Paul Coughlan Professor in Operations Management at Trinity Business School, and Ana de Almeida Kumlien, Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, map out a potential framework to navigate through ‘wicked’ problems.
From the paper “Wicked problems and how to solve them”
Taming wicked problems
Not all problems are equal – some are more roguish than others. The concept of ‘wicked’ problems, as opposed to ‘tame’ problems, emerged during the 1970s. A tame problem can generally be solved by selecting and applying the correct algorithm, like in the case of mathematical problems or puzzles. If you fancy a game of chess, you probably have a knack for solving tame problems. But then there are the rather convoluted problems which do not come with a playbook for optimal solutions. These are the ‘wicked’ problems. They encompass issues that are so complex that it is difficult to grasp what exactly the problem is, let alone find a complete solution to the problem.
How does one approach problems of food security, increasing antibiotic resistance, global warming or even wars, for that matter? You would probably be grappling with a tangled mess of thread, wondering which to pull first! Water problems are one such mob of wicked problems which have been researched for long. Keeping the water supply running smoothly despite dilapidated water networks, bursting pipes, leakages and hosepipe bans is an omnipresent problem all over the world. Even geographies with seemingly abundant water reserves can be plagued by small changes in rainfall patterns.
Let’s take the example of Ireland. Last summer, it experienced less than adequate rainfall which led to a dry spell that could only be compared to the one in 1976. As the country’s water reservoirs fell to low levels, the authorities issued warnings of an imminent crisis. Now this was a problem which was linked not just to a particularly dry summer but to multiple other factors such as increased water demand, nearly 50% water leakage and a chronic under-investment in water distribution systems. So, how do we tame this problem?
When science and management join forces
When it comes to solving this water crisis in Ireland, the first instinct is to call for more investment in researching water technologies. But that really isn’t the answer here. Research is certainly the obligatory precursor to technology, but sometimes research does not necessarily lead to innovations that see the light of day. There is a common cycle of research and development that typically transpires in universities: researchers identify a problem, compete for funding and then explore potential solutions to the problem. From there on, however, several factors get in the way of applying research findings to real life conundrums. Academics often lack the guidance and incentive to apply their research. The urge to get published usually surpasses the desire to make a meaningful contribution to society or business.
A more realistic approach to this complex problem would be to combine inputs from multiple academic disciplines with relevant practical expertise. In fact, interdisciplinary research is an essential aspect of recent EU and UK policies, and they foster an environment for innovation in tackling wicked problems. And that is exactly how the issue of water reservoir depletion is being handled in Ireland. An interdisciplinary project has been initiated on water supply, spearheaded by engineers, and environmental, geography and management researchers who are working together with a network of industry and water authorities. While the engineers, geographers and environmental scientists develop field trials of new technology, the management researchers bring the right people together to ensure adoption becomes reality. These researchers are more invested in trying to decode the thought processes of water authorities, users and corporates. What motivates these stakeholders? Only through critical reflection on their decision-making process can the researchers develop means to overcome the barriers these stakeholders are currently facing.
It is evident that without the management researchers, the work of the scientists would probably gather dust on the shelves of some obscure lab. Conversely, neither should we underestimate the power of science and technology in addressing wicked problems.
Innovation, without adoption, is futile
Interdisciplinary research, while essential, is not sufficient to tackle wicked problems by itself. In order to make a significant dent in the global water and energy problem, and indeed any other grave issue, researchers need to step out of the lab and work hand-in-hand with industry, local communities, decision-makers and legislators. Working in a silo can never ensure adoption of a new technology. Early adopters coming from all walks of the community are invaluable for testing out initial prototypes. Researchers have a lot to learn, and improve upon if necessary, from the feedback of early adopters. A specialised task force should be dedicated to dive deep into the insights generated from early adopters and then brainstorm on ways to exploit the opportunities and overcome potential barriers. The very nature of wicked problems is such that the more one attempts to resolve it, the more the issue reveals itself. Industry members, policymakers, users, practitioners and other researchers need to collaborate and share their evolving understanding of the wicked problem in order to reach a solution which is at least satisfactory, if not perfect.
Back to school
There are some other ways to speed up technology adoption as well. One such way is the intuitively simple practice of “show-and-tell” which all of us are familiar with, thanks to those good old days in elementary school. A demonstrator can be engaged to show-and-tell a new technology to early adopters. While demonstration is a concept broadly explored by industry, it is often overlooked by researchers. And that is a pity because demonstration sites are like open air labs that enable practitioners and researchers to interact, debate and co-create. We can look at UNESCO for some inspiration. UNESCO has been facilitating its long-term eco hydrology initiatives using demonstration sites to teach local communities how to be more resilient, healthy and sustainable. Such sites also have the potential to apply new research effectively by highlighting savings and advantages, and mapping out the obstacles to be overcome.
Not so wicked anymore
In a nutshell, research on new technology alone will not resolve wicked problems. In fact, laboratory prototypes rarely reach real world end users. What is needed, instead, is for researchers to work across disciplines, collaborate with all relevant stakeholders and engage in show-and-tell demonstration sites.
For the Irish case in point, an interdisciplinary team is already working together to restore normal water supply. At the same time, it is working with three demonstration sites. The first recovers energy from the water distribution network in a small Irish rural community for use in its water treatment plant. The second is in a National Trust property in Wales and is using micro-hydropower to run this national monument. The third is also located in a National Trust landmark called Penrhyn Castle, where heat is recovered from kitchen wastewater. Wicked problems, by definition, cannot have a panacea. But let’s hope that with these practices in place, the ideas developed in the lab to solve the crisis in Ireland, will see the light of day.
- Browse Prof. Paul Coughlan and Ana de Almeida Kumlien’s academic profiles
- Discover Trinity Business School
- Download this article and more in Global Voice magazine special Europe focus.
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