Problem Solving in Complex Adaptive Systems

It is important to distinguish between understanding complex problems and solving them. Solving problems in complex adaptive systems can be quite difficult and often intractable. Climate change, global warming and their consequences provide a compelling example.

The science seems clear in terms of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. The relationship between warming and fires, hurricanes, and flooding, due in part to increased ocean temperatures, seems we’ll understood.

The solutions to this problem include lowering emissions and mitigating the impacts of fires, hurricanes and flooding. On the longer term, it is a bit more complicated, e.g., rising temperatures making the southeastern US uninhabitable for humans, animals and crops some time between 2040 and 2060.

The solutions involve decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels, not building in flood zones, and better management of the environment, e.g., wetlands and forests. Are we really ready and willing to do this?  It will require mobilizing the economy and society — government, industry, and the workforce — for major changes, indeed transformation of the economy and society.

Pursuit of this agenda requires understanding the nature of the complex adaptive socioeconomic system involved.  This system is populated with intelligent agents – individuals, organizations and associations – that learn about and adapt to studies, strategies, policies, incentives, and regulations to “game” the system to the advantage of their organizations and themselves.

Horst Rittel, almost five decades ago, characterized addressing such systems as wicked problems.  A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem laced with incomplete or contradictory knowledge, large numbers of people and opinions involved, substantial economic burdens, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Problems such as poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness – and climate change — plague our nation and our world.

Consider Rittel’s ten characteristics of wicked problems:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation.  Climate change cannot be fully addressed by “just” attending to carbon emissions.
  2. It is difficult to measure or claim success with because of connections among problem where boundaries cannot be defined.  Climate change involves issues across the environment, governments, industries and populations.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not correct or incorrect. There is no idealized end state for climate so approaches involve tractable ways to improve the situation rather than solve it.
  4. There are no best practices when tackling wicked problems, although history may provide a guide. Approaching climate change is likely to require making things up along the way.
  5. There are always multiple explanations for wicked problems, with the appropriateness of explanations depending greatly on the perspective stakeholders.  Climate change is a threat to several industries and workforces.
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of other problems. The interconnected nature of socioeconomic systems illustrates how education interacts with health, employment and lifestyles.
  7. Solution strategies for wicked problems have no definitive validity tests because humans created wicked problems and natural science approaches are inadequate for addressing whether climate change is fixed.
  8. Solutions to wicked problems frequently involve a single chance of success because significant interventions change the problem space enough to limit the ability for trial and error optimization of solutions.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.  One will never encounter the same problem twice in the complex adaptive system of climate change, as key stakeholders will have reacted to earlier interventions, often precipitating new problems.

10. Policy decision makers attempting to address wicked problems must be empowered to act fully responsible for their actions.  Climate policies that significantly affect large populations and industries should be well informed, well communicated, and amenable to learning and improvement.

Based on these characteristics, problems have indeterminate scope and scale. Social problems such as inequality, political instability, death, disease, or famine tend to be wicked. A key role for problem solvers involves mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions. This mitigation is not an easy, quick, or solitary exercise and demands interdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, perseverance.

Let’s apply this thinking to addressing climate change.  This ecosystem can be characterized as a multi-level enterprise where the levels for this domain are people, processes, organizations, and government.  The perspectives and proclivities of stakeholders at each level include:

  • Government:  Elected officials have great difficulty trading off short-term versus long-term costs and benefits, due to a large extent to the concerns, values and perceptions of their constituents – citizens and companies.
  • Organizations: The vested interests in energy extraction, refinement, and use are enormous and are naturally inclined to sustain status quo business models, and the benefits these models provide to these organizations.
  • Processes: Processes for extracting, refining, and utilizing fossil fuels are well developed, employ millions of people, and represent trillions of dollars of stock market capitalization.
  • People: People have long exploited natural resources and come to depend on the benefits of these resources in terms of both consumption and employment.  Changing consumption habits is very difficult.

So, addressing climate change is clearly a wicked problem.  What might we aspire to accomplish in transforming this system? Here are three priorities:

  • Regulations to reduce emissions of carbon and methane
  • Regulations to eliminate coal-fired power plants
  • Regulations to eliminate building or rebuilding in flood planes

As noted above, key stakeholders are likely to invest substantially to thwart such regulations, with lobbyists generously facilitating campaign contributions to Members of Congress willing to join the anti-regulation chorus.

Significant investments in communications and education will be needed to gain public support.  Substantial incentives will also be needed to compensate those most affected by these regulations.  Examples include:

  • Investment tax credits for extraction companies, as well as broader industry, investing in climate-friendly offerings
  • Investment tax credits for those moving capital from extraction companies to climate-friendly technology investments
  • Incentives for transportation companies to shift investments to climate-friendly mobility offerings

These types of incentives will only indirectly benefit the workers displaced by these regulations.  Thus, investments will also be needed to accelerate the creation of new jobs, particularly skilled technical workforce jobs.  Further investments, likely in community colleges, will be to train or retrain large numbers of people for these jobs.  Elsewhere, I have estimated that community college capacities will need to be tripled.

A key issue is the time profile of introducing these regulations, incentives, and investments. Regulations could be phased in over 5 years.  Incentives and investments could begin now and continue for 10 years or more. The results would be slow changes, but anticipated changes that stakeholders could plan for over time.

What would be the costs of all these changes?  To put this question in perspective, consider the costs of mitigating the impacts of climate change.  In an earlier post, I noted that the costs of mitigating floods resulting from global warming would, within ten years or so, require annually 10% of global GDP.  If we add in the impacts of fires, droughts, and other weather related impacts, the costs of NOT changing completely dwarf the costs of the proposed changes.

The immediate next steps involve building an increasing constituency for addressing the wicked problem associated with our complex adaptive socioeconomic system.  We need, over time, for everyone to own climate change challenges and, similarly, own the solutions.

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