Why We Can’t Solve Our Biggest Problems

Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity
7 min readNov 1, 2021

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This is the third in an occasional series of pieces on understanding complexity.

It has been said the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. True enough, though the strategic limitations of rodents notwithstanding, it is humans who have a harder time coping with a seemingly relentless onslaught of troubles. Consider recent events. Hopes for returning to pre-pandemic normalcy were dashed by the Delta variant. Efforts to combat climate change literally went up in smoke. Twenty years of nation building in Afghanistan collapsed in a matter of days.

What these and like dilemmas have in common is they are all “wicked problems.” Coined in the 1970s by design theorist Horst Rittel, the term denotes the kinds of complex challenges that arise in tumultuous social settings. Rittel didn’t mean they were necessarily evil, but largely unmanageable. Unlike conventional or what he dubbed “tame” problems that can be sufficiently recognized and remedied, their wicked counterparts cannot be effectively resolved. The reasons for which are equally complex.

To the Contrary

Even the most daunting tame problems can be clearly stated, and their solutions agreed upon by almost all involved. Wicked problems, on the other hand, affect diverse groups of stakeholders, generally with divergent perspectives and competing agendas.

Regarding the coronavirus, there certainly are legitimate differences of opinion among reputable authorities. This is good since it generates new information and insights. But attitudes toward the disease are also reflective of deep political and cultural divides. According to the Pew Research Center, “the biggest takeaway about U.S. public opinion in the first year of the coronavirus outbreak may be the extent to which the decidedly nonpartisan virus met with an increasingly partisan response. Democrats and Republicans disagreed over everything from eating out in restaurants to reopening schools.”

The disputes have continued, and so has the virus. This was especially true in places like Florida, where governor Ron DeSantis repeatedly muddied the facts and played political football with constituents’ lives, despite weeks of record-breaking numbers of deaths. Not only did he vigorously push back against preventive measures like vaccine and mask mandates, but his new surgeon general penned op-eds in the Wall Street Journal echoing the boss’s sentiments, and publicly promoted unproven treatments.

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

Regardless of such interference, diagnosing wicked problems is confounding. Whereas goals and strategies of tame problems may not be immediately apparent, as in a game of chess, they ultimately emerge. In many forms of risk, for example, the success of decisions or behaviors can be determined over time. This is possible because the assumption-to-knowledge ratio (what must be guessed versus what is clearly understood) is reasonably low. Accordingly, an appropriate fix can usually be applied.

Uncertain, however, is the environment where wicked problems take shape. This is the domain of unknown unknowns: difficulties that cannot be identified or even imagined in advance. The principle of contingency is also a factor. Here, a “necessary fact” is one where the outcome of an occurrence is inevitable (the sun will rise in the morning); while the upshot of a “contingent fact” is dependent on any number of variables (there is no guarantee it will rain then, too.) Consequently, the ratio of assumption to knowledge goes way up, and the odds of correctly addressing an issue drop considerably.

In the early days of what was then labeled a “novel virus” pandemic, speculation was rife and frequently wrong. In January of 2020, the World Health Organization tweeted China’s claim that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Later, in March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, predicted Covid 19 could kill 100,000 to 200,000 Americans, and said preparing for one million to two million deaths was “almost certainly off the chart.”

Still, not all wicked problems are inherently unknowable. Sometimes they are deliberately obscured. Americans may not have been as shocked by the fall of Afghanistan if they had been given all the facts. But as Washington Post journalist Craig Whitlock showed in his book The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War — and the Post itself uncovered in hundreds of previously confidential memos — three successive administrations and their military commanders deceived the public about the conflict. Sadly, they deluded themselves as well. Interviews with more than 400 generals, diplomats, aid workers, and Afghan officials revealed that the government’s positive proclamations belied nearly two decades of flawed policies. Admitted one member of the U.S. top brass: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing… We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

Smoke from a Distant Fire

Having failed in Afghanistan, those responsible will try to limit the fallout. But as Rittel noted in his original thesis, every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem. This type of interconnection makes it impractical to successfully contain the disaster. The Taliban victory, for example, will likely hearten extremist groups across the region. It will also rattle nations farther away. European leaders worry the resulting refugee crisis will embolden populist agitators there.

Whatever the calamities engendered by Afghanistan, they pale compared to the chaos created by climate change. Chaos theory is the study of complex systems where small variations at the start of a problem can become increasingly troublesome over time. It is most notably exemplified by the butterfly effect, which proffers that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off tornadoes in Texas.

With respect to climate change, a flame ignited in California endangered lives of citizens as far away as New York, and caused thousands of Covid-19 infections and hundreds of deaths. Wildfires and other such earthly disruptions produce their own weather by sending tons of pollutants into the upper atmosphere, and the jet stream carries them yonder to where they can trigger other misfortunes. In Afghanistan, where the population has already endured decades of warfare and political and social strife, climate change will bring prolonged drought that will further threaten their livelihoods and swell the number of refugees.

Never-Ending Story

Closure is a word rarely associated with wicked problems. As Rittel explained, there are no stopping rules. No mission accomplished. Because of their complex interdependencies, they play out like a game of whack-a-mole, in which efforts to subdue one predicament provokes others elsewhere.

Since its initial appearance, Covid 19 has exacerbated preexisting wicked problems. More than two million women have exited the workforce, reversing the direction of gender equality. The share of Americans living in poverty has increased to over 11 percent, as billionaires have enhanced their wealth by 55 percent, sharply widening the gap between rich and poor.

The back end of pandemic has also stirred up problems in its wake. An unexpectedly strong rebound in consumer activity has collided with years of lean production, crippling supply chains. At the same time, a 40 percent increase in virus-related resignations has weakened the workforce. The resulting inability to meet demand is inflating the cost of living.

Most disturbing is what is still unknown. Based on the best-case scenario — seldom reliable with wicked problems — this will be an easier covid winter. But less than five percent of people in low-income countries have received even a single dose of vaccine, which makes them breeding grounds for new variations. The Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants all originated in other parts of the world. Each more virulent than its predecessor. And with the lowest vaccination rate among rich nations — lower than places like Uruguay and Mongolia as well — the United States is a potential target for another outbreak.

A Step in the Right Direction

Wicked problems are formidable even in the best of times, and these are hardly the best of times. Indeed, if progress is three steps forward and two steps back, society has been backpedaling for some time now. The first step to solving any problem, however, is to understand it. Far easier said than done when politicians and their supporters deliberately mislead; corporations hide their transgressions behind inscrutable algorithms; and the news media exploit anger and discord rather than provide meaningful context to critical issues.

Even when presented with accurate facts, many in authority choose to ignore them. In a 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates warned that the world was “not ready for the next pandemic;” and in 2016 reportedly advised President Donald Trump of the danger. Thirty-six years earlier, scientists first forecast global warming, which has only recently gotten anywhere near the attention is has long deserved.

But the greatest obstacle to successfully managing wicked problems may be human nature. The current spate of troubles is an ongoing hodgepodge of political conflict, economic imbalance, social bias, technological disruption, and environmental degradation. They are complex, erratic, uncertain, and virtually impossible to predict. As such, they cannot be isolated from one another, nor settled separately.

Nonetheless, the prevailing approach to problem solving is still binary, linear, and reliant on simple links between cause and effect; and doing otherwise requires very different ways of thinking about the world. Alas, compared to mice, which are a remarkably adaptable species, humans can be particularly obstinate creatures. Yet, as they have done so many times before, they may somehow muddle through. And perhaps that is the best that can be hoped for.

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Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity

Making complex ideas easier to access, understand, and use