Solving wicked problems with tweets and blogs

  • Analyst Reports
  • Saturday, 18 Jan 2020

If you think that the world is being thrown into chaos by tweets, look instead into blogs that are truly the thinking behind the policymaker’s mind.

Having helped Boris Johnson win the recent Brexit elections, his senior adviser Dominic Cummings’ blogs have stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy as to why he cannot and should not hire “out-of-the-box” thinkers to help Britain change.

The Warring State Chinese strategist Guiguzi (4th century BC) argued that to understand a ruler, you should look at his closest advisers.

Even though Trump has fired his former strategist, his real Svengali is Steve Bannon, who is able to articulate very consistently what Trump is thinking and acting on. Any leader with a mandate for change faces huge resistance from the vested interests who think that the status quo is still the best option. His or her advisers are therefore the lightning rods to see which way the wind will really blow.

The people want change from what is being preached and what is being delivered.

Almost every community, city or state is facing the same problem worldwide – from Hong Kong, Iran, Britain or the United States.

Brexit showed that the British people do not like the Brussels bureaucracy and want their own sovereignty back.

The Hong Kong protestors do not like Carrie Lam, but do not know how to make her change the policies to deliver what they want.

These are today understood by management consultants and social planners as “wicked problems”.

In the 1970s, system engineers and social policy experts identified wicked problems as those that defy simple solutions.

They won’t go away, and any solution is neither right nor wrong, and even debatable whether better or worse.

Indeed, the solution is reflexive because it depends on how the problem is framed and vice versa. But because all stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem, there is no obvious solution.

Worse, those who are in the best position to address the problem are not only those who caused it, but also those with the least incentive to act quickly.

This is particularly true both of social inequality and climate change. The rich are those who produced the most carbon and created policies of 1% for the 1%.

But since they also control the media, they would be the most critical of any policies that affect their interests and be supportive of any policies that resist change.

Unfortunately, time is running out, as the longer it takes to address the problem, the more complex they become and the harder for any solution.

Wicked problems cannot be solved by standard (or known) methods and will demand creative solutions. But exactly as Carrie, Cummings and all those who want change face, existing agencies and vested interests will not think out of the box.

Indeed, almost everyone will have an opinion on why the solution offered is the wrong one. Only after the fact if the reform is successful, will they all say that they were right along. But if the policies fail, as wicked problems often do, then all knives are out for the reformers. No wonder Cummings want creative thinkers and doers who are willing to act unconventionally, if only to shake everyone’s complacency.

He knows that every politician has only a narrow “honeymoon period”, after which you cannot blame the past leaders, because sitting leaders own not only the past wicked problems, but also wicked consequences of their actions or non-actions.

There are three possible solutions to tame wicked problems: authoritative; competitive; and collaborative. The first vests the responsibility for solving the problems in the hands of a few people. This reductionist approach simplifies the multiple choices, but runs the risk that the small team gets poor feedback on all the perspectives needed to tackle the problem.

The second competitive choice asks for opposing views and solutions, and often this may lead to a “market-based solution”.

The problem is that the adversarial environment ends up with gridlock in opposing parties not willing to share knowledge and working together.

The third collaborative strategy is one preferred by most moderates. You want everyone to work together to find the best possible solution for all stakeholders. Unfortunately with polarised societies, getting anyone to talk together is itself a wicked problem.

Something has got to give.

Wicked problems are sometimes solved by a bigger problem, created to divert attention or just getting new resources.

Julius Caesar solved the toxic politics in Rome by invading Gaul and Egypt that generated new resources not only for the Roman Empire, but strengthened his own political and military power. But as Iran is finding, the threat of war may unify the people, but will not bring additional food on the table. Tweets do the signalling, but blogs offer alternative ideas that become lightning rods, which can test the water on what and how different people think.

You may or may not agree with Dominic Cummings, but every community needs someone like him to provoke different ideas for change.

The alternative is to suffer increasing Post-Trauma Depression Syndrome (PTDS), which according to Lancet, nearly one third of Hong Kong adults are suffering from after months of protests and riots.

Right or wrong, leaders of all communities have to make tough choices, which will never please everyone.

As Genghis Khan understood, you can conquer on a horseback, but you cannot rule from the horseback. In other words, mobs and violence can change order, but cannot create order.

If we don’t solve the wicked problems of our Age, perhaps we will suffer again the 1930s, when the Great Depression ended up with war.

Community leaders will therefore have to consider the real alternatives – compromise and muddle through, or accept only extreme or what you think is the best solution, which ends up with no solution.

But it is not true that “the solution is no solution.” Even final solutions are themselves wicked problems – the final solution is never final.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed are his own.

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