Wicked problems need “wicked cool” solutions

Guest post by Julie Sommerfreund

On September 16th, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Social Innovation Generation’s (SiG) Lab Practitioners Gathering. As a new member with a government perspective, the organizer, Satsuko VanAntwerp (SiG), asked me to blog my reflections on the event, which brought together change lab practitioners to exchange ideas and learn from one another. The event got started with presentations. Monica Pohlman from the United Way, who spoke about their Change Lab in Calgary, and Joeri van den Steenhoven from MaRS Solutions Lab, who discussed their theory of change

I showed up not knowing what to expect but excited to be there. I don’t typically interact with designers and social innovators. But now I’m hoping that this will be the start of a new collaboration because this gathering was really, well, great! Both presenters got me thinking about the new approaches we need to tackle wicked problems like climate change and air quality.

What stuck with me was something that Joeri said: “You can only really understand what the problem is once you try solving it. This is the definition of a wicked problem.” This quote sent my head spinning. How were governments, which are usually mired in process, structure, and risk-averse decision-making, ever going to tackle the wicked problems of our society?

In government, the approach to decision-making is very methodical and based on rigorous assessment of the evidence of the problem and a thorough review of possible solutions. These solutions are often based on what other jurisdictions have done in the past and tweaked to their local condition. Although this process does yield positive results, it can be a continuation of the status quo or a siloed prescriptive approach. It doesn’t usually leave room for trying to tackle a problem before really understanding it, as this quote suggests.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that our society is challenged by these complex, interconnected, wicked problems. These problems don’t respect the government’s silos, so we can’t rely on linear inquiry to solve them. Instead we will need a much broader more integrated approach. So where does that leave us?

At the SiG event, it was suggested that governments alone cannot solve the problems of society. And that they need to move away from the idea of solutions “for the people” towards solutions that are created “with the people” by using the collective innovative brain power, resources, and levers to change our systems.

Approaches like innovation labs, design thinking, and change labs are some of the methods being used to turn that concept into a reality. These approaches seek to bring together diverse parts of society to develop custom solutions.

As these concepts develop and are put into practice in Canada, I encourage my fellow government employees and not-for-profit colleagues to explore these concepts in their own problem solving. We all need to be a part of this process to create the incredible system changes needed to improve our societies.

Since attending this event, I have been thinking about how to apply these concepts in my own work, in particular with the ChemTRAC program. ChemTRAC aims to reduce the releases of air pollutants from businesses in Toronto. ChemTRAC has three main strategies:

  • A bylaw that requires local facilities to annually track and report on the use and release of priority substances.
  • Supports for local facilities to implement pollution prevention and
  • Public disclosure of the data collected through the bylaw.

Over the last year, I have been working with other City divisions and a panel of businesses to design a program that will support Toronto businesses in implementing pollution prevention (p. 25 of http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2013/hl/bgrd/backgroundfile-59180.pdf).  The main focus has been identifying the role of the City and what the City can do to help businesses make reductions. After attending this event, I now wonder if we should be looking at designing the solution “with the people,” so to speak. Instead of focusing on what the City can do, perhaps we could invite more groups into the solutions development and implementation if we used a change lab approach. This would be a great way to leverage more resources and create a movement of change, instead of narrowing down what the City can do.

What do you think? How would the different approaches impact your work?

Julie Sommerfreund, Health Promotion Consultant

These are my opinions and do not reflect those of my organization.

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One Response to Wicked problems need “wicked cool” solutions

  1. garber brothers says:

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    specialists of this sector do not understand this.
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    base already!

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