The 2 opposing tech forces behind the world’s biggest problems – and why we shouldn’t try to solve them

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about two massive opposite forces in technology which are the root cause of a great many interconnected and really Big problems. Yes, I call...

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November 26, 2019
SDG & Sustainability

In fact, mistaking these “wicked” (wicked does not mean 'bad' here, I’ll explain later) problems for solvable challenges is only what’s making them bigger. Here’s why.

Force 1 – Simplification

Our brains are amazingly intricate ‘computing’ structures. So it could be conceived as ironic that they should be so ill-equipped to deal with non-linearities and that - in order to cope with the complexity of reality – they have evolved to become supersynthesizers which, according to Bernie Caessens (who introduced me to this term) “quickly classify reality in a limited and controllable discrete set of possibilities”. In short, they simplify all the data that they process into something that they can grasp, but which is not always necessarily a correct representation of the ‘hot mess’ that is reality.

Now, personalized technologies - fake news messages, deepfakes, and even ‘harmless’ AI-driven recommendations or filter bubbles - feed (on) this bias. They are what Polidori was to Byron and Shelley’s hunger for opium; the big enablers. But instead of opium, they push simplicity. They are the yes-men in our lives, telling us over and over that:

  • Yes, our opinions are true
  • Yes, we should buy that dress
  • Yes, our reality is the one true reality

So our brain’s own craving for linearity and simplicity is continuously fed and increased by the permanent confirmation that our own small and simple set of values and beliefs are the Truth, with a capital T. And that the complex set of beliefs, values and opinions that live in the heads of our 7.7 fellow humans are not. (Well, if they are different from ours, that is.) In a very real way, technology automates our opinions, and takes away our ability to think in a critical manner.

On top of that, tech has evolved to become the great remover of friction: everything around us is becoming so much smoother, more uncomplicated because of it. And that’s great, right? Remember (if you’re old enough) what it took to open a bank account? Or buy tickets to a Sonic Youth concert? Today, that’s just one click. In cashierless Amazon Go stores, you don’t even have to wait in line to pay, or take out your money.

This “simplifying force” manages our expectations, of course: we have come to believe that all friction can be removed and that everything can be simplified and solved. Obviously, these expectations will not just stay in the realm of commercial exchanges. We have come to measure education, work and government behaviour against these exact same metrics: we want our educators, employers and governments alike to make everything personal, easy and simple, too.

And there’s the rub.

Force 2 – Complexification

Enter the world wide web, or The Great Connector as I call it (ok, that’s a lie, I never call it that), in 1989.

As it started to link all the existing ‘simple’ computing entities into a network, it created a complex system that founding executive editor of Wired magazine and author of “What Technology Wants” Kevin Kelly likes to call “The Technium” (and he really does call it that). Kelly believes that a complex system “wants” something very different than a simple single entity. According to him, the Technium wants exactly the same as what any living organism wants: it has the fundamental desire to survive and to grow.

We have come to expect simple solutions to ultra-complex problems.

But, however much I respect Kelly’s view, that’s not what I want to discuss. What’s important here is that the problems that emerge in such a complex connected system bear the exact same characteristics as their mothership: they are just as interlinked, interacting, volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) as the system they were born in.

So if we add Force 1 to Force 2, we get this:

  1. technology has made our environment more connected and complex than ever;
  2. and at the same time, it pushed our natural expectations and responses towards even more simplicity.

That’s bad news, because it means that we have come to expect simple solutions to ultra-complex problems.

You might see how that is a pickle.

An increasingly wicked problem

But let’s take a detour, first, to the realm of the wicked problems. I first heard the term in an a16z podcast, and I was immediately fascinated.

Though the phrase was already in use as of in 1967, German design theorist Horst Rittel and American an urban designer and theorist Melvin M. Webber formalized the concept of wicked problems in a 1973 treatise, contrasting "wicked" problems in social planning with relatively "tame", soluble problems in for instance mathematics, chess, or puzzle solving which do have a clear answer.

Rittel and Webber identified ten properties that distinguished these wicked problems:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem: The problem of poverty in Texas is grossly similar but discretely different from poverty in Nairobi, so no practical characteristics describe "poverty."
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule: When your problem is wicked, your hunt for possible answers is always ongoing since the environment is in constant flux. And this has only been increasing the past years.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse. There is no idealized end state to arrive at, and so approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem: No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly: Offering a "solution" to a wicked problem frequently is a "one shot" design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem: The interconnected quality of socio-economic political systems illustrates how, for example, a change in education will cause new behavior in nutrition.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
  10. Those attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions.
Learn more about wicked problems in this "Stuff to blow your mind" podcast episode.

No answer

Sounds familiar? That’s because our society has been struggling with so many of them: from climate change, natural hazards, healthcare, poverty, pandemic influenza and international drug trafficking, nuclear weapons to nuclear energy, waste, social injustice and many, many more. All of these are major wicked problems. They are basically so interconnected, complex, fast evolving and difficult to understand, that they can never be completely solved. Especially since those involved are so numerous that a lot of them will always have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.

A lot of these wicked problems are linked in such a way that they actually make each other worse. Climate change and terrorism are for instance deeply intertwined. So are drug trafficking and corruption or poverty. The latter is also linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on. It’s an entirely messy chain of problems. Changing one thing, will always impact the others, often in very unexpected ways - sometimes better, sometimes worse. In fact, a lot of projects in our companies suffer from wicked problems, too, because of their social complexity and interconnectedness.

