Seminar: Modeling Wicked Problems

November 23rd, 2014

Applying transdisciplinary systems models to problems such as climate change or global food supply gives us useful heuristics while forcing us to think about complexity and to witness nonlinear and counterintuitive outcomes.

Most Anthropocene concerns are “wicked problems”—complex problems that defy a single answer and may never be solved definitively. Applying transdisciplinary systems models to problems such as climate change or global food supply gives us useful heuristics while forcing us to think about complexity and to witness nonlinear and counterintuitive outcomes.

The “wickedness” of Anthropocene concerns arises because the problems it raises are hard to formulate, for several reasons. First, such problems involve competing interests (individual, corporate, state, etc.), each of which holds a different perspective on the nature of the problem. Second, problem framing and solutions to problems are interdependent: what counts as a solution depends on how the problem is framed, and vice versa. Third, the nature of the problem, the constraints, and the available resources can change over time. Finally, efforts to solve one aspect of a wicked problem often create new, unanticipated problems. The Anthropocene is rife with examples of wicked problems. Examples include anthropogenic climate change, loss of biodiversity, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and global food supply. Complex, interlocking feedbacks—both positive and negative—make such problems difficult to understand conceptually and defy simple and effective solutions. These problems also defy experimentation that could lead to a better grasp of potential solutions. The seminar focused on applying systems thinking to wicked problems, which involves gathering knowledge from many disciplines for aggregation at a higher level. Various models were used to work through solving examples of wicked problems. This facilitated a partial, somewhat abstract, but holistic grasp of problems and methods used to seek solutions that require interdisciplinary perspectives.