Wickedness in our systems

This post was written for Molly Steenson’s Seminar I: Interaction & Service Design Concepts 2016, CMU School of Design.

Back in 2008, I applied to and was chosen to be part of the United Nations Global Millennium Development Goal summit, that took place in Mumbai. There were almost 300 people from all over the world that had come to take part in the MDG, which ran as workshops and seminars for 5 days. We were introduced to the 8 “Millennium Development Goals” that the UN had created in the year 2000 in an effort to improve the lives of the poorest people around the world. In 5 days, we did extensive research as groups targeting each of the goals, but with the focus in mind that we are not here to solve them, just to create awareness about them and create possible solution scenarios in context with where we were living. After being a part of this summit, many people asked me if we had found any solutions to the MDG’s? No, we didn’t. In those 5 days, we understood that each of the MDG’s were so intense and complicated that there was not one single reason for their existence and similarly there was also not a single solution to end them. If the scenarios were so undefinable, what was the UN trying to achieve then?

Summary of achievements of the MDG’s. Source: UNDP

Between 1990 and 2002 average overall incomes increased by approximately 21 percent. The number of people in extreme poverty declined by an estimated 130 million 1. Child mortality rates fell from 103 deaths per 1,000 live births a year to 88. Life expectancy rose from 63 years to nearly 65 years. An additional 8 percent of the developing world’s people received access to water. And an additional 15 percent acquired access to improved sanitation services.The world has made significant progress in achieving many of the Goals. But the progress that the world has seen has not been uniform. Some countries have had better luck dealing with these problems than others, leading to a much wider outbreak of these problems in the targeting regions. Within countries, poverty is greatest for rural areas, though urban poverty is also extensive, growing, and underreported by traditional indicators.(1)

Today, I realize that the UN has been trying to solve a series of wicked problems. Since 2015 they have reinvented the MDGs as Sustainable developments goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.These 17 Goals build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals while including new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, among other priorities. The goals are interconnected — often the key to success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another.(2)
Transitioning from the MDGs to the SDGs. Source: UNDP
17 new SDG’s by the United Nations. Source: UNDP

One of the new SDG’s is targeted on sustainable cities and communities. That, to me, is the system apex of wicked problems. Lets take the example of Mumbai city and its long history with traffic.

What are the challenges in addressing the traffic situation in Mumbai?

Mumbai is the commercial capitol of India. What started out as a tiny island to a formation of islands with reclaimed land, is now a thriving city of 232.8 mi² and a population of around 20.5 million in 2010. Fortunately for Mumbai, which tarted out as an industrial and portland city, it has a large network of public transportation in place. However, the city was not planed for its large population, and its growth has been haphazard at most. It does not enjoy the grid system city planning which has been in place for cities like Manhattan. The major causes of traffic are:

Rise of private cars : Mumbai being a linear extension city, has limited road space and immense traffic. Current estimates indicate that over 400 motorized vehicles are added to Mumbai’s streets every day. Statistics by state transport ministries show Mumbai has 430 cars/km of road. In six years there has been a 56% rise in private cars, which occupy 85% of road space and are an impediment for growth of public transport. There are 8.6 lakh private cars in the city at present.(4) With the rise of india’s GDP, there have been a new formation of higher middle economic population — and this is the target group that can now afford cars on loan with comfortable EMIs of Rs 5,000–8,000 for a hatchback.

Degradation of Public Transport Systems: Public transport in Mumbai involves the transport of millions of its citizens by train, road and water. Over 88% of the commuters in Mumbai use public transport. Mumbai has the largest organized bus transport network among major Indian cities. But it fails in terms of travel time. With the rise of private vehicles, public transportation travel time is estimated anywhere between 10km/hour to 8km/hour depending on peak times. The bus transport system has difficulty staying afloat in the face of increasing fuel costs and accumulating losses.The agency owns a fleet of over 4,700 buses, which serve 365 city routes along 70,000 km daily. Not all of these buses are run daily due to a lack of road space; with a portion of the fleet being grounded in depots each day. With 11.2 employees per bus, the agency has the highest employee to bus ratio in India.(4)

Traffic Police Intervention: With more and more vehicles constantly being added to the city streets, the major problem for traffic management in Mumbai is enforcement. Given the high volumes of traffic, there is always a shortage of policemen manning junctions and main roads. At any given time, the traffic police have more than 1,000 policemen on duty manning roads and junctions.(4)

Traffic Data Mumbai. Source: Numbeo

Parking: With capacity to accommodate parking for barely 15 per cent of the number of four-wheelers registered in the city, illegal parking on footpaths and roads have led to deaths of pedestrians and disrupted traffic movements in the city. Parking problems, identified as a prime concern by the Mumbai traffic police, are set to worsen over the next two years if unchecked.(7)

Infrastructure: Even though Mumbai is a mega city, its infrastructure lacks basic amenities. With no legal parking areas to accomodate the vehicles on the road, we see cars being parked illegally on footpaths and main roads. not only does this disrupt traffic movements in the city but is also a major contributor to pedestrian deaths. The traffic network in the city is flawed, with non-functioning signals and misplaced signs. Pedestrians cross the roads walking in between vehicles as most of the zebra crossing zones have vanished. Potholes and broken roads are common, leading to more accidents and deaths in the past few years.

Source: Indiatimes
What solutions are the city officials looking at to ease traffic congestion?

A wicked problem has a wicked solution — something that eases the solution before actually building up on it, and provides little to no relief.

Looking at the ongoing system of traffic congestion in Mumbai, the government has taken certain actions.

Introduction of the monorail: India’s first monorail was launched in February 2014.It was publicized as a technological revolution for the country, looking to ease transport systems for its citizens. However, the first phase route is of hardly any use for majority of Mumbai commuters. The daily ridership is poor (about 18,000 every day) and it is being jokingly called tourist train by Mumbaikars. Often questions are being asked over the utility of the project. Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the agency that is building the monorail, is now expecting to complete the work on second phase and make it operational early in 2018. Nobody knows whether the ridership will increase after that.(5)

Coastal Road: Mumbai is planning to build a coastal road along its western edge. Most of the politicians and traffic experts claim this as the only solution to ease traffic congestion in the city. Being a city which has one of the lowest per capita open spaces in the world, waterfront areas like Girgaum Chowpatty, Juhu Beach, Bandra Bandstand, though varying in their size and quality, offer every Mumbaikar an opportunity to connect with the sea. The Coastal Road now threatens to take away even this remaining access to the water. More so, like flyover’s constructed in every city, the coastal road only encourages more use of private vehicles. This causes an immense loop relationship to the traffic problem.


A city is such a complex system — we can think of them as machines, ecosystems or as a living organism. It is integrated with various layers of individualistic links which form a whole. And humans are at the core.

So how can we establish our existing cities and communities as sustainable ecosystems?

(1)UN Millenium Project

(2)UNDP

(3)Arun Maira,Global solutions for India’s biggest cities

(4)Cityfix

(5)TimeofIndia