Now, technology is one of the factors that is making wicked problems more wicked by the day: because of our expectations of simplicity, because of the side-effects of certain social tools, because of the abundance of fake information and because the world has become an interconnected village (the more people, the more opposing ideas, beliefs and needs and thus the more arguing).

So, that it’s then? We just accept that we’re screwed and lie down, waiting for the Four Horsemen (or Four Self driving Tesla Passengers) of The Apocalypse? Maybe not.

The illusion of Simplicity

First, we have to accept the innate systemic, connected and complex nature of the wicked problem, and NOT try to solve them any longer with one Big simple solution. That’s completely counterintuitive but it’s the only way we will be able to make things better.

One personal favourite of mine is for instance a certain Flemish politician’s claim that ‘technological innovation’ (without specifying which type of tech, and how, by the way) will solve the climate crisis. Apart from the fact that the climate problem is interconnected with many other problems like poverty, overconsumption and terrorism and that one solution – even a very powerful one – will not solve it, I’d like to refer to Albert Einstein: we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. If technology (industry, cars, airplanes …) caused a big part of the problem, let’s not expect it to solve the problem. On its own, I mean.

Kevin Kelly calls this ‘Thinkism’, “where we believe the main thing we lack in solving problems is not being able to think enough." In other words, if we had a sufficiently advanced AI, that knows how to think x times better than us, it could solve any imaginable problem.

But technology alone will not solve climate change.

Another example of fighting wicked problems with simplicity is how certain politicians reduce the exceedingly complex problem of drug abuse, drug trafficking, drug dealing, corruption, violence, gang formation, poverty, weapon trafficking to a simple “War on Drugs”, creating the misconception that the entire entangled web of societal and social problems around this can be solved with army and police driven actions only.

But police authority will not solve the drug problem.

Conquering hypernormalization

The uncomfortable truth is that our human brains were simply not built to deal with wicked problems. That’s why we’re so in love with simplicity and the technologies that feed it to us. Our species truly abhors uncertainty, complexity and lack of information. If there are too many data and too many problems, our brain constructs the comforting lie of a simple society and truth. And for the past years, technology has been a big enabler of that. It has facilitated a state of hypernormalisation, a term which was coined by Alexei Yurchak, a Russian born American professor of anthropology. He introduced the word in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006) when he described how everyone in the Soviet Union knew the system was failing, but no one could imagine an alternative to the status quo. So politicians and citizens resigned to maintaining the pretence of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the fakeness was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed hypernormalisation.

Watch Adam Curtis amazing documentary HyperNormalisation to learn more about the matter

But it’s time to wake up and face reality, even if it’s an unsolvable hot mess. It’s time that we move from denial and blindness to the acceptance of the precariousness of our situation.

We need to do better. We need to stop expecting that governments can solve these wicked problems with simple solutions. Above all, we need to understand that politicians who promise us simple solutions to wicked problems will make the wicked problems worse and polarize the world even more.

We need leaders who accept the nature of wicked problems and are not afraid to say that they don’t have the answer and that they will not be able to solve climate change, poverty, terrorism, etc. We need leaders that will tell us that they will ‘just’ try extremely hard to make it better.

“Simple” won’t get us there. It’s fantastic that technology has made life simpler for so many people (not everyone, of course), but we need a mind shift when it comes to wicked problems. We have to adapt our expectations.

But how do you ‘tame’ an unsolvable problem?

  1. First of all, we need to stop thinking of wicked problems as solvable or tameable challenges. We have to accept that - for now, with the resources that we have now - they can only be made better or worse.
  2. We need a new type of leadership – in organizations as well as in governments – who have the guts to admit that they do not know everything, nor that they can solve everything.
  3. Wicked problems can only be made better through collaboration, with all of the stakeholders involved, not just those in well off and powerful countries. You cannot solve terrorism by focussing solely on the safety of European and US citizens. Making it better involves tackling water problems, climate problems, resource problems, inequality, political problems, religious problems and, basically, taking away all of the reasons of the people that decide to become terrorists.
  4. If there is not one Big solution for a wicked problem, the only way to make it better (and yes, unfortunately also worse, sometimes), is by following an iterative approach, as many of us are already doing in software and product development: you try many, many different simultaneous experiments, you learn from the failures and then focus on what works, and change course with other experiments when the wicked problem morphs again.
  5. We all have to become more comfortable with uncertainty and long-term thinking. Another way that technology changed our behaviour is that it has increased our thirst for instant gratification. Well, wicked problems will probably never be completely solved, let alone right now. We have to have a long-term outlook and think at how we can make them better for the long term and – just as importantly – how we cannot make them bigger or worse for the long term.

To end on a positive note, though: I really do believe that we can do better at tackling this increasing systemic conundrum. For me, the most important first step is to acknowledge our biases, learn to accept the nature of complexity and stop believing - and electing (!) - the people who tell us that they have simple solutions for wicked problems (and no, that does not mean that I am telling you to favor certain political parties above others).

I want to thank Bernie Caessens, Managing Partner at Resolved, for his feedback on this piece.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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November 26, 2019
SDG & Sustainability