The Tragedy of Super-Wicked Problems

Levin, K.; Cashore, B.; Bernstein, S.; Auld, G.: Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change Policy Sci(2012)45:123–152 DOI10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0.

[A] “super wicked’’ problem [comprises] four key features:

  1. time is running out;
  2. those who cause the problem also seek to provide a solution;
  3. the central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent; and, partly as a result,
  4. policy responses discount the future irrationally.

… Three diagnostic questions result that orient policy analysis toward understanding how to trigger sticky interventions that, through progressive incremental trajectories, entrench support over time while expanding the populations they cover.

This is a well-written and thought-provoking piece, but here I want to consider the application of its ‘new’ approach beyond climate change. The paper considers ‘wicked problems’ that also have the four features above. I think they could be generalized to:

  1. Time and timing are issues: the situation is expected to change before conventional approaches could be applied.
    (There is no requirement that when time ‘runs out’ there is a catastrophe. It may simply be a lost opportunity.)
  2. Those who are seeking to change the situation are influencing those who are giving the situation its current characteristics.
    (Again, there may not be a given ‘problem’. In addition, there may be no clear causality.)
  3. There is no group that has the power to drive change.
    (Not even a loose coalition. And note that not matter how strong a totalitarian regime is, if it cannot ‘grip’ the problem, it has no relevant power.)
  4. Behaviours are too short-term and hence unsustainable.
    (That is, different possible behaviours would have significantly better long-term outcomes, and the short-term focus seems unreasonable.)

The last point seems the most significant: the other three then deny any easy solutions.

The proposed remedy is to try to arrange for:

  • an initial changing population with increasing support overtime.
  • expansion of that population.

It is also helpful if the initial change is ‘sticky’. Corresponding questions are asked:

While it does not follow that answering these questions will always result in the amelioration of super  wicked problems, our point is that asking them may uncover innovative solutions worthy of consideration.

… we focus specifically on policy logics that may trigger and nurture path-dependent processes that lead to transformative change overtime.

The approach is one of:

“progressive incrementalism,’’ where policy development is characterized by steps, which can accumulate … to produce significant results.

The paper suggests the following phenomena should be exploited:

– Lock-in.
– Self-reinforcing.
– Increasing returns.
– Positive feedback: expanding populations and reinforcing original support.

The discourse parallels that of  Senge, particularly if we drop the reference to ‘populations’. All we really need is to identify a niche where we can have some local effect. In the case of the paper this is a population, but in other areas it might not be.

Generally, one wants to create new archetypes, or ’tilt the field’ to favour desired over undesired archetypes. Thus we might rationalize the paper’s approach as follows.

We think of ‘the current situation’ as being a system defined by its interactions. There are also latent interactions, sub-systems and systems. We can influence some of these, leading to a transformed situation, but there is a risk of some unrecognized interaction derailing the process. But undesired sub-systems only arise as a result of positive feedback. Hence we can make tentative interventions we may either succeed in stimulating a new sub-system or we may learn something about the latent processes. Either way, we are making progress. If we have ruled out a ‘big bang’ approach, then some such progressive incrementalism would seem inevitable.

See Also

My notes on complexity.

Turing’s Morphogenesis. One might think that super-wicked problems were something to do with humans. But Turing shows that situations which combine both dispersion and relative ordering (as climate does) will have critical instabilities that become a concern when the system is ‘driven’. Any such situation will be ‘super wicked’ unless there is some long-term strategy. Such a strategy has to include looking out for instabilities, trying to understand the possible futures, and trying to influence them. In Turing’s model the possible future systems are  determined by Senge’s archetypes, and so a strategy to cope with Turing’s instabilities would correspond to that advocated for super-wicked problems. A difference is that for super-wicked problems the strategy ‘may’ – or may not – work. In Turing’s model the strategy will work unless one has a very jittery state in which no archetypes persist. And because the problem is driven by dispersion, relative ordering and drive, one can reduce the chance of such permanent jitteriness as long as one can reduce at least one of the factors. One can look at this as ‘tackling the problem at a higher level’. This is not to say that there will always be an acceptable answer, simply that one identify the possibilities.

Dave Marsay

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