt their operation to Net Zero or climate change.
Let’s look at some examples of what corporates could be doing that matches wicked problem theory and climate change.