Ryan Hubbard, On Wicked Problems

I didn't like the term "wicked problems" when I first heard it. I now think it's useful to talk about. Everything is related to everything else, deeply intertwined, with so many unknown consequences. As an example, when you're trying to do economic development in a poor area—such as a city with few resources and many residents who have health problems, little education, and weirdly distributed (if any) skill sets—it's hard to know where to start. Say you start with jobs. You can try to create jobs by attracting manufacturers, but they may find too few workers with necessary skills. You could try to build that workforce by investing in job skills programs, but then the graduates don't have jobs waiting for them.

You have to pick something very concrete and very tiny, and not worry that you won't fix all aspects of the problem. You start on one of the smaller problems, someone else focuses on something else, and eventually, after a long period of seeing no change, you will have enough scaffolding—support base—in place for the community to enjoy some results.

For example, in a project to combat homelessness, people might say things like "Man, I used to sleep on the street, and it's terrible. But now I have this great base of support. I have my case manager, I talk to him on the phone, and I have a good relationship." The guy who did say it lived in transitional housing with three people who were going through similar experiences, so they would hang out and go shopping together. The project gave him skills he needed and the support he needed to function in life. We all need that. I have my family, my friends, my education, my job. All these things keep me off the streets at night. Few homeless people have them, but they need them to thrive—independently and interdependently—in society. These essentials also include source of income and life skills, such as the ability to show up at a job.

You can focus on one of these skills, some education, better family connection, or a case manager, but any one of those things is not enough to lift them out of their situation. Homeless people need all of those things to work before they can move off the streets. So our job is to pick one of these and make it a little better. And we hope someone else who is part of a bigger program will work on another thing. Eventually all these things fit together and give people the skills and support base to be independent and interdependent, able to exist in society as a contributing member.

The same thing happens in other aspects of community life. A community needs all of the same elements in place to be able to support itself and grow. So people who do economic development build capacity focus on just one little area. We understand that it's very slow, long, incremental work.

Working in communities, you may find lot of people who are creative, entrepreneurial, and capable of helping their community. But you also may find they lack skills or resources to make a difference. So while you provide some direct service, you also must build the community's creative capacity. You must hire and train people from that community and bring in resources. And you need to make connections so other community members can access those resources.

Dealing with wicked problems is not just about showing up and building houses, giving things away, or delivering any direct service—even if you're in the community for the long haul. You have a moral imperative to build capacity, to enable the community to solve its own problems, lift itself up. If you're not helping the community build its ability to improve either its skills or its support network, you're not making a difference.

Continue to the Next Chapter:
A Designerly Approach to Social Entrepreneurship

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving