With the wicked problems of sustainability come wicked opportunities

By Andree Gosselin O'Meara

Back at the INMA World Congress in May, I privately lamented to a staff member that there’s no easy way for me to use the popular blog formula of “3 steps to this,” “Top 10 rules of that,” “6 lessons from so and so,”  or any type of easy enumeration when addressing sustainability issues.

The topic of sustainability is complex, and I am having a tough time in reducing the subject down.

Last month, I attended the Accelerate Collaborating for Sustainability Conference organised by The Natural Step in Toronto, Canada. The focus of the conference was, as the title suggests, to foster collaboration to solve sustainability issues.

However, the subject of complexity was quickly brought out with force by Frank Spencer from Kedge Futures. His presentation was on “Turning Wicked Problems into Wicked Opportunities.”

The concept of wicked problems was formally introduced by Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in 1973. In their own definition, “lame” problems were easily solved via mathematical equations or well-known problem-solving methods.

However, wicked problems have seemingly strong interdependencies; unknown outcomes; cultural and social issues that are potentially irreconcilable; solutions that are neither right or wrong; and solutions that cause new problems.

And, to top it all off, wicked problems are unique.

Entire Web sites and papers are dedicated to this subject. Their general stance is that these ultra-complex, wicked problems are worth solving. In the words of Spencer, they are opening the equivalent “wicked opportunities.”

“Complexity is a sign of growth and maturity.”

As Spencer said, we view complexity in nature as a sign of growth and maturity. If we are to find solutions, we ought not be saddled by the seeming impossibility of the solution. Rather, we should “embrace it, leverage it, and harness it.”

In business terms, we are faced with an increasingly complex world. Our future seems complex and intangible; you are not cool if you are not an innovator; we are thrown into new worlds like blurred reality and creator economies; and the rules of the game are now more wicked than ever.

We are asked to “annihilate iteration, demand disruption.” 

Climate change is a wicked problem that brings unpredictability to the business world.

This is a business blog that highlights how climate change and other issues of sustainability will affect and impact our relative businesses (not to diminish the social, vital impact of it all, caring for the well-being of our loved ones).

The more we understand how it will impact us, the earlier we can make the proper adjustments to our operations and maintain viable organisations.

Energy consultant Rod Janssen recently highlighted the relevance of Republican Henry M. Paulson Jr.’s June 21 article in The New York Times article about lessons learned from the 2008 economic crisis.

Paulson described his own party’s issues and disagreements about addressing climate change. However, he eloquently argues that, as with any hyper-difficult, seemingly unsolvable problem, one must act on the information one possesses:

“The nature of a crisis is its unpredictability. And as we all witnessed during the financial crisis, a chain reaction of cascading failures ensued from one intertwined part of the system to the next. It’s easy to see a single part in motion. It’s not so easy to calculate the resulting domino effect. That sort of contagion nearly took down the global financial system.

“With that experience indelibly affecting my perspective, viewing climate change in terms of risk assessment and risk management makes clear to me that taking a cautiously conservative stance — that is, waiting for more information before acting — is actually taking a very radical risk. We’ll never know enough to resolve all of the uncertainties. But we know enough to recognise that we must act now.”

Paulson also announced he is joining forces with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the Risky Business Project. The project’s executive chairman, Gregory Page, refers to the current laissez-faire and do-nothing behaviour of businesses as “arrogant.” He says those businesses ought to adapt and mitigate their impacts on our planet now.

Wicked opportunities ahead. 

About Andree Gosselin O'Meara

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