Social messes and wicked problems

I was having lunch yesterday with Adam Leach, head of the charity Y Care International, which has helped me come to the conclusion that businesses held the trump cards in solving the world’s problems more than the third sector. He introduced me to the notion of “wicked problems” which if I have understood correctly (by which I mean I hope the Wikipedia explanation is correct) are ones that are so complex that there is no single way of solving them.  They’re everywhere around us, from Brexit to The Labour Party.

Tackling poverty was though the basis of this discussion and of course if there had been a proven model over centuries of charities and their philanthropist backers would have been able to bottle it and pass it on. There’s a book by Paul Polman called “The Business Solution to Poverty” which talks about how if western businesses viewed what they call “the bottom billions” as their next target market they would be able to capitalise on new ways to drive their bottom lines.

There’s something slightly distasteful about looking at how to make money out of the world’s poorest people as the start point in the accumulation of future sources of our wealth rather than theirs, which takes this discussion into the realms of “super wicked problems”. It’s slightly bizarre to see that people have written books and papers creating and defining these terms but it’s best we don’t let that effort go to waste and instead see how we can use them to provide more focussed  thinking to better guide our well intentioned desires and concerns.

Complex problems are also defined as “social messes” as we become gripped by our inability to tackle them due to the huge obstacles in doing so. But I wonder if a better clue lies in the term itself. If society (us) has created these messes, then we should be able to trace our steps back to see how they can be un-done. I feel a new piece of social meddling coming along. Thank you Adam – though I don’t think you will be thankful back to some of the conclusions I imagine will come to.

About Iqbal Wahhab

Founder of Roast Restaurant, Borough Market.
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